Our Ultimate Botswana expedition arrived at Chitabe Camp in the Okavango Delta of Botswana on August 26, 2010. After settling into camp we set off on our first afternoon drive, which was to be more of an exploratory drive than anything else. Little did we know how quickly things would change!
After about an hour of driving slowly, looking at various birds, some giraffe, a few elephants and lots of impala, we came around a corner and spotted a couple of elephant bulls to the left of the road. As the vehicle came to a stop, our guide suddenly called out: “Leopard!”
He pointed to a large marula tree further down the road and there, lying on a thick branch, his coat lit golden by the afternoon sun, was a large male leopard. We forgot all about the elephants and trained our binoculars onto the tree. It was only then that we saw a second, smaller leopard, lying on another branch to the right of the male. We approached slowly and parked closer to the tree to watch these beautiful animals as they rested in the tree, the elephants deeding quietly 300 feet away.
After about 10 minutes, the female got up and leapt across the tree to where the male was lying and began to rub her body up and down the side of the male. He responded with growls and snarls and then got up and climbed down from the tree, with the female in close pursuit. As soon as they got to the ground, the female crouched down in front of the male and he mounted her. The mating lasted a few seconds and he leapt off with a loud growl as she struck at him with her front paw.
About 30 seconds later she walked up to the male again, flaunted herself in front of him and crouched down again. In the space of half an hour we watched about 10 matings take place! It is most unusual to watch leopards mating and even more unusual to see them mate so often.
As they moved around through an area of palm thickets, the leopards eventually got so close to the elephants that one of them gave them a little charge just to get them out of the way of his feeding area.
Eventually, the leopards moved from the palm thickets into a more open area beneath some large African ebony trees. The male climbed into the largest tree and roused a Verreaux’s eagle owl out of the foliage. The owl flew into a neighboring tree and then proceeded to give a single hoot call repeated every 30 seconds or so as he stared back at the leopard in the tree. In my nearly 30 years as a wildlife guide, I have never heard this call from a Verreaux’s eagle owl before.
After a few minutes, the owl swooped down to the ground away from the tree and began to flap around on the ground. I assumed that it had attacked something, but from my position in the vehicle, could not see what it was. After a minute or so of flapping, the owl flew back up to its perch, empty-handed, and began giving the hoot call again.
The female leopard then came up to the ebony tree and also climbed into it. When she got into the higher branches, the owl flew down to the ground and began flapping its wings on the ground again, before flying back up to it perch. We spent another half an hour or so with the leopards as they rested in the tree and all that time the owl kept giving its “hoot” call.
I have never seen Verreaux’s eagle owl behave in this manner before and I suspect that the owl may have had a nest in the tree that the leopards were resting in and that he was trying to attract the leopards away from the nest by means of decoy behavior and a hooting “alarm” call. The literature that I have looked at makes no mention of this possible decoy behavior in Verreaux’s eagle owl.
The wonderful thing about the trips that we do into the wilds of Africa is that there will always be something new to see.