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Caught in the Act
Leopards are very different to Africa's other big cats: Besides being arguably the most beautiful, they are also the ultimate recluses. They are introverts of note, not needing company of any kind, not even from their own kind! Living solitary lives they are also unique in that they stalk to within a yard of their prey before pouncing on it. Lions and cheetahs will chase prey but for a leopard it is all about stealth and agility. Leopards, for me, are just like overgrown pussycats and always reveling in the proverbial game of cat and mouse. Unlike lions and cheetah, the act of hunting is to a leopard pure fun, it is not a chore. It is an obsession! As a result they spend their lives involved in a never ending game of chess with almost every creature, whether big or small. Leopards will eat anything from a dung beetle to a baby giraffe...
Recently on safari, it was our very last morning that our guide thankfully spotted a leopard in an African Ebony tree. We were busy positioning the safari truck when we noticed a herd of impala walking in the direction of the tree. Knowing that the impala would possibly walk below the tree to feed on the fallen fruit, the game was potentially on. The leopard was very high in the tree though but knowing how crazy these cats can be, my heart beat started to quicken. As often happens when a potentially big moment is about to occur, I started speaking to myself, having a conversation in my head to reason as to where we should position the vehicle. Adding to the pressure, the light was good!
Deciding to give a wide berth around the impala, so as not to spook them, we parked so that we would have side light, a clean background and enough distance to make sure we would be able to capture the mad action, if it happened. The next hour was quite plainly - agonizing! Watching the impala mingle beneath the tree with the leopard watching them mingling from above, was for a wildlife photographer, like an alcoholic sitting at a bar in happy hour but knowing you were just biding the time before your AA meeting. Watching her every move through my Nikon 600mm lens I knew that once she hit the deck, I would have too much glass. It was all about her leaping out the tree! Tweaking my camera settings constantly to try and avoid the sky being horribly over exposed, should she leap through it, and continually assessing her body language for the faint nuances that would signal a leap, I was feeling the pressure. Yes, wildlife photographers do have stress, insane stress, sometimes!
I noticed her shuffle her back feet ever so slightly, like a sprinter in the blocks. This was it, the moment a wildlife photographer lives for. Its all about the moment! A photograph is just that, a singular moment, arrested and suspended. A leopard suspended perhaps? Pressing my shutter button as deep as possible without actually taking a photo, I poised over my camera. The leopard poised over the impala. The next couple of seconds were going to be a blur in my mind. At a shutter speed of 1/8000th of a second I was hoping the blur would only be in my mind though.
The leopardess flew out the tree in a literal heartbeat. Only now, looking at the photograph I captured can I see her steely, fixed gaze. Her calmness. Her superb athletic ability. The soft side light, highlighting the graceful arch of her leap. Her tail balancing the pull of gravity. Her perfection. Her poetry in motion. Her outstretched front paws. Her long whiskers. Her steep vertical descent. And gazing at her perfection I am not nearly as impressed by my photograph as I am with her.
She lands amidst a cloud of dust. She lands amidst a herd of impala. The antelope react with lighting speed reflexes and although I had too much glass the 11 frames per second from my Nikon D4s were now very much needed. The leopard's outstretched tail adds an appropriate degree of tension!
I have been fortunate enough to watch leopards hunt impala before and on both occasions the leopardesses seemed to single out an individual amongst the herd. Here you see her, with her gaze fixed squarely on the impala she has selected, which is to your left and out of the frame. The impala in this frame is not the one being hunted.
At this point the leopard continues running down the termite mound in pursuit of her quarry.
She catches up with the impala and the antelope turns the wrong way. Or so it seems? She actually, although turning towards the leopard, makes the correct choice because to the leopard's left there is a log. There is an obstacle in her way. The above 6 frames all happened within a time period of 1 second (I checked the exif data). This gives you an idea of the speed and agility of this leopardess.
The impala gets away. All the impala get away. The leopard lies down in the dirt and debris. She is not in the least bit angered or frustrated. She is just doing what cats do!
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