In search of Kapama’s big cats
Everyone loves a good predator sighting, and there’s no greater thrill than getting close to the big cats that call Kapama home. Our bold lions, elusive leopards, and elegant cheetahs never fail to get the adrenaline pumping, and we are really fortunate to be able to get close to them without disturbing their natural behaviour.
Kapama’s lions are particularly relaxed around vehicles, possibly because they are innately confident within the protection of their pride, but mostly because many of them have grown up with the smells and sounds and chatter of game viewers. This makes them wonderful subjects for photography, especially when their cubs are out and about, amusing our guests.
Getting as close to a leopard or cheetah, though not impossible, is a little more challenging. Nevertheless, there have been many special occasions where I have enjoyed memorable sightings of a lurking leopard or a cheetah feasting on a fresh kill.
On one such occasion, my Argentinian guests were desperate to see a cheetah. It was their last evening drive and though I knew that chances of finding one were slim, we headed out to the north western farm to seek out a speedy spotted cat.
The bark of an anxious nyala alerted us to the presence of a predator so Shadrick, my tracker, jumped off to see what he could find on foot while I drove around the block. When we both came back empty-handed we decided to cut our losses and go and check on a kudu that had been taken down by lions the previous night instead.
The well-fed lions and their cubs entertained us for a while, and we’d all made peace with our cheetah no-show by the time we left them to find a spot for sundowners. But just as we passed where the nyala had called earlier, the snorts of nervous impala brought us to a halt once more.
“There she is! There she is!” came a cry from an ecstatic guest behind me.
Sure enough, there was the cheetah they were so desperate to see, stalking through the bush and away from stares and snorts of the unhappy impala as if she hadn’t been there all along. It just goes to show, those spots really are fantastic for camouflage, and just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not there.
Written by: Chane Blignaut
Witnessing the birth of an impala
Every day is a unique opportunity to connect with the African bush and on this day I was most fortunate in driving by a truly remarkable sighting. It was an impala ewe with something hanging between her legs.
I was on my way to pick up my guests from the nearby airport and enjoying the beautiful drive in my open safari game drive vehicle, the sound of lions roaring and birds chirping filling the air. I stopped when I heard distress calls from a herd of impalas since this is usually a clear indication that a predator is lurking nearby. It was then that the impala ewe caught my eye and I immediately realised that the thing hanging between its legs was the impala’s calf – still in the process of being born.
The rest of the herd called the alarm again, I searched for the cause of their distress with a combination of concern and excitement. Seeing nothing, I laid down my binoculars and just then a leopard bolted out of the bush, scattering the startled herd. The laboring ewe tried to delay the birth of her newborn lamb, but it was too late. The tiny calf fell to the ground in a bloody mess and the ewe sprung to the safety of a nearby thicket.
The leopard was nowhere to be seen and the distant alarm calls from the scattered herd told me it has moved off. Surprisingly, this calf had gone unnoticed.
Alone, it stretched its long, skinny legs and stood up to take its first few wobbly steps. Its mother returned, together they made their way back into the thicket and out of harm’s way.
Heaving a sigh of relief, I made my way to the airport and shared my remarkable sighting and excitement with my new guests. It’s rare moments like these that makes life in the raw African bush so special.
Written by: Gregory Heasman
Some cats just don’t like to share
In Kapama, we’re lucky to have a couple of relaxed resident leopards that carry on about their business as if we’re not there. One such leopard, a female, was recently spotted enjoying a hard-earned impala kill with her two cubs, high up in a tree and out of reach from the hyenas lurking below. Leopards with kills often stick around for a few days, so the morning after this incredible sighting we decided to head off early with the hope of spending more time with them.
Bleary-eyed, wrapped up in all manner of jackets, blankets, scarves, and gloves, and clutching hot water bottles to fend off the crisp winter chill, we set off into the pre-dawn darkness. As we approached the huge jackal-berry tree where the previous night’s show had taken place, we scanned, but didn’t immediately spot her. If it weren’t for Freeman, my tracker, and his well-honed leopard spotting skills, we might have missed her.
“Over there.” He pointed, casually. We turned as she melted into view against a backdrop of exposed granite rock. We approached slowly, trying to get the morning sun behind us to maximize the golden light that makes wildlife photography so rewarding at this time of the year.
But something was clearly not right. She was moving away from the jackal-berry tree, but kept glancing back, and as she got closer we noticed that she was injured. The small laceration on her stomach area didn’t seem to slow her down, but she wasn’t as fit and healthy when we had left her the previous night. Why was she injured? Where were the cubs? And why did she keep looking behind her?
All three questions were answered with the sudden appearance of a very large male leopard with bloodstained jaws. He had obviously stolen her kill and she was injured in her attempt to protect her cubs.
As the leopardess moved away, calling softly for her unseen cubs, he stalked out from behind the jackal-berry tree, scuffing the ground with his hind legs and spraying to mark his territory. As if she’d had enough of him, she bolted past the vehicle and disappeared down into a dry riverbed. Not 15 meters away from our vehicle, the large male growled angrily as he watched her leave.
Over a warming coffee stop in a patch of sunlight, we mulled over what we had just seen and tried not to worry about the missing cubs. Sometimes, the most incredible and memorable sightings are those tinged with sadness, but we all agreed that it’s generally best to trust nature’s way and to be thankful for the opportunity to witness it.
Written by: Garry Bruce
Kapama Southern Camp
Note: The cubs are still alive and well and are well on their way to being as relaxed as their mother.
