We could feel the dry season loosening its grip on the Okavango Delta as the storm clouds gathered. Late October on the Kwedi Concession is a contradiction of new life reaching for the surface, like the flowering apple-leafs alongside signs of a long and hard dry season, like the skinny female leopard we were watching. “She looks skraal (thin),” said Kim Nixon, the new MD for Okavango Wilderness Safaris. “She looks hungry,” commented Francis Antrobus, Chief of Technology. More importantly, at this stage she looked focused.
This was a short and sharp airstrip transfer before a strategic “office” session was about to commence at the beautifully rebuilt Vumbura South Camp. Little were we to know that our business meeting was about to be interrupted by an age-old, and way more important, strategic session. A strategy that had played out for millennia, long before we humanoids arrived on the scene.
A leopard walks stealthily through the dusty brown and yellow grasses during winter in the Kwedi Concession at Vumbura Plains Camp. Photograph by Dana Allen
The female leopard was fixated on something we couldn’t quite see. With two vehicles full of bush brainiacs and two fantastic guides in ST and Emang, it was easy to tell that a meeting was about to be called to order. It didn’t take long before the female’s gaze finally lead us to the tsessebe herd grazing contently upwind of us. It seemed pretty desperate, even for a skinny leopard, to contemplate tackling a tsessebe, an antelope that vies for the Usain Bolt record of being the fastest in the world too. It was only then that we noticed the new life bubbling under… a very young calf, tawny in colour by comparison with her rusty gunmetal grey parents. She had easily escaped our eyes but had not escaped the attention of the leopard.
Like a new intern who’s wandered into the shareholders meeting, the calf blindly stumbled towards the leopard as she began readying herself for a real life PowerPoint. Moving like a well-rehearsed podium presenter, the cat sneaked behind a stand of apple-leaf, then tucked under an old leadwood tree. She hop-scotched behind a termite mound, froze, then again swiftly slunk between some fever-berries before setting up for her closing argument.
As the herd wandered into striking range, white-knuckle fever spread through the two vehicles. The guides poised, we held our breath and the leopard shot forth. Like a spring loaded Mont Blanc she flew straight and true, cutting through the air. She quickly closed on the calf which jinxed left and dodged the initial tackle. The chase was on, ST and Emang fired up the Land Rovers and we held on. The calf was a hot-stepper but the leopard was closing in, with mom hot on her heels. Like a wakeboarder catching his rail the calf clipped and went down hard, with the leopard going right over the top of her. She was duly encouraged to keep moving by the mom tsessebe who followed through. The leopard lost her nerve and bolted for the nearest tree. This was something we initially all thought was quite unusual behavior but… the attack had played out in surround sound and had attracted four wild dogs. Panic gripped the boardroom as the wild dogs burst onto the scene.
If leopards are impressively built killing machines, wild dogs are veritable wood chippers. Like army ants they devour just about anything that is foolish enough to cross their path. ST and Emang now pushed the Land Rovers as we followed the next chase. There’s nothing quite like a wild dog chase to get the blood pumping.
It was over before it began… What might appear to be a gruesome kill, was in all probability a lot less traumatic than what a leopard kill would have been. The mother tsessebe heartwrenchingly returned time and time again to her dead calf, only to be swiftly seen off by one of the dogs.
Emotions ran high and the rest of the drive in to camp was a sombre one. As Carli Flemmer, our marketing guru, kicked off our meeting, I thought to myself this would be the only agenda point we hadn’t planned for in the bush boardroom that is Vumbura.
Written by Craig Glatthaar
Photographed by Kim Nixon