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A Leopard's Tale


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As some of you will know, I had my first ever trip to Zambia all booked in 2019, ready to go in September 2020..and then, of course, the world went wobbly for the best part of two years.


Having twice had to 'kick this can' down the road, we finally made it to South Luangwa earlier this month, splitting our time between Flatdogs (a couple of nights acclimatisation, chosen in preference to our original plan which was to overnight in Lusaka. I can throughly recommend this option - we had a great time at Flatdogs, lovely accommodation, great food, ice cold Mosi, charming, attentive hosts and last, but most certainly not least, our wonderfully guide Jonathan). We then spent 7 nights, split between Shenton Safari's Mwamba and Kaingo Camps.


This 'mini' trip report concerns the morning of Tuesday 13th September when we were staying at Kaingo ('leopard') camp where we had the pleasure of meeting, drinking and dining with fellow ST member @TravelMoreand her husband - I hope you both had a relaxed and trouble free journey back to the States? :)


My wife and I visited South Luangwa with two good friends, one of whom had not travelled to Africa before.  However, the genesis of this trip stretches back 20-odd years, when I met David Shepherd and happened to ask him where, if he had a couple of weeks to travel anywhere in the world, would he choose to go? Without hesitation he said "South Luangwa". 


Other reasons for choosing South Luangwa were the expectation that we would be able to see many of the classic Southern African animals for our first time visitor friend and, for me, the hope that we may improve on my historically woeful leopard sighting record.


At Kaingo we were lucky to be guided by Robert who was a star throughout. 


I knew we were going to get along soon into our first drive with him when, in the failing afternoon light, he pulled our vehicle to the side of the track, took out his binoculars to survey the area around us and said (I paraphrase) in solemn tones "....to get an proper understanding of the African bush it is important to listen to the sounds, to carefully observe all around you...and having done this, I see a safari vehicle over there with people pointing long lenses so we shall go there!!!!"  Despite this lighhearted introduction, Robert proved to be a truly excellent guide - extremely knowledgable, a great driver, a wonderful appreciation of light for photography and jolly good company - and only rarely did we share our time at sightings with others. I loved his self-deprecating sense of humour!




Edited by Whyone?
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Hey @Whyone?.  We made it back totally uneventful!  It was GREAT meeting your lovely wife and friends, it really pushed the trip even higher over the top! I think Kaingo camp was amazed at the camaraderie facilitated by Safaritalk and took note.  Kaingo was definitely wonderful, wonderful, wonderful for anyone thinking about going.  That first drive, I may have been one of the guilty party pointing my 200-600mm at a leopard in a tree.  And let's not forget Tim, who had some new Nikon equipment, including 2 long lenses that made mine look like a cheap toy!  


 Robert was fun, as was our guide Philiban.  I'm looking forward to this story as we regretfully had to leave the 13th.


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Part 1:



On Tuesday 13th September we left camp as usual just before sunrise. After only a short distance we where once again marvelling at the African sky, ablaze with colour at this time of day, when Robert pulled over to the side of the road and cut the engine.


As he had done on our first drive he again carefully surveyed the area around us, but on this occasion there was no joking and, not for the first time, he showed his true knowledge and experience.  He said that the impala were unsettled.  There were no alarm calls, but he observed that instead of grazing, they were upright, alert and staring at an area of bush.



As we approached we saw a hyena dragging a recently killed male impala into cover....and a female leopard, known locally as Chiphadzuwa (meaning 'Beautiful' in the local Chinyanaja language) looking on with apparent resigned indifference, knowing that challenging the hyena could result in injury which would potentially have far more serious consequences that a lost meal.   Chiphadzuwa (or 'Chip') has two ~8 month old cubs (male and female) and when we had first arrived in the area there had been some talk about her struggling to feed the cubs, with hyena's taking many of her kills....it looked like this was to be another such setback.


Chip sniffing the impala drag trail:



However, one of our friends noted that, from the elongated appearance of her teats, the hyena appeared to have young and Robert confirmed that this looked likely.  Once she had the impala nearly out of sight in a cluster of scrubby bush, she reappeared after only a few minutes, with Chip now showing her displeasure at being dispossessed.





From the the short time spent on the carcass, and the ruddy appearance of the hyena's head, it seems likely that she quickly ate the most nutritious parts of the impala (heart/lungs liver) and was now heading swiftly back to her young.



This of course meant that Chip was now able to get back onto the impala and reap some reward for her efforts....something we are all pleased to see.





Naturally, the kill attracted other interested parties and, as is often the case, it was a hooded vulture who was first in line....


Edited by Whyone?
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On 9/18/2022 at 12:17 AM, Atravelynn said:

A 20-year dream realized! 

Yes indeed @Atravelynn....and well worth the wait :)


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Part 2:

Having fed on the impala for 10 minutes or so, Chip emerged, looking quite content with life.





She lay on the ground variously cleaning herself and snoozing, but repeatedly calling, with increasing urgency, for the cubs to come to her.





Eventually, she got up and spent some time carefully covering both the impala carcass and the drag trail with soil and leaves to mask their scent, and then started walking in direction of where she must have left the youngsters.



It's difficult to be sure of how far she had to go, but it must have been a good 500m across some very rough terrain and Robert did an excellent job of keeping us on her tail (sorry!)





It was quite an experience to hear the noise her passage caused, with impala, puku and especially a large troop of baboons all signalling with loud alarm calls.





Others remained silent and still, but kept Chip firmly in view not knowing that, for now at least, she would offer no threat.





After a noisy stroll, taking about 15 minutes, she paused and called again.


This time the response was immediate with the smaller female cub bounding out of her resting place to greet her.





