Dancing with Leopards: A Survivor’s Story

My last thought was “Oh $#!^, this is going to hurt”…

But, the fact that I am now typing this from the comfort of my bed, and I am still in one piece means that, at least this time, I came off unscathed…At the very moment that the events were unfolding, I was not all that convinced that I would.

Having spent almost six years working in the bush, I guess I consider my stories to be a bit boring, especially if I compare them to the tales so wonderfully told by Peter Allison in his books about his guiding experiences. My scary tales involve freaking out because I have a frog on my leg and being afraid to drink a cup of tea that wasn’t made by my mother.

Today’s story however, is like the Usain Bolt of “Chad’s Scary Game Ranger Stories”, it leaves the other stories in the dust. Ironically, it is a story that also almost left me in the dust!

dung beetle, little critters, small wildlife, insects

© Jan Knoop

Setting out with a group of guests on their first safari, we began by enjoying some of the smaller attractions – dung beetles rolling their dung balls along the road. Moving on, my tracker flung up his hand indicating that we needed to stop. At first I was worried I was going to squash a dung beetle, but then I noticed the large drag mark across the road.

We began following it, assuming that it was a drag mark for a leopard’s kill, even though at first we found no sign of the leopard’s tracks. Soon we found the plucked hair of the impala victim. We both carried on tracking the drag mark leading to the nearby road. We jumped ahead to the road, but found no further marks. The kill must’ve been under our noses. Sure enough, I turned and saw the unmistakable shape of an impala. I knew it was dead, as impalas don’t usually sleep so still, nor with their legs up in the air.

We hadn’t wandered far, so we turned around and went back to the vehicle, and this was where I made my near-fatal mistake. They say that assumption is the mother of all f*%$-ups and I nearly proved that that day!

Based on the area we were in, I assumed that the kill belonged to a slightly nervous female leopard. She doesn’t like being tracked on foot, so I assumed that either she had seen us as we jumped off the Land Rover and moved away, or she was off fetching her two cubs. And, having been on both sides of the kill and not having seen a leopard, I think I can be forgiven for thinking that there was no leopard nearby.

Mistake number two came when, on the way back to the vehicle, I took a step towards the impala carcass to see if it had been eaten on, or just disemboweled. No sooner had I taken that one step when time suddenly froze. As soon as the low, guttural growl started coming from the grass on the other side of the kill, I knew that the fan was about to get dirty. I turned to Petros and said “we have to get out of here,” but it was too late.

leopard, leoprad encounters

I wish I could put a time stamp on the events that unfolded in that blinkingly short period of my life.  It felt like forever, but probably lasted no more than 5 seconds – 5 seconds that I will never forget as long as I live! The blur of spots that came hurtling towards me at a frighteningly fast pace will be etched in my mind forever. When we do our training to become a trail guide, we practice shooting the image of a lion being pulled by a human on a set of wheels and have to shoot the target in a “simulated charge exercise”. I can confidently tell you now that, as good an exercise as that is, it happens just a tad quicker in real life. If I had had had my rifle with me, it would still have been on its way up to my shoulder by the time that leopard got to within killing distance of me.

All I can remember thinking as the big cat came bearing down on me was how much this was going to hurt as I half turned my body, bracing for the impact. Every muscle in my body was telling me to run, but a little voice in my head, perhaps inspired by Peter Allison himself, said “whatever you do, don’t run!”, and so my feet remained firmly planted in the sand for a split second longer.

leopard

And this is where my recollection of what happened became a bit of blur. All I can remember is looking at one rather irate leopard standing waving her claws at me from, without exaggerating at all here, about one metre away. What I shouted, how I shouted it, how I clapped my hands and what I did with my feet I can’t confirm. All I do know is that I screamed at this leopard as loudly as I could, and clapped my hands harder than I ever had; adrenalin clearly kicking in instantly!

Doing my best not to run, but at the same time trying to bounce away from the flailing claws of this feline, all the while clapping and screaming, I must have looked like I was doing a rather strange version of the flamenco. At that very point in my life, I actually didn’t give a hoot…even though I was doing this “leopard dance” in full view of my guests! Talk about a welcome to Africa; to go from watching dung beetles merrily roll away dung balls one minute, to watching your guide almost get attacked by a leopard the next.

As much as I can sit and mock my own dancing, it did the trick. At some point between the screams and claps, the leopard decided that she didn’t want to be part of this dance anymore and turned and ran off into the bushes. Petros and I then walked the short distance back to the car and burst out into a rather nervous laughter at the ordeal we had just been through. But, either being too stubborn, or too professional, we both said we were fine and drove to relocate the leopard which strangely, didn’t run away as we approached in the vehicle. This immediately allowed me to realize the error of my ways: the leopard was not the nervous one I expected, but rather the granny of the north, dear old Mbali!

