Birds and Animals Zambia

Leopards and other dangerous creatures

The general manager of one of the nearby safari lodges decided to have a team-building, morale-boosting trip to the National Park for sundowners on Sunday. (It is traditional to find a pleasant spot to watch the sunset while enjoying a drink, hence the term sundowners.) Seven of us drove into the park at 4.30pm, planning to meet up with friends at 5pm on the open plain of WaMilombe.

I really enjoy being driven in an open, high vehicle. The view is so much better than the view from the driver’s seat in the doctor’s car and I can concentrate of seeing animals, instead of trying to avoid potholes. The Luangwa River spills over into WaMilombe during the rainy season, creating a vast, shallow lake. Mud from the river fertilises the soil, creating rich grassland, perfect for herbivores. The floods recede, draining away into streams which carve deeply into the muddy soil, creating excellent cover for carnivores hunting the herbivores. This makes WaMilombe popular with leopards, and people who want to view leopards in action.

The plain is bordered by ridges on two sides, the Luangwa River and its dried-up tributary, the Mushilashi River. Leopards like to rest in trees on the ridges, while they look out for their next meal. Normally, the plain is dotted with antelope, puku and impala, but this evening it was empty. A solitary game drive vehicle was stationary under a tree close to the Luangwa. Game vehicles only stop for refreshments, toilet breaks and when there is something interesting to see. We decided to take a look.

Leopard 1
Leopard 2
Leopard 3

Stretched out in the shade was a beautiful young leopard. We stopped ten metres away and took photographs. The leopard wasn’t interested in our interest. Its belly looked full. The driver of the other game vehicle said that there were two other leopards over by the ridge. As we crossed a deep dried out stream bed, we disturbed another leopard, who trotted away from us, towards the trees. Our driver could see another leopard hiding below the ridge, so we went to get a closer look. As soon as we began to observe leopard 3, leopard 2 sauntered over to leopard 1. As it approached the shady tree, the leopard speeded up, and ran up the tree trunk.

Leopard 2 crossing open ground in WaMilombe, going for second helpings

We realised that there was something attracting leopard 2 to the tree, so we returned and parked under the branches. We could seen the fresh corpse of an impala, draped over a thick branch. Leopard 2 was partially hidden by leaves, but we could see and hear it eating. I wasn’t expecting a sac of antelope intestines to plummet from the tree, just missing by inches the only vegetarian in our vehicle. Partially digested grass and manure splattered against the side of the truck. Leopard 1 decided to capitalise on this good fortune by picking up the guts and returning to its favoured position by the trunk of the tree.

Leopard 1 likes tripe
Leopard 2

Both leopards gorged on the remains of the impala while we watched. The sun began to set so we left the feast and drove to the bank of the Luangwa River, where we could safely get out and have a drink. The sunset was magnificent, but not as impressive as the afterglow which lingered in the sky for twenty minutes, getting deeper and deeper red. I took a selection of photographs of the sky reflected in the river as the light faded. Hippos started leaving the river to eat grass during the night. We could hear baboons giving alarm calls on the other side of the river, but we couldn’t spot another leopard in the gloaming.

Hyena in the headlights

When it was pitch black, we drove back to the leopard tree. A hyena was lolloping about, hoping for some titbits to fall from above. I got a poor photograph using the headlights to illuminate the scene. We were a mile from the park gate when a large grey shape appeared in front of us. I could pick out four elephants, munching away on trees. We drove carefully past and joined the main dirt road leading to the gate. The driver slammed on his brakes, creating a cloud of dust. “There was a puff adder in the middle of the road back there. I’m going to reverse, let me know I am not going to run it over.”

Puff adder

The lighting conditions were very poor, but the puff adder was clearly recognisable, as a short, fat snake, with a triangular head and typical diamond markings on its back. It might look fat and sleepy, but that’s its modus operandi. It stays still, waiting to attack with one of the most rapid strikes of any snake. Its venom causes massive tissue damage. Not the sort of snake you want to step on during a walking safari in the bush.

