There’s a saying in the bush that nothing dies of old age. It seems for every animal there’s another that will happily kill it, be it for food or territory.
The bush is dangerous. If you're a young animal you’re top of the hit list. Take an impala fawn for example, everything wants to eat you. You might look cute but to a leopard you’re a tasty snack, for a martial eagle a hearty meal and even for a baboon you’re a welcome change to the normal diet.
If you're (or at least heir to the) top of the food chain you’re still in danger. A lion, hyena, even another leopard won’t hesitate to kill a leopard cub if they come across one so to teach this mum has to be extra protective and make sure the cubs know where they stand.
Alice was an experienced mother, to our knowledge she’d raised at least 4 pairs of cubs in her lifetime. She knows the best places to hide them, how to keep a kill and how to keep them safe. To keep them safe she needs to instill some discipline though.
Sometimes I didn’t need to go to Alice, she came to me. One evening Alice made a kill on the delivery track to Mfuwe Lodge no more than 100 metres from my bedroom, yet another unlucky bushbuck.
At first light I was there, quickly finding Alice and the bolder little male cub up in a sausage tree, Alice chewing on a scrap of bushbuck with the cub gnawing away at the main carcass. No sign of the little female for now, no doubt safely up another nearby tree.
The giveaway sign for a stashed leopard kill, if you don’t spot it up the tree or the leopard first is the hyena sat below, staring longingly up into the branches waiting for the moment when dinner falls from the sky. Surprisingly this kill was only being guarded by a single dopy looking youngster, clearly other hyenas hadn't caught scent of it yet or there was an easier option elsewhere.
All seemed normal at the kill. It wasn't the biggest bushbuck and I couldn't see it lasting much longer. The little female would have to put in appearance soon if she wanted a taste, unless she’d been feeding on it through the night and was sleeping off her no doubt now heavily bloated belly.
It seems when everything seems normal and you're not expecting it, stuff happens.
Suddenly there was a slipping noise and a loud thud, the little male had clearly been trying to access a bit of inaccessible bushbuck meat and had managed to dislodge the kill sending it plummeting to the ground.
Luckily Alice reacted with lightning pace, unlike the dopy hyena below. In a flash she was down the tree and had the kill clasped in her jaws and was reascending already. The hyena had missed its chance, it seemed to have been tangled in the vines on the ground and couldn't free itself in time. Once disentangled it strolled away into the bush, clearly embarrassed at its inability to grab an easy meal.
Hunting takes a lot of effort and energy, Alice being an old lady now was clearly finding it more and more difficult. Her teeth were past it, with a canine missing and another snapped in half unfortunately it was only a matter of time until her time was up.
Dropping a safely stashed kill wasn’t on and Alice was about to show how she felt about it. Safely back in the tree with the kill Alice began to eat her own fill. Clearly relieved at mum retrieving its meal the male cub made its way down the tree to her on the lower branch to continue its feast but Alice was having none of it. Interrupting her own gorging, she lifted her head and let out a ferocious snarl at the cub. He didn’t accept the warning but continued towards her. She was having none of it, this time looking directly at the cub, curling back her lips and letting out another growl, leaving her teeth bared. The cub’s expression was priceless, letting out pathetic calls clearly confused as to why it wasn't allowed to keep eating.
Clearly annoyed by the cubs pestering and the absence of any hyenas, Alice grabbed the kill and headed back down the tree to the ground. The male cub was now completely confused, not brave enough to descend too but following her as far the branch he was using would allow, miaowing away all the time.
With Alice now on the ground the shyer female materialised from the scrub, running over to mum and beginning her meal, clearly by her size she hadn't fed overnight and was ravenous.
Now with his mum and sister on the ground, the little male plucked up the courage to descend but on approaching the now grounded kill both mum and sister made it clear he wasn't welcome. Common sense prevailed and he kept a safe distance away whilst the ladies took over and ate their fill finally leaving some scraps for him after an hour or so.
It had been close, they’d almost lost their kill thanks to the cub but had gotten away with it and it was clear Alice had taught the little fella a lesson. It would be the last time I got a clear view of Alice and the cubs at a kill. The next time I saw them they were feasting on some other unlucky antelope but heavily obscured deep in the bush and completely inaccessible by vehicle.