The beautifully social sound of ice cubes clinging against the sidewall of glasses. The louder than normal laughter and boisterous banter of a group of guests enjoying a well earned sundowner filled the air. We had made the long haul up to the northern parts of Phinda to find a herd of elephants. Successful in our mission, we settled down to a hard earned drink.
I over heard on the radio that a few rangers were following up on tracks of the dominant male leopard of the North. This was no ordinary leopard. He is the low rasping noise that haunts the forest night after night. He is the reason for the majority of leopard tracks that are seen every morning as Phinda Forest Lodge rangers embark on their morning safari. Those characteristic big tracks in the soft sand of this ancient sand dune, a source of immediate excitement and anticipation.
We headed in the direction of where they had seen the tracks. Minutes later the call came in that “a large male leopard’ had been found. Yes Please! As we approached the sighting, I reminded my guests of just what a privilege it is to be able to see a leopard in this area. I reminded them of how these mysterious, yet magnificent cats have been persecuted endlessly in Northern Kwazulu-Natal and that their numbers are finally stabilising because of the Panthera Leopard research project that is run on Phinda Private Game Reserve.
As I eased into the sighting, I heard a sound that still makes me smile every single time – the sound of guests in awe of seeing a leopard for the first time. There he was. A male leopard in his prime with a full belly and a look of contentment smitten on his face. His silky smooth rosetted coat glistened as the array of camera flashes etched this beautiful feline on ‘film’. Not a flinch or stir as whispers of fascination fill the vehicles around him. A perfect moment.
All of a sudden he turns his head and listens. I hear a rustle in the grass next to me. It’s close, very close. I quickly grab the spotlight from Pat and point it towards the unknown sound. What I saw sparked an injection of adrenalin into my body – half a metre from our vehicle stood two massive hyenas. We were exactly in between the leopard and its age old adversaries. The male leopard had heard something but was not sure of what it was. As soon as the hyenas put another step in his direction the leopard put one and one together. He shot out of his position of relaxation and straight up into the Black Monkey Thorn under which he was laying. I have honestly never seen a male leopard go up a tree that quickly. The hyenas proceeded to run to where he had laid down and sniffed the spot. They were undoubtedly looking for a free meal to scavenge from the supreme cat.
From the thorny branches of his safe haven the big male hissed his fury and spat his anger at the intruders. After realising that there wasn’t anything to fill their bellies with, the hyenas retreated into the darkness to go and pester another unfortunate victim. We spent another few minutes with the dominant male before I decided that the haul back needed to be ventured.
On our way back my tracker, Pat Zwane, with 21 years of tracking experience at Phinda Mountain Lodge spoke these amazing words: ”JP, that was the first time I’ve ever seen hyenas chase a leopard.” What!? After approximately 11 466 game drives (yes, I did the sum) on Phinda Private Game Reserve, experiencing a first with this amazing man was an absolute highlight of my year so far. Yes, if you go to reserves like the Sabi Sands where the hyena and leopard density is much higher you might see this monthly. But seeing this interaction on Phinda, while keeping the massive conservation feats in mind, is absolutely breathtaking. What a privilege it is to be working in this amazing game reserve!
Posted: Phinda by Jacques-Pierre Joubert, Date: 10 June 2012