Not just a cackling scavenger…
Though many think of them only as pilfering scavengers that feed off the efforts of other predators’ hard work, spotted hyenas are so much more interesting. They’re hunters as well as scavengers, and like most animals they’re fiercely protective of their young.
Guests are usually quite happy to see them, even if not so happy to smell them, but it’s unusual for them to ask to see hyenas specifically. So when guests, Mary and Mark Degut, climbed on my vehicle for their evening drive and told me to find them some hyenas, I took them straight to an active den.
We arrived in time to see a couple of pups out and about, but it was the three adults running around the den in their loping manner that immediately caught our attention. They were agitated, clearly uphappy as they loped back and forth marking their territory, so I kept my eyes open for other predators.
Before I could even say the word ‘leopard’, let alone take a picture, the culprit had zipped across the road and bolted into dense bush with three adult hyenas hot on her heels. We watched until they were out of sight and listened for sounds of a fight that never came.
Leopards, like hyenas, are well-known opportunists. Had those pups been playing alone and unprotected outside their den, that leopardess wouldn’t have hesitated before snatching one up for dinner. To be fair, if those hyenas had come across a leopard cub, they’d have done the same. This time, however, everyone made it out alive, and we breathed a sigh of relief. Naturally, it took a few moments before what we’d just seen sunk in, and another few before any of us could complete a full sentence!
It was one of those quick, unexpected sightings that only last for a second or two, but stay with you for a long time. And it was a firm reminder that for predators, including the ungainly hyena, survival is hardly a picnic.
Written by: Francois van Rhyn
Kapama Southern Camp
With the Murphy family as my guests on the game drive vehicle, we were making our way to an area south of Southern Camp. I knew there were three lions in the area, but I clearly told the Murphys that while they may see lions, leopards were elusive and they were definitely not guaranteed of seeing them. My words weren’t cold when we spotted a female leopard lying down in the open, relaxed as could be.
Somehow, I instinctively knew she was not alone. Shortly after we spotted her, the leopard got up and crouched into a stalking position. But there was no prey in sight. What she was actually doing was cautiously making her way out of the area, as she was intruding on lion territory. She knew it and a resident lioness also knew the leopard was about – and wanted her out of her domain. If the leopard didn’t leave of her own accord, she’d be forcefully chased out.
When leopards feel threatened by another predator, they will either try and make their way out of the area or find a tree to climb for safety – out of the reach of lions. This exact scenario played out the very next morning on our game drive.
Not long into our drive, we came upon a male leopard up a tree. He was not there willingly either – the lions lying around the base of the tree had clearly chased him up as he was a threat to their territory. In the same way, leopards often drag their kills into trees to keep them out of the reach of opportunistic lions and hyenas. But today’s sighting was different, and there was no kill in sight. It was simply a territorial battle.
Sometimes, finding the unexpected is just plain luck – and, of course, being in the right place at the right time. Finding leopards is never easy because they are solitary and elusive; finding them two days in a row is something special; and witnessing a silent territorial tug of war is an extremely rare sighting indeed. Something unforgettable for us all.
Story: Adolph Niemand – ranger at Southern Camp
Photos: Lily Murphy
Edited by Keri Harvey
Hello my name is Garry. I am a ranger at Kapama Southern Camp and I am an addict. I am addicted to leopard, but I have been clean for three days now. I really want to quit, I do, but I can’t do it alone. I need help.
Everyone has their own vices; mine is just a little different. I need a regular leopard fix. Luckily, I had one just a few days ago, and so did the guests who were with me. Often, leopard sightings are fleeting, but they are always worth it. This time was no different. Just a glimpse, but it was enough.
These fascinating cats are aware of my affliction – I am sure of it – and they tempt and tease me on every game drive, with their perfect paw prints clearly visible on the sand roads on which we drive. It’s almost as if they are sending me the message that they are around, but I need to earn even the briefest glimpse of them. These short moments of sightings just exacerbate my problem, and so my thirst for seeing leopard is never ever satisfied.
This time was different. The morning was a cold one, with the frontal system from the Cape dropping temperatures very low. We had been searching for elephants that seemed to be hiding in the thick bush to escape the cold weather. With no luck seeing them, my tracker, Richard Silinda, and I decided to move to Plan B, which was a stop for hot coffee to warm up.
As I turned off the road and headed towards one of my favourite rest stops, something flashed past the corner of my eye. Instinctively I thought it was a lioness, so I turned onto the road towards her. We all scanned the area where she had crossed but there was no lioness in sight. Then, in an open area and lit by the golden glow of morning sunshine, sat a large male leopard staring right back at us.
Richard glanced back at me and smiled as he said: “Ingwe”, which means leopard in the Shangaan language. But the guests on board had already spotted the magnificent big cat and were frantically searching for their cameras – coffee was long forgotten. For just a few short moments, he stared back at us and then calmly walked back into the bush.
I can only speak for myself, but I am sure all of us felt intoxicated by the beauty of this elusive animal. I shifted the Landcruiser into low range and began to follow him slowly. We are only permitted to leave the track for high-profile species, so we followed him for about 20 minutes – taking care not to get to close or to drive directly behind him. This was a truly exceptional experience, as the leopard was completely relaxed and so showed us a little of his world for a few special minutes.
Written by: Garry Bruce, Ranger at Kapama Southern Camp
Edited by Keri Harvey