What’s one of the best things about waking up in the Kruger National Park? Never knowing what the next day will bring… For us one morning on Marula Loop set the stage for an incredible leopard kill. By Graham Pringle

After many trips with our long-time friends, John and Jane Magner, my wife Barbara and I were incredibly fortunate to witness a hungry leopard searching to put food in its belly in a most unusual way. One of the most wonderful things about waking up in the Kruger National Park is that although the day and route have been planned the night before, there is no certainty as to what nature will throw at you… This is exactly what happened to us on the morning of 27 August 2016.

Camping at Skukuza Rest Camp, we decided to explore Marula Loop – being birders, it took us a while to get there. At about 10:30 we spotted a white-backed vulture sitting on a nest in a very tall tree – probably 15 metres plus in height – alongside the road right in front of us. As the light was against us, we decided to drive past the tree and view the bird from the other side. We had no sooner turned around when Jane said: “Hang on! There’s a leopard!”

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Pictures by Graham Pringle and John Magner

Sure enough… We spotted the leopard at the base of the tree. After a cursory glance, it suddenly shinned up the tree’s trunk almost using a similar technique as a squirrel making a vertical climb.

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Once the stealthy cat reached the tree’s main fork, it stopped, gathered its thoughts to plan phase two of the rapid ascent. By this stage it was evident: the leopard was determined to reach the nest and quite prepared to climb the extra metre or two.

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Curiosity was not going to kill this cat. It continued climbing in a slow, careful and methodical manner, testing the smaller branches before committing to another step. This was a true example of a wild cat in action displaying balance, dexterity and grit.

The chick’s parent had long since flown off and the leopard climbed into the nest…

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The young white-backed vulture was a sitting duck… After some time, the leopard backed out of the nest with the chick in its mouth. The long descent awaiting…

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Once the hungry hunter reached some sturdier branches, it took a breather, laying the dead chick down. The going eventually got a bit easier and the leopard finally reached the ground.

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The leopard then slowly sauntered into a thorn scrub, dropped the lifeless chick for a short while and slowly wandered out of sight.

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The once-in-a-lifetime sighting lasted a mere 10 minutes and we were the only spectators present. In awe, we sat contemplating what we had just witnessed: was this merely an opportunistic leopard kill, or do leopards instinctively associate vultures’ nests with a source of food?

Birding was somewhat overshadowed by the morning’s events, but we did come across a pair of ground hornbills later that day.

Did you know?

  • When climbing trees, leopards’ long tails aid in balance and their sharp claws provide traction.
  • Leopards are the best tree-climbers in the big cat family.
  • Cubs start learning tree-climbing skills as early as three or four months to avoid enemies like lions, hyenas and wild dogs.

Source: Shaping Kruger. Mitch Reardon. Struik Nature. 2012.

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