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Predator Pandemonium at Chitabe

In this week's Safari Stories episode, we come to you from the renowned Chitabe, whose reputation as one of the top camps in one of the most productive parts of the Okavango does not disappoint one bit as predators show up in numbers. They include a cheetah mother with SIX cubs, a young leopard trying not to drop its impala meal, and four lions that try to ruin the leopard’s day.

We are still in the Okavango Delta but this week are talking about our time at Chitabe, a camp that Hadley and I have had the pleasure of visiting only once before and whose reputation precedes it. Chitabe is further south in the Delta from Tubu Tree -it’s actually closer to Moremi Game Reserve, but with good water available throughout the year and a variety of habitats. It is known for its excellent predator sightings.

This became obvious to us within five minutes of landing as we immediately came across a cheetah mother beside the airstrip, who, along with her SIX cubs, was taking a break in the midday heat. The cubs were about 9-10 months old and our guide Tank told us that this was the second litter of six this female has managed to raise (consercutively), a testament to her skills as a hunter and mother.

A 9-month old cheetah cub: mischief managed. Photo by Jomi

We noticed that one of the cheetah cubs was lying down right next to quite a fresh impala kill and the cheetah, as they so often are, were on high alert, constantly scanning around them for other predators that might seek to take their kill from them. It was a reasonably hot and windy day and a random noise or scent on the wind startled the cheetah family, sending them suddenly scampering in all directions. Bolting in different directions is an evolutionary strategy different animals use to confuse their pursuers. When they realized that there was no threat around, the cheetahs returned slowly to where the impala carcass was and one by one started feeding. They were already quite full with round bellies; cheetahs like most other cats tend to gorge themselves as much as physically possible in case they lose their food. Unfortunately, Hadley and I had put our camera bags onto the luggage vehicle at the airstrip, so the footage from this sighting is limited. Nevertheless an incredible introduction to Chitabe (which isn’t named after cheetah).

5 of the 6 cubs take a break while mum stalks an impala close by. Photo by Jomi

The following morning we managed to find the little family again; they had moved during the night. While this is common for cheetah, they are considered more diurnal cats than lions and leopard for example. We had some lovely views of the whole family of seven as they slowly sauntered through an open area and showed some interest in an impala in the distance. With six additional mouths to feed, the mother was likely hunting every day. There was a spell of about half an hour where the mother was crouched down and intently looking at an impala on the other side of a clearing but simultaneously a different impala had likely seen one of the cubs moving and was on high alert. It would have certainly sounded the alarm if either the cubs or their mother moved, and the mother seemed to be aware that her cover was blown and that a hunt attempt would be a waste of her energy. We decided to carry on. In the following days at Chitabe we encountered another different male cheetah, who had also just brought down an impala and was recuperating in the shade of a termite mound. Seeing so many cheetahs in one place is far from common for most safari areas in Africa. Cheetah is the most threatened of the large cats and habitat fragmentation over the past century has meant that surviving cheetah populations have been forced into protected areas where predatory density and associated interspecific competition for prey is high.

Cheetah’s historical range (light colored areas) vs present range (dark colored areas)

In the podcast episode, we also discuss another phenomenal sighting we had on our first afternoon game drive at Chitabe.

Quite close to camp, we came across a young male leopard of around 2 years of age. He was semi-independent already, and we had heard that his sister from the same litter was also in the same area. The leopard was at the base of a Leadwood tree, actively moving around and making soft contact calls to its sister who we could not see. The male eventually clambered into the tree, climbing onto a fairly high branch where an adult male impala carcass was stashed. He started to feed and we watched for about half an hour as the leopard tore flesh from bone. During the process, he would reposition both himself and the impala carcass, which at times looked dangerously close to falling, yet amazingly never did.

Nature is all about balance. Photo by Jomi

Our guide Tank described the young male leopard’s efforts and abilities to maneuver the heavy carcass in the tree as surprising and impressive, as his mother did not have a disposition for hoisting carcasses into trees and his ability to do so was purely instinctual (rather than learned). In certain areas, leopards are more predisposed to treeing their carcasses, however, it is still very much down to the individual leopard and some favour the behaviour far more than others. After he had finished feeding, the young male clumsily climbed down from the tree at which point we decided we would leave him to his own devices and go for a sundowner.

Leopard, like other predators, have carnassials--specially adapted molars used to ‘shear’ flesh from bone. Photo by Jomi

We left the island the leopard was on and skirted the edge of a nearby floodplain. In the distance a couple of giraffe were staring intently in one direction. A quick scan through our binocs and lo and behold, quite close to them, walking quickly and with purpose was a lioness. Her head was down, she was showing absolutely no interest in the nearby giraffe but was beelining straight across the floodplain. Following her, we soon realised, were a further three lions who all seemed to have caught the scent of something. Their pace quickened as they crossed the floodplain in a hurry and eventually were trotting briskly, passing our game viewer quite closely.

They walked onto an island and in the excitement we hadn’t realised (well, maybe Tank had) that this was the very same island the leopard with the kill had been on. Now understanding the lions' motives, we drove straight back to where the kill in the tree was. The lions appeared out of the shadows like a SWAT team breaking into a building; it felt like utter pandemonium. The leopard that had still been at the base of the tree, sprinted out of sight and the lions swarmed the tree, clearly smelling the carcass. A couple of them stood directly below the carcass, picking up a few scraps, licking the ground and looking up at where the impala was. While three of them knew it was far out of their reach, a fourth lion, a young male affectionately known by the guides as ‘Scotty’ almost looked like he wanted to climb into the tree but decided it wasn’t worth the effort. The lions disappeared into the night as silently as they had appeared. We scanned the surrounding area and found the leopard, high up in a jackalberry tree, panting and looking around nervously. It had been a close call and he knew it. We decided it would be better and less intrusive to leave the area so that the leopard could regather itself and focus its senses solely on surviving the evening.

What a first few days it had been at Chitabe. Join us next week as we talk about some of the other things we saw while in this incredible area!

Tune in! You can listen to the Safari Stories podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcast, our website, or wherever you listen to your podcasts! Links below.

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