On a recent spring afternoon in South Africa's Sabi Sand Game Reserve, a female leopard kills a spiral-horned nyala. The big cat and her juvenile cub settle in for a meal, but they are soon interrupted by an unlikely pair.
More than a football field away, a young male leopard has just been chased off another kill by a larger leopard. The rejected juvenile becomes aware of the female eating and makes his way over to her. He chases away the mother leopard and her cub, but before he can sneak the carcass up a tree to enjoy it in solitude, another uninvited guest drops by: an opportunistic hyena.
In a sort of glutton’s tug of war, the hyena and the young male leopard tussle to scarf down the meaty feast. The leopard attempts to drag it away, but the hyena digs in, using its considerable strength to hang on—even seeming to stand on the carcass to stake its claim. The hyena tears at the flesh, swallows massive chunks, and toothily crunches bones to eat as much of the nyala as possible, as fast as possible. The leopard tries to keep up with the hyena’s impressive rate of consumption, nearly nose to nose with his competitor.
Veteran safari guide Tristan Dicks watched the interaction from a vehicle while tracker Senzo Mkhize caught the interaction on video for WildEarth safariLIVE. “I can assure you, this is not normal,” Dicks said while watching the moment unfold.
A strategic truce
It’s a shocking kind of compromise between two apex predators, but they “both have more to gain by sharing the kill than fighting for exclusive use,” says Guy Balme, senior director of the leopard program at Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization. “It’s a young male leopard that doesn’t have the confidence of an adult to chase off the scavenger.”
Plus, he says, it doesn’t make sense for the leopard to fight. “It is not in the youngster’s best interest to … potentially be injured by a hyena,” Balme says. “If he gets injured, there’s no one that can provide for him.” The hyena, he notes, is also getting a free meal thanks to the inexperienced cat; the price is simply tolerating the leopard’s presence.
The uneasy arrangement doesn’t last long. The large male leopard from the nearby kill has, so far, stayed out of the picture, busy finishing off his earlier meal. But now he slinks through the tall grass on the offensive to claim what remains of the nyala. The hyena and the young leopard scatter. Dragging the carcass with remarkable ease, the older, larger male leopard darts up the closest tree with his prize and sprinkles urine from a branch to mark his territory. The hyena, the young male, and the female leopard are left to take turns grabbing leftover scraps on the ground, some having fallen as the larger leopard scaled the tree.
As for which animal would get the lion’s share of the meal, Kay Holekamp a biologist at Michigan State University and director of the Mara Hyena Project, says it boils down to body size. “Spotted hyenas are the second largest carnivores in Africa, after lions, and which species gets to keep possession of food within a carnivore guild is often determined strictly by relative body size,” she says.
Surprising social interactions
In addition to an extraordinary interspecific interaction, the moment highlights rare interactions between a community of normally solitary leopards. “The habituated leopards in the Sabi Sand are certainly showing us that leopards are far more social than assumed,” Balme says. “Only in places such as the Sabi Sand, where leopards are extremely tolerant of vehicles, can we see how frequently they interact.”
Of course any sighting of wild leopards in the bush is an amazing moment. But to see a wild encounter between four leopards and a hyena is, according to Balme, “extremely rare in most parts of leopard range, and very cool.”
The most shocking part of the encounter, Dicks says, was that the hyena changed its behavior when dealing with the different individual leopards. “While it was completely unfazed by the female leopard, her cub, and the younger male,” Dicks says, “it knew full well the large male leopard was not to be messed with.”