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Things That Go Bump In The Night

The sun had just set behind the Zambezi Escarpment and the last of the light was starting to fade. The birds were singing one last tune and the baboons walked across the floodplain to the trees that line the dry Mushika River where they slept most nights.

Suddenly it was deathly quiet, but only for a moment… A horrific sound erupted from the river bed and I practically jumped out of my seat. It was a zebra bleating and it sounded like it was fighting for its life. The baboons started barking and the impala snorted as loud as they could. If only I could understand what they were saying. I immediately knew something was up and jumped into one of the safari vehicles and headed in the direction of all the commotion.

Shannon was just as eager as I was to play a game of detective and, with the spotlight in hand, searched down on the ground and up in the trees looking for clues. We drove for only 10 minutes, hugging the banks of the Mushika River as we navigated through all the vegetation. Shannon suggested we try an old road, as you could see down into the riverbed and look past all the croton trees. I drove us right to the edge and as Shannon shone the spotlight down the banks she exclaimed,”Look!” I gasped with excitement and then my heart filled with sadness, for I realised it was the zebra foal we’d been watching the past few days. The foal was covered in blood and taking its last breath… There was no predator in sight. We must have spooked whatever had taken down the zebra, so we moved off and headed back to camp. This was only a part of the puzzle and I knew, first thing in the morning with some light, that I’d be able to put the rest of the pieces of the puzzle together.

I didn’t sleep much that night, I tossed and turned as I listen to the sound of a distressed mare calling for her little one. I knew the foal wouldn’t make it through the night because I was certain that whatever had snatched the foal from the herd would come back for its prize. I woke before my alarm went off and swiftly put on my khakis. I think I even forgot to tie my shoelaces because of how eager I was to head back to the crime scene. I decided to use the same route I had used the night before and just as I was about to turn towards the dry river, I spotted a herd of zebra. As I switched off the vehicle a mare from the herd started to call and stared in the direction of where we had found the foal. I examined the herd closely and noticed that one of the almost fully grown zebra had a swollen jaw. Clearly something had attacked this zebra. With lacerations on the jaw and scratch marks on the neck and belly, I wondered if this was the zebra I had heard bleating for its life? It was too soon to assume anything so I snapped a few pictures and continued with my original plan. The foal was gone – I wasn’t surprised. My eyes were glued to the ground because I knew that if I found the tracks of the predator, I’d have a better idea as to where it would have moved the kill.

“Leopard tracks!” I shouted out loud, only to be reminded I was on my own. A disgruntled buffalo was least impressed that I’d disturbed his breakfast and stared at me for quite some time. The floor was littered with animal tracks. Female leopard tracks, young male leopard tracks, buffalo hoof prints and, of course, zebra tracks of varying sizes. I looked down the bank and into the riverbed where I could just see a splat of dried blood – presumably from the zebra foal. Then I saw drag marks; the female leopard managed to pull the foal up the bank and under a croton tree. She rested here and I could tell that she wasn’t a big cat from the size of her paw prints. I then followed the next drag mark which lead me to another animal pathway back down into the dry riverbed. I stopped and stared for a while. Scanning the opposite side of the riverbed, the drag marks went straight towards another croton thicket. Eventually, I saw the foal tucked away under the shrubs and hidden well in the shadows. Still no sign of the leopard but I knew she was there, quietly watching me. I started to feel hungry and bumbled back home for breakfast.

After a hearty bowl of fruit salad, my brain had some fuel to figure out what actually went down on the evening of the 4th November 2018. I came to the conclusion that the leopard must have initially gone for the sub-adult zebra and after realising that she’d bitten off more than she could chew, combined with the thrashing of the zebra, she let go. The panic-stricken zebras must have run in all directions allowing the leopard a second attempt at catching dinner, a more appropriate meal size might I add. With the mystery finally solved there was really only one thing left to do; put on my patience pants, and sit and wait to get a glimpse of the nervous cat.

I left camp around 15:25 pm CAT, this time with a new plan. There was no way I could see clearly from the southern side of the bank, so I dipped down into the dry Mushika River and found a place to cross. I drove very slowly and cautiously towards where I’d seen the carcass. I then saw something move in the shadows and I immediately switched off the vehicle. It was a leopard slinking off into the distance and while watching that some more movement caught my attention. Under the thicket of Croton megalobotrys trees was another leopard and it was feasting on the zebra foal. A sense of relief filled my body as I exhaled deeply. After a good look, I deduced that this was a female leopard and the first cat I saw must have been her son. I watched her feed for a little while, she was completely relaxed around my vehicle. I called in Lawrence, who is one of the safari guides at Anabezi Luxury Tented Camp, knowing that his guests would be thrilled at the sight of a leopard feeding on a zebra.

Once Lawrence returned from his safari, we spoke about the day and couldn’t believe our luck because it’s not very common in the Lower Zambezi National Park to see a leopard with a zebra kill. Especially this girl, who goes by the name Kinky Tail and I don’t think I need to tell you why. She is a fairly small leopard and normally feeds on impala, as do the rest of the leopards in this area. With a growing cub, that is guessed to be over a year old, it’s not surprising she was tempted to go for something bigger.

I suspect I’ll be seeing a whole lot more of Kinky Tail and hopefully her male cub, although it may take some time for him to relax around the vehicles. Her territory runs right through camp and I’m told you’ll often hear her rasping calls in the middle of the night.

Written by: Tayla McCurdy