It took a little longer for the, increasingly independent, male cub to appear but after some more meeting and greeting, Chip started out back in the direction of breakfast with the two cubs (approximately!) in tow.








Edited by Whyone?
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Wonderful sighting, thanks for sharing.

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so good to see them again, I was there in June and spent quite some time with the family. I will finish my TR tomorrow. Promiss.

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Thank you @Africaloverand look forward to reading your TR @Biko, it'll be interesting to see how much the two cubs have changed over ~8-10 weeks.

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Part 3:

With three leopards on the move, the cacophony of alarm calls was even louder than during Chip's solo trek a short while earlier.


As noted above, the young male looks increasingly independent...or headstrong....and was quickly distracted by a small group of impala, letting Chip and his sister proceed without him.



However, it was the large troop of baboons which really caught his interest....



Before we knew it, he was up a tree and, initially at least, chasing the baboons.  The noise was astonishing, as was his ability to move in 3-dimensions, leaping limb-to-limb, tree-to-tree with incredible fluidity.





Whilst the young leopard initially appeared to have the upper hand, it wasn't long before the baboons organised themselves - females and young escaping to trees away from the leopard, large males now starting to come onto the offensive.



Robert, our guide commented on more than one occasion that things '...were getting dangerous' for him.  For obvious reasons, the baboons would like nothing more than to rid the neighbourhood of a leopard.


Whilst all this was going on, Chip and sister watched and waited!



After getting into quite a precarious position on the end of a thin branch with a group of large baboons heading menacingly in his direction, he leapt to another tree and headed back down to earth.





We breathed a sigh of relief, thinking the family would now head off for breakfast....but no.  


A group of baboons followed the young leopard down, and now the confrontations now continued on terra firma....









All of which you'd have imagined would be enough excitement for one morning. But no....the baboons headed into the trees once more.





I love the look of intent on his face in this photo....he really doesn't like those baboons!!!



Making his intentions clear...



...and with that, he was once again, up in the trees and the whole noisy, exiting spectacle started once more!


Play this short video on a large screen with the sound turned up and hopefully it will give some idea of the scene.....




Edited by Whyone?
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  • Whyone? changed the title to A Leopard Tale

@Whyone?This young cub has really changed a lot over 2 and a half months. I am really impressed by him chasing the baboons in the trees. What a great video!

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A great sighting so well captured in your words, great photos and video @Whyone?Thank you.

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  • Whyone? changed the title to A Leopard's Tale

My pleasure @Nik63, I am pleased that you liked the thread. 

Edited by Whyone?
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i did wonder if the baboons had done something to the male when he was much younger to make him detest them so much, but a great sighting indeed. thanks for sharing!

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Possibly so @Kitsafaribut I actually think this is all just part of his development into a self-sufficient hunter, and possibly a 'baboon specialist' like his mum.


One morning a few days previously we saw Chiphadzuwa with a baboon she had killed:



When we returned after dark, his sister was feeding.....



....whilst he was sleeping on a branch overhead:


Edited by Whyone?
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Part 4:

Just to round this thread off, the three leopards did eventually get to the remains of the impala carcass.


We went looking for them later in the day and were not especially surprised to find them in the area of the kill earlier, what was a surprise was to find the female cub making inroads into another male impala, and the male doing what he does best (well....apart from chasing baboons!) and relaxing in an adjacent tree.






So, a two-impala day, and even with the hyena helping herself to some of the morning kill. Despite the concerns we heard as we arrived in South Luangwa, it seems that Chiphadzura is doing a great job  and hopefully the future looks bright for these two.


Especially as the following morning they were working their way through impala number 3!!!

Edited by Whyone?
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thanks for this report - have to say the IQ of your pictures is superb. Excellent  images of the leopards. What equipment are you using?

Edited by AKR1
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Thank you for your kind words @AKR1


Equipment wise, nothing terribly modern or fancy - I had a Canon 6D body mounted with a 24-105mm f/4l is ii usm lens, but I am pretty sure all of the photo's in this thread were taken using my trusty, and very well worn 5Diii body and a 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6l is ii usm lens.


Robert, our guide, must take great credit for putting us into positions with excellent light whenever possible.


Obviously, leopards being leopards there were times, despite Robert's best endeavours, when the light was just plain challenging - often back lit when in trees during the day and obviously at night, working with the spotlight. 


I did on occasion use a small amount of fill flash (delivered via a 480exii flash fitted with a 'Better Beamer') and, comparing 'with' and 'without' shots I am happy with the results - these for example used 'fill' and I dont think it is very obvious (I'm happy to be corrected on this though!), but it just lifts the leopard a little whilst not drowning out the natural sunlight coming in from behind which just catches his head.




You can see the flash 'catchlights' in his eyes in this photo:



I of course checked with camp to get guidance on flash use and asked our guide each and every time before using.


Sometimes the effect was not so subtle, like on this handsome fellow:



There where times when I personally didn't think flash was appropriate and just used extremely high iso's, slow shutter speeds (below image was ISO 12280 / 60th sec., lens wide open) and the vehicles nifty built in bean-bags to steady the camera, but this is a whole different story....


Edited by Whyone?
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it took me a while to figure out that last shot, but golly gosh woah - if I'm seeing that right - that big cat is one strong dude to carry the baby hippo! are you going to tell the tale? 

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1 hour ago, Kitsafari said:

it took me a while to figure out that last shot, but golly gosh woah - if I'm seeing that right - that big cat is one strong dude to carry the baby hippo! are you going to tell the tale? 

Yes @Whyone?that's definitely a tale that needs telling !

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