Just South of the Lemala Camp, in the central Serengeti, stands a solitary statuesque sausage tree (Kigelia africana) www.kew.org/science-conservati…
Rising to 15 meters, with its convoluted branches covered in dense foliage and with its large sausage-shaped fruits hanging ripe to fall, this tree casts a wide shadow over a dry gulch of an ephemeral river that floods the land in the rainy season. Parched land covered in long but dessicated grass lies all around, an occasional thorn bush breaking the local monotony. This is where we found the lions that morning. I say "we" found the lions, rather our amazing guide/driver Alfred the Great, he of the lucky belt (more of which in a later Feature) had found the lions after a careful study of tracks and patches of flattened grass. Standing up in the Land Cruiser, scouring the landscape, my wife and I saw nothing until Alfred whispered, "There, in the gulch - a paw!" Carefully manoeuvring
the vehicle nearer, a small pride of four female lions and two cubs, lounging in the shade, became visible. They took no notice of us.
Alfred told us that the pride comprised two older females, probably sisters, and two younger females, probably the daughters of one or both of the older females. The cubs, from one of the young females, were only a few months old and had only recently (perhaps in the last few days) been brought into the pride to be socialised. Images 1 and 2. When born, lion cubs are kept apart from the rest of the pride by their mother for fear of attack from other members of the pride, especially itinerant males. Once they can stand and run about, the mother shepherds the cubs to the pride for the next stage of their development. Nevertheless, the cubs still need to be weaned, Image 3, as they are too young to digest meat.
Yet, from the first moments of our arrival, we could see that all was not well in the pride. The lions, particularly the young mother, kept looking up into the sausage tree. Image 4. The reason for this disquiet suddenly became obvious - with a hiss, a spit and a low growl a female leopard appeared in the lower branches of the tree. Image 5.
Leopards and lions do not mix - mortal enemies, they kill and compete with one another. Lions will normally dispatch leopards with ease if they get the chance because of their bigger bulk, but leopards are faster and more agile, escape being the preferred option. However, leopards are always on the look out for a tasty lion cub for starters! What had probably happened here was that the lions, ever conscious of the need for shade from the African Sun had taken the ground under the sausage tree, unaware that there was a sleeping leopard high above. The leopard, upon waking, had found itself surrounded by lions. What to do? No leopard is going to take on a lion in straight confrontation, unless cornered, let alone four. Flight would be the best option. Indeed, with a leap from a lower bough and given a 5- 10 meter start, the leopard would be gone in a flash, the lions too lazy to give chase once the threat had gone. So, why has the leopard stayed? Indeed, as we watched, the leopard kept provoking the lions, clambering down to lower levels, hissing, strutting about, then climbing high. Probably, the leopard stays on the off-chance that she can catch one of the lion cubs. The leopard is in no hurry; she is well fed, well protected, and can outrun the lions if needed. A cub would be a useful prize for her - one less competitor, one less enemy, one tasty snack.
At one point, the young lion mother makes a half-hearted attempt to climb the tree, Image 6, but that would have played into the leopard's paws, so to speak; the lion would never have got purchase in the branches before a hefty leopard swipe would have disabled her. So, the leopard remains. Image 7.
What to do? - the lioness ponders options. Image 8 She sends the cubs into the grass to hide. Image 9 But, you can't fool a leopard that easily.
After another few minutes of the stand-off, and with the other lions losing interest, the mother settles down as the African heat overtakes her - she decides after a final way glance that a nap is calling. Images 10 and 11.
What of the leopard? She is still there!
We had been observing these events for nearly one hour, and reluctantly we had to leave, the final outcome of the encounter undecided. Later in the afternoon we returned but the drama had finished - another vehicle had seen the lions and cubs get up and leave to find a better, cooler spot (we saw them there subsequently), and once gone, the leopard had climbed down and vanished into the long grass. Despite the best efforts of that driver/guide, the leopard could could not be found. All in all, probably the best outcome.
Many thanks for viewing and listenimg to my tale of the leopard and the lions.
David aka Okavanga