About a kilometre from my house, we stopped again to allow a lion to cross the road. Bush highway code: animals have priority on these tracks. As we waited for a second lion to emerge from the bush to join its sister, I reflected on how fortunate it was to be able to see these savage beasts in their natural environment. And we had just popped out for a couple of hours on a Sunday evening for a social drink with friends.  


Mother and daughter

Mother is on the right, daughter on the left, facing each other

I was driving in South Luangwa National Park on the main Chichele Road, less than a kilometre from Mfuwe Lodge, when I saw Duncan, driving a safari vehicle slowly towards me. He pulled over on the left side of the road and I drew alongside. We greeted each other and I asked him if there had been any special sightings that morning. He said, “You are looking at two leopards.” “What? Where?” I responded. “In the sausage tree behind me.”

Sausage Tree fruit hanging down. Leopards are very surefooted in trees

He started his vehicle and drove onto the verge of the road so I could manoeuvre my vehicle to get a better sighting. It was enchanting. Two leopards, mother and daughter, were play fighting on a thick horizontal branch about halfway up a magnificent tree. The foliage prevented me from getting a perfect view, but it was clear that they were enjoying themselves. The daughter leapt above her mother onto another branch and out of sight.

She can see you, but she is very relaxed, not bothered at all by my presence.

It was after 10am and the morning safari vehicles were all leaving the park after four hours of driving. I was fresh and had no pressing engagements. I could sit in the shade, waiting for the cats to move into a more visible location in the tree. The other vehicles stopped for a few minutes, their occupants could chalk up another couple of leopard sightings, sadly not in plain sight, then moved on for breakfast back at their lodges.

Resting posture, back legs astride the bough

I did a three-point turn and parked in the optimum position to observe the leopards, all on my own. The daughter skipped through the tree and ventured out onto a branch in plain sight. She was playing with the sausage tree fruits, patting them with her paw like any domestic kitty. The fruits are shaped like a fat sausage, covered in velveteen fuzz, with a long stalk. They are firm and tough, weighing over two kilos. Mum decided to investigate and the bough sagged noticeably. The daughter managed to get a small sausage in her jaws and jumped over her mum and went back up into the tree. I managed to get this episode on videotape which I will try to embed in this blog after it has been uploaded to YouTube.

Still vigilant

I sat at the roadside for another 20 minutes until the leopards decided they were hungry and climbed gracefully down the main trunk into the long grass where they were invisible. It was a special experience.

South Luangwa is noted for its leopards. During my first visit as Valley Doctor in 2014, I lived in the territory of Alice, one of the most famous leopards in the park. I occasionally would see her in a tree when coming back to my lodgings. She was a prolific mother and gave her cubs the best start in life. She disappeared a few years ago at the ripe old age of about 15. Today’s mother was probably one of Alice’s progeny, whom I may have seen as a cub five years ago.

Female leopards stay in the area where they were born. Their mothers allocate a portion of their own territory to their daughters, but the sons have to leave and make their own way in the world. I know that the mother will be teaching the daughter to hunt in this location, between the Kakumbi Air Strip and the main Chichele Road.

Daughter on top, mother underneath

Alice’s mother was called Marmalade. She was so habituated to safari vehicles that she used them to sneak up on her prey, often crawling underneath so the tourists were treated to the sight of a leopard a few centimetres below their feet.

My present lodging is in the Game Management Zone, across the Luangwa River, outside the national park boundary. The theory is that people can live in harmony with wild animals. All very well in principle, but growing fruit and vegetables here attracts elephants, who can munch their way through your crop in a matter of hours.

My neighbour, V, reckons she doesn’t need to visit the park as she sees all the wildlife from her verandah. There have always been leopards in this area. I remember seeing a leopard cross the track when I was making a home visit to Kapani late at night back in 2014. When V moved into the area five months ago, she would hear a female leopard calling mournfully for her mate (who had unfortunately wandered into a hunting concession area and had been shot). The leopard would regularly pass by the bungalow, often leaving “presents” of killed baboons or small impala for V by her washing line.

The only gifts I get are turds from the evil vervet monkeys, one of whom knocked my WiFi router to the ground, pulling out the cable and crapping on it.