Safari-goers in South Africa’s Kruger National Park witnessed a rare event when a young leopard cub’s curiosity leads to a showdown with a massive rock python hidden among the tall grass.
“Where is the python? I don’t see it, but I can hear it,” one of the tourists says just moments before the snake—which onlookers describe as huge—launches out at the feline predators.
Tourists visiting Kruger, one of South Africa’s oldest game reserves, captured the footage while on safari in July 2016 (the video surfaced online this week).
The morning was off to an exceptional start when the group spotted a leopard—whose populations are the most widespread of all the big cats—in a tree. The stunning cat eventually came down and called for its cub, leading to a mother and child wildlife interaction that many people hope to see on safari. That was only the beginning. (Learn more about Saba, the fierce leopard mother from Savage Kingdom.)
The cub went off exploring near the tourists’ vehicles when it came across a large rock python, which at nearly 20 feet is Africa’s largest snake. It’s also known for its sometimes aggressive behavior, experts say.
Rock pythons have a reputation for being so ill-tempered “they come out of the egg striking,” said Kenneth Krysko, senior herpetologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, in a previous interview with National Geographic.
That’s exactly what the agitated snake did. Footage shows the snake lunge forward, its mouth open, at the cub, who jumps back and swats the air in self-defense. The tourists gasp, oh-ing and ah-ing like they’re ringside at a boxing match.
Though rock pythons are not venomous, they kill animals by encircling them and squeezing them to death. They have been known to attack anything from small animals to large antelopes and, occasionally, people.
The fight continues as the mother leopard steps in and the cub retreats to a safer spot off in the distance. The guide points out the snake’s body language. “See how the snake is curling the tail up, almost as if it’s in the striking position,” he says.
Rock pythons also have long, curved teeth that can easily inflict deep wounds on their prey. At one point in the video, the enormous reptile does get a bite of its feline attacker, but not enough to put the mother leopard out of the game. In the end, after a tumultuous battle, the mother leopard kills the snake, sharing its carcass with the cub as a meal.
Leopards are skilled hunters that often carry their victims into the trees, where they dine on their kill, above the jaws of hyenas or other rivals. Yet despite their hunting prowess and ability to adapt to their environment, the species is at risk, with many of its populations—particularly those outside of Africa—considered endangered.