As dawn breaks, we are motoring through some well recognizable trails in Kruger National Park. Matt, our guide and the driver of our open-air jeep, is proceeding at the direction of our tracker, Jophet, who is perched upon a seat that protrudes out from the front of our vehicle. Jophet says very little. Instead, with eyes glued to the trail, searching for fresh tracks laid down by various animals, he points left, then right, sometimes inducing Matt to plow through virgin brush, hot on the trail of whatever animal has been in the area recently. Matt tells us that Jophet has been a tracker for 30 years; he knows what he is doing.
After traveling several miles, the sun creeping up ever so slowly, Jophet raises his hand, and Matt stops the jeep. He whispers to us, “There is a leopard over there on the left. He is eyeing a group of impalas several hundred yards away.” Transfixed, we watch as the leopard steals surreptitiously around the periphery, waiting to pounce when the time is right to obtain his morning meal. Before he can make his move, however, the impalas have sensed the leopard’s presence, and speed with grace and urgency out of the leopard’s purview. They are safe for now but will be on the lookout for the next predator to come calling.
Our leopard appears undeterred. He goes back to retrieve a bush back kill that he has stashed away in a tree. This must have occurred recently, as very little of the carcass has been eaten. We watch as he carries the corpse in his teeth, presumably to an area where he will be able to consume it.
Sometimes the best-laid plans fail to materialize. The leopard does not get more than 50 yards along the path, when all of a sudden, he freezes. After several seconds, which is apparently how long it takes him to consider his options, he drops the bush back and scrambles out of sight. Matt focuses our attention approximately 50 yards to the right, where no less than a hungry hyena has come on the scene. We’re told that in the game reserve, there is a pecking order amongst the wildlife. Leopards are unable to adequately defend themselves against the brawnier hyenas, one of their natural predators.
While the leopard appears sleek and elegant, especially in his normal habitat, the hyena looks to me to be a brute. He grabs the bush back carcass, carries it to a secluded spot, and proceeds to devour it. With a surgeon’s precision, he dissembles the poor bush back, not sparing any part of the cadaver. There are 2 exceptions from what I can tell. The bush back was female and apparently pregnant. The fetus is removed, and not touched again. The entrails are apparently not very appetizing and are also left on the side.
Despite being mesmerized by what we are seeing, Matt points his finger towards a ledge that hovers over this scene of gluttony. Perched on the edge of the precipice, our original leopard stands motionless, watching the hyena gorge himself on what could have been his next meal.
The lesson for today is that the animal kingdom has a hierarchical chain of command. Impalas and bush backs have it tough. Leopards are crafty predators, but no match for famished hyenas. As for this human, a vegetarian lunch today would be a welcome choice.