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Zambezi Stand-off

Leopards and baboons, have, since their respective species emerged from the primordial soup, been set against each other in pitched warfare. Their shared realm of the tree canopy, the leopard’s opportunistic propensity to prey on baboon, and the primate’s to warn other members of the troop and to ruin the hunt, have rendered the two mortal enemies. This we know, but little did we expect to see the lines of battle drawn from ancient grudge to break new mutiny once more in the territory between Anabezi and Amanzi camps.

A morning game drive was our first indication as to the latest saga of enmity – an incredible sighting of Guvu, matriarch of the Chakwenga Pride, her daughters and their little cubs (as introduced last week), had delayed our circuitous return to camp and having heard the unmistakeable bark of baboon in frenzy, we detoured once more.

Those of you who have stayed with us at Anabezi or Amanzi may well remember the descent from riverine winterthorn and relatively open bush on the Eastern side of the Mushika and rapid rise up into the densely packed stunted mopane forest toward Amanzi… Well, here we lay our scene.

Usual arboreal leopard sightings run somewhere in the line of languor, the occasional flick of an idle tail, slow wink of a heavy eyelid in the deep shade of a leafy canopy – often mahogany, lying comfortably on a sturdy looking branch a decent distance from the ground: ultimate relaxation, the epitome of chill – you know the sort of picture camps like to put in safari brochures, in fact, I think there’s one in ours. Well, if ever there was a situation in absolute polar opposition to that stock image of luxe, this was the scene in view now.

We slowed in complete astonishment to find two sub-adult leopards, Ana’s offspring we believe, perched precariously and extremely uncomfortably about forty feet up one of the few, tall, leafless mopanes at the edge of the thicket, between branches that might have been better suited to chopsticks, much less two frightened and panting leopards. Limbs and tails forced akimbo, acting as cantilever to balance quivering bodyweight, the two were a complete tangle – spot mingled with spot, making it unclear where one began and the other ended.

We soon saw the reason for their less than composed state. A troop of around fifty baboon had the tree and the surrounding stunted thicket staked out. Thus, both cat and primate remained for the better part of an hour, with each pant of the quaking, baking, leopard the already shaking branches shook further, and the baboons continued their malevolent guard duty. Much as the largest members of the troop barked menacingly, daring a descent, the leopards at least had the sense to know better. However as the younger less warlike faction of the picket grew bored and started to stray from their vigilance and interest, the troop dispersed, leaving the biggest and meanest in sentinel. Eventually, though they too moved off, turning back every few paces to check on their still immobile prisoners.

We waited. We watched as the acute angle of petrified tail slackened and after ten minutes a process much like disentangling a collapsed game of Twister began. Left paws went up, so right paws could move down, and the two squirmed back into their respective spots. Then followed the helter-skelter down, branches creaking and bark shredded, the affair was markedly not of the usual feline grace. Gasps from our vehicle accompanied some of the more gnarly moments, but both reached the ground in relatively safety and bolted.

It is war’s prize to take all vantage, and so predictably, when we saw the three leopards in camp the following night, there was the unmistakeable form of a limp baboon carcass between a pair of firmly clenched and suitably revenged leopard jaws…

Witnessed by Tara Vivian-Neal