Dr Matthew Schurch was lucky to witness a special interaction between two leopards in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. On 10 December, as he headed out on a game drive, he would never have imagined how his day would turn out.

We had been up at Grootkolk for two days and sightings had been scare. On the night of 9 December we were told by the camp attendant (Andries) that the guest who had just arrived had seen a leopard south of the camp.

I wandered over to see if they had any photos that I could ID. Unfortunately they didn’t, but they explained where they had seen the leopard and that it had been feeding on a kill. We made a plan to head to the destination early the next day.

A prize sighting

On the 10th we quickly traveled the 18km to the south of the camp. About three metres from the edge of the road, pretty well hidden behind a fallen tree, we spotted a leopard cleaning his paws. We quickly got a few shots of what we could see of his head and were able to identify the leopard as the 16-month old cub Tebogo. He then decided to go for a bit of a wander south.

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It was at this point that we picked up a hyena on the other side of the bank walking towards a pool of water with what appeared to be a springbok leg in his mouth. Tebogo, being the curious cub, was pretty interested in the hyena and proceeded to walk directly towards him. He got within about 50 m and then crouched down. Eventually the hyena picked up his scent and charged. Tebogo quickly dashed off in the direction of the nearest tree.

The hyena then wandered along the route Tebogo had come from. We were worried that he was going to steal the stashed kill. For some reason he missed the kill and crossed the riverbed once again. He reached the top of the dune and started sniffing around. That was when we realised there was another leopard in the tree! I put the 2x extender on my camera and managed to get a reasonable shot. From the pattern of rosettes on the left back leg and side we were able to identify the leopard as Tebogo’s mum Safran. She wasn’t too happy with the hyena being around.

Tebogo not having learnt his lesson approached the hyena again.This time the hyena could see him clearly and when he got to about 20m he again chased him up into a little tree. For the next 10 minutes or so the hyena sat under this little tree. During that time Safran gave us the slip and disappeared. After a while the hyena lost interest and wandered off. Tebogo came down and rested in the shade. You would never spot him unless you knew exactly where to look.

After a stop at Lijersdraai we returned and noticed that there was a second untouched kill in another tree right by the road. Unfortunately we couldn’t see any of the leopards but the sighting confirmed our afternoon plans. We headed home for a bit of lunch and to sit the hot part of the day out.

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The games begin

Around 16:00 we left camp and headed south. When we got to the stashed kills we stopped and started searching. After a while we heard the rasping call of a leopard but we couldn’t pin point it. Then about 100m down the road we noticed that there was a leopard walking right towards us. A quick look through the binoculars confirmed the identification as Tebogo. He has a unique wide circle of light fur round a small rosette on his left shoulder that is very distinctive from a distance.

He briefly paused under the second kill but to our eyes he looked satisfied that he’d eaten enough!  He continued walking towards the riverbed. We wondered if he was going for a drink from the river. It was then that we noticed that Safran was actually lying in clear daylight in the centre of the riverbed. We had totally missed her earlier even though we now realised that it was her that had called! She looked exactly like a termite mound!

A life lesson

We kept watching and got the cameras ready not knowing what to expect. To our total amazement Tebogo picked up his pace and then launched himself at mum. They both jumped up into the air and started to fight!  They would briefly pause after a flurry of tails and paws and then Tebogo would launch another attack. We could see that this was just play fighting but behind it was obviously a real life lesson for the youngster.

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Being a male Tebogo is already larger than his mum and soon he will be removed from her protection. He will have to defend himself against the other males in the area and they are big and a lot more used to fighting than he is. Starting each fight Tebogo would repeatedly rear up making himself as big as possible whilst Safran would duck and play a more submissive role. On one occasion you can clearly see that Tebogo took it a bit far and Safran had to give him a telling off! In total they repeated this play fight about five or six times before becoming too hot and tired. Safran eventually had to call an end to play time and calmed her young boy down.

They then both walked over to the first stashed kill and proceeded to feed a little. By this time the sun was dropping and Tebogo took the opportunity to use the shade of our car to lie down. We decided that this play fighting was probably due to the surplus of food and water that was around for them. After watching these events, all on our own for two hours, it was with sad hearts that we had to leave. We knew the second kill was still untouched and we had a plan to return the following day.

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Spoiler alert!

We returned in the morning to find that the second kill had been devoured overnight, and lying right by the road was the large dominant male in the area. N!xau. He quickly disappeared when we stopped our car. We returned a few hours later and found Safran walking up the road. She climbed the tree and fed on the kill. N!xau then suddenly appeared and Safran ran away.  He then fed on the kill. Unfortunately he was chased away by the Botswana army getting out of their cars. We again returned at about 16:30 and this time found Tebogo walking in the road (almost exactly where Safran had come from).  He climbed the tree and fed on the kill before walking over to the river and having a long drink and a rest. We couldn’t believe that we had seen three leopards in the same day all feeding off the same kill!

I suspect that N!xau is the father of Tebogo and that he is probably trying to encourage him to leave mum so that she will come back into heat. Tebogo should be quite careful.

About the cats

Safran

First sighted as an adult in August 2008. So I would guess she is at least seven years old but possibly older. Regularly sighted around the Lijersdraai area and up to Kannagauss.

Tebogo

16 months. Male. Already bigger than mum. Will soon leave her protection and have to fight for a territory of his own.

N!xau

Dominant male north of Nossob, suspected (no evidence) to be Tebogo’s father. First sighted February 2009.  Also around seven+ years old.

About the Photographer

Dr Matthew Schurch is an astronomer at the University of Cape Town and the founder of the Kgalagadi Leopard Project. Share your leopard sightings via his website and download the identification guide to help ID the leopards that you see.

Camera specs

Nikon D800; Nikon 300mm f/2.8 AF lens. Some shots taken with Nikon 2x extender. Fight photos: 1/400s, f/5.6, ISO 220