I had to radio someone to tell them about this, and my workmate’s first comment to me was, “Were you shouting?” to which I answered in the affirmative, only to have him reply, “Oh, I told my guests that sound was baboons shouting at a leopard”. Seeing as he was parked some distance away, that made me rather proud of my performance, but I couldn’t help but wonder what he would have said if only he had seen my amazing dancing skills as well!

Keen to visit South Africa? Check out Mosetlha Bush Camp, one of Africa Geographic's Special Places.

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About Chad Cocking

I am a part field guide, part photographer, part tiara-wearing South African based in the Timbavati Private Game Reserve adjoining the Kruger National Park. Over the past six years, I have really settled into life in the bush, and besides living out my childhood dream of being a game ranger, I have developed a passion for capturing the special moments of my daily life on camera. While I don’t think I will ever fully appreciate how fortunate I am to be out in the bush all the time, I do realise that I live the life many can only dream of. I take great pleasure in sharing my magical moments and stories with anyone who cares to listen, and have connected with people from all over the world through my photography. Please feel free to visit my daily blog or my photography page on facebook for updates from the bush.

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  • Rhyan

    Ayyyyyyyyyyyy cant think of anything else to say

  • Jan Knoop

    Great story Chad! I don’t if I would have had the clarity of mind that yoy showed. Probably I would have ended up like the impala: sleeping still, with my legs up in the air…

    Thanks for using my photo of the beetle. Anyone interested in the original:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/joco_knoop/7646041782/in/set-72157630750375108

  • CATT.ZN

    OMG Chad, Insane Story, I hardly blinked I was so engrossed, That must of been such a CRAZY Experience!!!! WOW!!!! Glad you are ok though. Catt :)

  • Dilip Chacko

    Chad I did read this on the Motswari blog but even reading it a second time gave me goose bumps

  • missy davis

    Fantastic story! Glad it all worked out in your favor, the suspense was killing me!

  • Pantheraleo79

    Thank you for sharing Chad – incredible read! Glad your ok . . . . so we can get some more amazing pics to look at :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/DeKat Kiti De Jager

    Janee, all I can think of to say as well is AijaijaijaiJAI!!!! Guess you threw that underwear away. I would have had to. While reading, I could see the whole scene playing in my mind like a movie. You not only have camera skills, seunie, you can paint pictures with words as well.

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.j.luff Stephen James Luff

    Lol…I think I would have died from a heart attack.

  • Africa Inside

    Wow. I am sorry you had to go through this ordeal but glad you have shared it so that others may know that shooting at a predator coming towards you is not our only option. Easy for me to say sitting in the comfort of my Santa Barbara, California living room. I was unclear about the significance of which leopard this was, ie Mbali. Did that seem to make a difference in your mind about her being territorial over her food? Thanks from Lori Robinson (also a AfGeo blogger)

    • Chad Cocking

      Hi Lori!

      Yip, it is the reason our trackers dont track with rifles, as with their experience they know that the chances of getting attacked are so, so low – and chat to the old guys, and they have had experiences that seemed destined to end in death, but they held the nerve and got out of the situation every time!

      as for the leopard; my thought was that it was another leopard, Argyle Jnr female that would likely have just run off when approached on foot….as Mbali has grown up in the area, she has been tracked hundreds and hundreds of times on foot, and has built up a tolerance of trackers on foot, as she knows they wont hurt her, as long as they stay a certain distance from her….this distance changes when cubs or food are present…i had actually been walking closer to her when searching for the kill, but as i was a distance from the kill, she didnt mind (no growling, no running, no charging)…it was only when i got too close to the kill that she felt threatened (i crossed that invisible comfort-zone line) and charged…had she not had the kill, she wouldnt have charged…i also believe that if it had been another leopard, it would not have charged to within a metre of me like she did!!!

      i had heard stories of her charging trackers before, but couldnt believe it as she is the most chilled of our leopards (in a vehicle) and this just proved to me that you can never underestimate any animal in the bush….they are all wild! :)

  • Chad Cocking

    i am so glad that you all enjoyed my story :) was an incredible (albeit temporarily scary) experience!!! look forward to sharing more adventures next year!

  • All4ballet.com

    Amazing! I’m so pleased that you both came off unscathed. Dance crosses all bounderies.