I heard the bush buck bark. Yes, you read that right, a buck barks just like a dog. It is an alarm signal and signaled something was wrong. I pulled my shoes back on and walked out into the dark surrounding our staff house to investigate.
Our rangers found fresh leopard prints crossing through the lodge area earlier that morning. I was worried, worried for the bush buck that I’d been hand feeding during its pregnancy, for her young foal and the five-day-old baby that she was keeping hidden in the thick bush. I had grown very attached to them. The way they had overcome their natural instincts to be afraid of humans and learned to trust me, the pangs of hunger over coming fear. The drought was taking its toll on all the animals. They had become so trusting that the mother would come running to me and follow me like a dog, giving me the odd head butt in the leg when I took too long to give her something to eat.
Through the darkness I could see another large female under the trees and could hear rustling in the bushes further away. I dared not venture further out. It was too late, too dark and I had no idea what was making the noise.
I retreated back into the safety of the staff house.
I heard the barking continue and then quiet descended.
I was up extra early the next morning and took a closer look around.
Just around the corner from our house, on the dirt road, were some strange markings in the dust. It looked like a large snake. Maybe a python had slithered its way up the road, leaving a deep track behind it in the sand.
But then I saw it, spore, and lots of them. Unmistakably – leopard! Running alongside the tracks, it looked like there were two, a large adult and a much smaller set, possibly a cub.
My heart sank. This didn’t look good. My fears were confirmed by John, one of our guides. This was not a snake passing through, these were drag marks, from a kill. The leopard had taken an animal by the throat, cutting off its air supply and then dragged it away, the victim’s back legs creating the weaving path that I had discovered. Was it one of my buck? My heart dropped.
On the other hand it was a wonderful and rare sighting, something there would not usually be evidence of. We showed our guests on the bush walk the “kill zone” and even got those guests who were just relaxing to come out and have a look. Perfect leopard prints and drag marks which started about 10 meters behind our house, heading up and then off into the dense bush about 60 meters down.
I pleaded with our guide, John, to help me and go track the path and see if we could find the carcass and, or, the leopard. I needed to know. He didn’t hesitate, even though he knew it was extremely dangerous for us to go walking unarmed looking for a leopard that potentially had a baby with her and its meal. The adrenalin levels were high as we set off, stopping every few steps to carefully survey the landscape.
Checking under the bushes and up in the tree branches, we had to see the leopard before it saw us. We headed down to a nearby gully but could find no sign of anything. We turned, quietly heading back towards the lodge. We passed an old ostrich nest, still containing five intact eggs. Intact but with nothing inside. We paused to take some photos and that’s when I saw it.
I turned to look behind us and there between two trees in a small clearing lay something. I quickly got John’s attention. It was so close and it looked like a cat, was it the baby leopard!
We approached with caution. It was a feline, a large African Wild cat. Its skull had been crushed by a single bite to the head, its life blood slowly seeping into the sand, feeding a trail of bustling ants. Rigor mortis had set in, it was stiff but had no other wounds and as yet no smell to it. After a thorough check of the area we took a closer look. By examining its paws we realized that the small prints we had seen were not that of a cub but of the wild cat, probably struggling to get free from the grasp of the leopard’s jaws whilst it was being dragged away, slowly suffocating.
I mourned for the loss of life, I had seen this wild cat around the lodge a few times. He was fat and healthy and had been terrorizing our lodge cat Garfield. But on the other hand, I was so relieved that it was not one of my bush buck family, Apple, Pie and Baby 50 cent (‘cause he is half a buck).
I was puzzled as to why the cat had not been eaten, but John explained that the leopard may not have been hungry and it had just been an opportunistic kill and that he would come back for it later. Or he may have been disturbed (probably by me) and left it to collect at a later stage.
We left the carcass and returned to the lodge and were thrilled that a creature of such magnitude and beauty had been so close to us. So close that it had probably been there in the shadows when I’d walked alone back to my room after closing up the bar. Grateful to have been able to see something normally hidden deep in the bush, a struggle scene, and finally the evidence. Sad for the cat but knowing that this is nature at work, something has to die so that something else can live. So blessed to be able to live and work, in this place, while the circle of life continues around us.