Updated: May 26
I filmed this dramatic sequence a year ago in Botswana just before the first lockdown. Surprising just how many people have watched it on Youtube - 3.5 million to date.
I've also received around a thousand comments. Perhaps I should have disabled them in the settings, but they are actually quite enlightening.
Some complimented the footage, saying that it captured a dramatic moment in the wild:
Thanks for the upload Mike, enjoyed the video, appreciated..
Beautiful leopard great post..
Other's become quite philosophical about it:
This is how death chases us ..
The leopard's eyes are scary, those pupils stare into your soul..
Some even compare the relationship between the leopard and the impala to their own!
Me trying to get out of a toxic relationship..
Others though, are outraged at the fact that we didn't chase the leopard away and save the impala.
"I'm not thinking that how brutal leopard is but i worry how cruel these people who film such scenes."
'"Instinctively we all want to help... But it's not our place to do so." That's simply a euphemism for I don't give a ••••."
While we were witnessing this interaction in Botswana from the open land-cruisers we all sat in silence, watching, filming or taking photographs. We had earlier in the trip asked the rangers how safe they thought it was to be in open vehicles so close to leopards, lions, elephants, and all other types of dangerous African wildlife. They told us that in parks such as theirs where a limited number of safari vehicles are permitted, the animals get used to us being there. The sound of the engines aren't a threat, the vehicles keep their distance, they avoid getting in the path of the animals and the occupants remain as quiet as possible. Never more than two vehicles in the same place at the same time, driven by qualified rangers who know the rules.
On our trip it was incredible how close one could get to these animals, no doubt due to the trust that they felt, built up over many years. It really was surreal sitting so close to leopards, lions, and cheetah who would literally look right through you as if you were not there, as if you were completely inconsequential. I have only ever experienced this same wonder when I went to the Galapagos Islands off Chile many years ago and walked amongst iguana, albatross and sea lions that really weren't phased by the presence of humans.
In Botswana, with the big cats, one felt as if one is visiting them on their terms. Lions would brush passed our vehicle on occasions going on their way, as if it was their living-room and they had given us permission to be there. And quite rightly so. The fact that they didn't run away when the vehicles approach is testimony to the care and attention involved in wildlife management of these types of parks.
Even with care and attention, things can still be unpredictable though. One morning we rounded a corner in thick undergrowth and came across a big, single male leopard. He was walking slowly, and purposefully next to the track. We eased passed him twenty foot or so away, and as we did so my daughter saw him suddenly turn with shoulders down and lunge towards the vehicle with a massive growl. Something had 'spooked' him, and the sudden, very focused, angry stare that he gave me daughter really spooked her! The ranger said that on first seeing the leopard he sensed that the animal was agitated and so he kept driving on.
On a few occasions we visited the hilltop domain of a pack of six or seven cheetah. They always looked so relaxed between hunts, their long elongated bodies lying flat on the ground with alert heads up, ears and noses twitching, surveying the savanna. We were told that not long before, one of these beautiful creatures had walked passed an open Land-Cruiser filled with game-viewers, and jumped up onto the bonnet. Everyone no doubt froze as the cheetah looked at them and they looked at him. The ranger kept calm as an amazing photo-opportunity was created for those in an adjacent vehicle. The animal soon climbed down and no harm was done. Anything can happen in a situation like that, the guides had said; but on the whole, cheetah are pack hunters and if they are alone and not cornered, they will more than likely run off.
But, the rangers said, leopards are different.
They told us about what happened in 2015 when a leopard did attack a ranger in an open safari vehicle in front of a group of tourists in The Kruger Park in South Africa. The 'Kruger' is a public reserve where visitors drive their own cars, and have to stay on the roads rather than track animal through the bush. Some of the camps do though have open vehicles driven by rangers, and on this occasion a British guide, Curtis Plumb of Nhongo Safari Tours, joined a big group of vehicles that had come across a loan leopard walking in the road. A tourist onlooker described what happened:
“The ranger peered over the side of the vehicle to see where the animal was. It was alongside him. Without warning or provocation it launched itself into the safari truck and grabbed the ranger’s arm".
Other tourists in adjacent vehicles filmed as the ranger desperately tried to fight off the leopard as he sank his teeth and claws into Plumb's arm. The Daily Mirror reporting the story said:
'Tourists in the British ranger’s open-top 4x4 screamed in terror during the attack....
The people sitting behind him began hitting the big cat with their cameras and those in a nearby vehicle rammed the leopard with a car door – but it still did not release its grip.
Other tourists hurled bags at the animal to try to scare it off.
Curtis, 38, eventually managed to prise himself loose....(last night) he was recovering in hospital in a stable condition despite serious injuries.'
This was absolutely terrifying for Curtis Plumb and for those who witnessed it. The double tragedy was that the leopard was 'put down' after being severely injured by the vehicles once Plumb had freed himself. I am not going to judge what happened here, but things can go wrong very quickly with wild animals. Perhaps there were too many vehicles around the animal, too much noise, undisciplined jostling for position to get a better view, who knows.
When we were sitting watching the young male leopard 'playing cat and mouse' with the impala in December 2019, we hadn't heard about what had happened to Curtis Plumb. When I think back to the wide-eyed looks on the faces of my British teenage and twenty-something children as they watched the leopard and the impala, I think it was just as well.
It would have been very wrong to have done something to scare the leopard away from his kill, from his food, The leopard would have caught the impala whether we were there or not. By intervening, shouting or moving closer or revving the engines, we could also have seriously endangered everyone involved. It could also have undone the delicate trust that this wild animal had developed with us that allowed us to be there in the first place. We didn't stay to watch the actual kill take place, but left the impala to it's inevitable fate.
Wilderness areas with huge animal diversity such as this would not exist without tourists paying to go on safaris. Poaching for ivory, rhino horn and animal skins has decimated much of the African wildlife, and the Botswana parks are not exempt from this constant threat. 17% of Botswana constitutes game reserves or game parks, so there is a lot of land to protect. This does offer jobs and livelihoods to many in what is essentially a subsistence level agricultural rural economy.
However in 2019, Botswana was sited to be one of the success stories in Sub-Sahara. It's economy is very much dependent on diamond mining, which makes up over 50% of government revenue. The need to diversify is obviously clear but so far it's success has being maintained, linked to its strong political and economic institutions and its careful management of all of it's resources, including it's magnificent wildlife.