Watch: Lion stalks sleeping leopard, big-cat clash ensues
Spotting a leopard in the wild is top of the list for many tourists visiting Africa on safari, but the stealthy, nocturnal animals are notoriously difficult to track down. Earlier this month, though, guests in South Africa’s Sabi Sands Game Reserve got more than they bargained for when they set off to find one of the elusive cats.
The big-cat showdown started off business as usual: after hearing that a male leopard had been sighted in a section of the park, guide Matthew Poole set off in search of him. “The male leopard started to walk along the banks of the Sand River, scent marking all the way,” he told Latest Sightings, who uploaded the video to YouTube. “It was at this moment we noticed the male lion lying in the river on the opposite bank.”
Poole watched on, wondering what would happen if the two dominant males came to blows – but it wasn’t until the leopard settled down for a midday nap that things started to unfold. “It seemed as if my words weren’t cold because shortly after the male leopard went to sleep, the lion started to stalk him from the other side of the river.”
Lions do not regularly stalk and kill other big cats – pursuing an animal that can vigorously fight back is a risky, energy-sapping tactic – but it has been known to happen. Are these territorial disputes or a genuine attempt at landing some food? That’s still the cause of some debate among scientists. In this case, the lion drove the leopard up a tree before simply moving along. “This was by far the rarest sighting in my guiding career!” says Poole.
Because leopards are solitary and relatively small in comparison to their lion kin (typically under 140 lbs/63kg), they’re also vulnerable to attacks from pack animals like wild dogs. But as was the case with this encounter, such savannah clashes are rare. The only animals who represent a real and urgent threat to leopard survival today are humans.
Once widely distributed across much of Africa and Asia, leopard populations have become “reduced and isolated” as a result of habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, prey declines, illegal trade and poorly managed trophy hunting, according to the IUCN.
There are some 1,000 leopards in Kruger National Park, but due to their large ranges and secretive nature, pinning down their numbers remains a difficult task. In fact, there is a lot we don’t know about South Africa’s leopards: just this year, camera traps set in the country’s North West and Mpumalanga provinces revealed evidence of seven ultra-rare “strawberry leopards”