Day 10: The Kill

Aug 31—I don't remember the morning game drive.

I don't remember the first half of the afternoon game drive.

I'll never forget the second half of the afternoon game drive.

You can come to Africa many, many times and not see The Kill. Indeed, you can live in Africa and work in the wilds and not see The Kill. Our driver, Anton, says during the entire time he's worked in the Sabi Sands, which is considerable, he's seen a total of seven kills.

As you might guess, the second half of the afternoon game drive was about a kill.

But it wasn't just any old kill.

The whole thing started as we were headed towards an area that Anton thought might finally net me a rhino on this trip (everyone else in the workshop had plenty of rhino sightings and photos by now, but because I kept alternating vehicles, it seems that I always missed the rhino sightings; that means that Lanz, who's switching vehicles with me, had rhinos on every drive!). But Jerry, our tracker, stopped us from our rhino quest as we were driving down the edge of the river. 

He pointed towards the top of one of the biggest trees we'd seen. So we all thought "bird," because Jerry was pointing straight up to the top of the tree. Nope, leopard. At the very top of the tree, which seemed beyond strange. We were pointing our cameras straight up to shoot it. But no more than a minute after we stopped the leopardess was in a full alert position. Interesting.

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Not the best of pictures here, as I really wasn't set up for a fast moving leopard. She's already moved halfway down the tree at this point and her gaze is fixed on something behind our vehicle, so I knew something was up. I was just shooting at this point, trying to catch my settings up to what was happening. This image is 1/80 of a second, for example, which is far too slow to be dealing with a fast moving animal, but I hadn't yet bumped my ISO up for the low light in the tree. This is an age old problem. I always tell students to be ready for what might happen next and to be ready before you get there. What I wanted to happen next was a rhino out in the sun by the river, so that's what I was set up for: sun exposure, lowish ISO, a bit of depth of field. But suddenly I'm pointing my lens pretty much straight up into a dense tree for a moving leopard. So the question becomes: do you take the time to change settings or do you shoot? You shoot first, change as you get chances to (in lulls). Unfortunately, this gal didn't give us much lull. From the time we stopped to the moment she killed was probably only two or three minutes, and she was in constant motion until the very end of the process (by which time I notice that I had changed settings enough to get 1/200--still needed more, though). 

She worked her way down from the top of the tree, very rapidly, but absolutely silently. She crossed the road and entered the reeds along the river. 

So did we. 

For a few minutes we played hide and seek with our leopard. The reeds are incredibly dense along the river, so you have only slight gaps here and there that you can peak through, but we managed to keep within a few yards of our targets. Yes, targets. Because through one of those gaps I saw a lone bushbuck walking slowly, and with a distinctive limp. When I first got a good look at the prey, the leopard was already within 10 meters of it. Obviously she had seen it from the tree. Now the leopard was in full stalking mode. When we moved our position to what we hoped was a better spot, the leopardess used that opportunity to close the distance to something less than three meters. Moments later, I saw the classic full crouch, followed by an amazing acceleration into the reeds and the sound of something hitting the reeds. There was no chase, no yelp, no nothing. The leopardess closed that last gap in about a second and hit the prey's neck perfectly. By the time we got the vehicle forward so that we had a clearer view, it was pretty much over. Leopard gripping bushbuck neck and slowly choking it to death:

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No, I didn't have any clear shots during the sequence (the front seat is low and has restricted views, especially when you're in reeds higher than the vehicle's hood). Both the tree and the reeds were so thick and tough to get a good angle through that much of the action was just witnessed, not photographed. Do I care that I didn't get the full sequence of shots? Not really. Kill shots aren't salable. Even the little bit of blood you'll see in these blogs would provoke someone to write and complain to a magazine that ran the picture. 

But kills are the story of the Veldt told in miniature. Everything needs to eat. There are no safe places. 

The story repeats itself constantly, but is rarely seen. Part of that is that many of the predators are more successful in dark, or at least near dark. Part of it is that landscape we're in is immense and the human presence so small. And part of it is the denseness of the bush. The story repeats and repeats, but we mostly just see the remnants of it. 

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Our leopardess ends the day happy. I end the day happy. Or perhaps with a bit schadenfreude. After many trips to Africa over the years I've finally seen the full story in miniature, and it's as amazing and powerful in real life as it is in the tales of the great African storytellers over the years. Our ancestors lived with this happening all around them every day. That they persevered tells you who the real king of the jungle was. But a lot of those kings suffered the same fate as the bushbuck. 

The only bummer: only half my workshop students saw it. Oh well, there's always next trip.

More of Day 9 tomorrow... [looking at images back home I can now figure out what happened the rest of the day ;~]

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