Just after sunrise recently in South Africa's Sabi Sand Game Reserve, a young male leopard spotted a large herd of African buffalo. About 80 of the massive, hot-tempered animals huddled close to stay warm in the cool of early autumn.
Crouched in the cover of tall grass, the big cat pads forward, seeming to think he has a chance at a meal; perhaps he’s seen the calf.
But his rookie attempt only irritates the buffalo. A posse from the herd approaches to assess the danger, and the big cat darts up into the branches of a fallen knob-thorn tree—a lucky escape in a sparse landscape. Veteran wildlife tracker Bennet Mathonsi caught the interaction on camera while on safari for Londolozi, a private game lodge.
The curious herd crowds in under the thorny tree, and after a while, a buffalo stretches his nose up for a sniff—and predator and prey seem to "kiss," just for an instant. (Read about people who live with leopards in the magazine.)
“This is a very rare sight,” says Markus Hofmeyr, chief conservation officer and veterinarian at Great Plains Conservation Foundation in Botswana. “There’s this almost comical energy release to get rid of the tension.”
African buffalo, especially when in attack mode, can be quite inquisitive, adds Hofmeyr, who spent nearly 20 years as a wildlife veterinarian in South Africa.
“They’ve got the leopard up and out of their danger zone,” he says. “Then they wanted to see what he was doing.”
The encounter shows the blurred edges between both animals' playfulness and aggression, he adds. (Watch a porcupine fight off a hungry leopard.)
Pete Thorpe, a conservation ecologist at Londolozi, says the young leopard was probably too brave for its own good. “Had the small branches of the tree snapped, the situation would have been fatal for the leopard," he says.
That's because African buffalo, which reach weights of 1,300 pounds, are extremely aggressive, with sharp horns and hooves that can easily kill a predator.
Way Over Its Head
Why this leopard was hunting buffalo in the first place is another unusual aspect of the episode, according to big cat researcher Thandiwe Mweetwa, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and a wildlife biologist with the Zambian Carnivore Programme.
Leopards, even inexperienced ones, rarely stalk a buffalo herd, Mweetwa says.
“Leopards are normally very cautious because they are solitary animals,” she says. Injuries are more dangerous for an animal without a group to help it survive, which is why leopards are more risk-averse. (See 14 incredible photos of African predators in action.)
For instance, Mweetwa explains, if a leopard kills a puku or an impala, and a hyena shows up before the leopard has pulled the kill into a tree, the spotted carnivore is much more likely to run away than defend its kill.
In the Londolozi case, she says, the leopard “was in way over his head.”