The Baboon Martyr
Wamilombe plain is a leopard’s dream hunting ground. Dry gullies carved out by years of hippos commuting from the Luangwa river to feeding pastures and dense indigo bush provide the perfect ambush points to grab unsuspecting prey.
It had quickly become one of my favourite leopard spotting areas, parking up at a viewpoint waiting for the unmistakeable alarm snort of an impala or whistle of a puku or spotting the leopard sneaking along the gully unbeknown to the antelope feeding above.
This particular afternoon had been leopard-less but there wasn't much else going on around the area so I decided to stick with a large baboon troop who were slowly picking their way across the plain before going to roost. Peter Zulu, the lodge’s head guide and a top personality. Who had grown up in the valley and has been guiding in the park for 25 years, is a local celebrity with his pith hat adorned with bird feathers, was my guide and we parked up ready for the wait. If there was a leopard around the baboons would know, ever since I first heard the panic stricken screams of a baboon troop who had spotted a leopard it had become my favourite call in the bush. The fear audible in their calls, my adrenalin begins to flow without fail.
The baboons were at their most vulnerable, the light was dropping and they were completely exposed, a solitary sausage tree the only nearby refuge but luckily for them no leopards. With the adults relaxed as they strolled towards their roost area the playful youngsters began using the lone sausage tree as a climbing frame, chasing each other about its limbs, all was fine.
Suddenly a solitary baboon scream then nothing, a few seconds of silence, the baboons looked about and were almost relaxing when another scream. The baboons panicked running in all directions when from the grass exploded a young female leopard, one I knew well. Alice’s elder daughter, the sister of the male who had recently been accompanying Alice and her new cubs so often.
A baboon isn't an easy meal, they're incredibly protective of their troop and are willing to help each other out. Not to mention their vicious canines, perfectly capable of putting a leopard out of action. Alice’s daughter must have been desperate to take on a troop of 100 or so baboons. But leopards are opportunists, if there’s a meal available they'll take it. I’d already seen her brother kill an impala when he already had a kill in a nearby tree just because they strayed too close.
The young baboons had made the possibly fatal error of venturing into the lone sausage tree with no escape and the leopard had realised this. In a flash she was in the tree, the adults on the ground didn’t know what to do. Some ran whilst others came to the base of the tree, screaming their protestations up at her. She ignored them, charging about the tree in pursuit of the youngsters. Rather than suffering at the jaws of a leopard some chose to throw themselves 50 foot out of the tree, plummeting to the ground and scampering to safety to watch from a safe distance.
By this time the screams of the baboons had not only alerted several hyenas who came to investigate, knowing a free meal could be on the cards, but several other drives had interrupted their sundowners to come join us in viewing this spectacle.
The leopard, clearly tired of her exertions in the tree, would take momentary breathers, panting away as the baboons still panicked madly. Every time she ascended the tree a dog baboon would come from the ground into the tree screaming at her in disgust only to rapidly exit as she descended again. The bravery and camaraderie of these monkeys was amazing, willing to risk their own lives to protect a relative. As time went on it was becoming obvious the baboons in the trees were becoming fewer and fewer as they made their escape leaps and it looked like the leopard may go hungry for now, precious energy wasted for nothing. Then something amazing happened.
Rewind 24 hours and I’d been driving the exact same loop at the same time when I saw a solitary baboon dragging itself up a tree. Straight away I thought it was strange, baboons hang out together, usually only males leave to find new troops may spend some time alone. Secondly this baboon was a mess. It could hardly move. It had scratches and scrapes all over its body. It had clearly born the brunt of an angry troop. At the time we commented it was going to be a meal for something very soon.
Back to the leopard in the tree, the baboons hadn't ceased their screaming. Some females and youngsters were moving away to the safety of the tree-line but the males below weren't stopping.
Suddenly I saw the injured baboon from the night before beside our vehicle. It wasn't in any better state. I couldn't understand why it had appeared. It had clearly come from where'd I’d seen it the day previous, utter madness. Surely it couldn't have ignored the screams of its fellow baboons. It knew there was danger and should've stayed hidden. Instead it was doing the opposite. It limped towards the sausage tree, not calling once just making a straight beeline, almost as if it was investigating. As it passed by it looked like it hadn't been noticed by the leopard, she was still chasing the remaining baboons in the tree. It continued on its route and then it all happened. The leopard stopped chasing the tree dwelling baboons, she’d locked on. In a blink she was out of the tree; leopards can move at 24 metres a second at full run and she demonstrated this.
Barreling across the ground towards the hapless baboon, typically the nearby scrub obscured the moment of impact but after some adjustment the sight that met my eyes wasn't a surprise. Clamped in her jaws was our injured baboon, hanging limply. The baboons continued in their barking but instead of fear it was almost like relief. One of their number had been taken but for tonight they were spared.
I don’t like anthropomorphising animals but after seeing this I couldn't explain it any other way. That baboon, despite being injured and no doubt going to one day soon succumb to its injuries, it had no need to venture from the safety it had hidden itself in.
The way it strolled almost nonchalantly towards the tree like a commander leading his troops into an unconquerable battle struck me. It was an act of martyrdom. That baboon died and the rest of the troop were spared. A lot of people will disagree with me and will just call the baboon stupid and a complete act of nature but to me, witnessing it first hand, is the way I saw it.