Showdown In The Serengeti

Showdown In The Serengeti

By Carol L. Bowman


hiena-leopardoThey stood face to face, not more than ten feet apart, and bored into each other’s eyes with laser intensity. Their fierce control showed such rigidity that neither allowed an involuntary blink. The rise and fall of their chests shouted-out brutal tension, but the silent exchange of air masked the carnivorous intent of both participants. As they inhaled and exhaled with heavy draws, the detected flare of their nostrils exposed a rhythmic movement on otherwise stone-like statues. A visible stream from their noses vaporized in the vast plain’s cool, dewy morning.  Frozen in position, these two duelers waited for that inevitable moment, when one would make the fated move.

A chilly, gentle breeze, in tandem with a mango sunrise, framed the Serengeti backdrop. The rustle of the tender wisps of tall grass created the only audible sound of wild-wheat caught in a draft. We peered at the unfolding confrontation taking place under the far reaching branches of a flat-topped acacia tree.

Peter lifted the radio microphone from its holder and whispered a message in Swahili to other guides listening nearby. “Roger, that,” an unknown voice echoed back. Within seconds, we saw dust rising from all directions and heard the muffled sound of tires rolling over the dry, scorched earth. Despite the noisy commotion of onlookers arriving by the jeep-full, the two competitors refused to be distracted and remained motionless. They found themselves on the Serengeti’s stage, as eager spectators stretched their necks out of the vehicles’ open roof-tops. Geared-up for the performance with binoculars and cameras with high-powered lenses in hand, the crowd waited for the showdown.

Both predators wore spotted coats. One, sleek and shiny with organized rosette design, glistened in the morning sun; the other appeared mangy and rough, with an irregular pattern of brown and black round disks imbedded in its long, unruly hide. Aware of his high position of power and speed within the order of the animal kingdom, the leopard scoffed at the hyena’s attempt to intimidate.  The cat looked up at his recent kill, flung over an upper limb of the acacia tree in his lofty lair, where it remained protected from the hungry scavenger.

Using a zoom lens, I viewed the mangled throat of the Thompson’s Gazelle, as droplets of blood oozing from its torn flesh, fell through the air and splattered on the grass below. The leopard lapped his tongue in anticipation of the fruits of his labor. The hyena drooled for the scraps. Both maintained their positions.  Although the hyena is not considered a predator of the leopard, it can be very slick in stealing away a leopard’s kill. The leopard, an expert tree-climber, definitely had the advantage.

The audience waited for action-one hour drifted into two. Patience demands respect in the Serengeti; for the animals, it’s by instinct for survival; for tourists, it’s by choice for the thrill of a photo.

Finally the leopard tired of the game. He raised his nose into the air, sniffing the scent of his dinner as it floated to ground level. It was time to end the stalemate, time to demonstrate his prowess as superior, time for the showdown. With the speed of light, the leopard accelerated past the hyena and scaled up the trunk of the acacia with grace, his claws barely skimming over the bark’s surface.

Upon reaching the coveted food source that lay draped over the limb, the leopard tore a piece of meat from the gazelle’s ravaged throat. In triumph, from his arrogant perch, he lowered his regal head to offer the hyena a dismissive glance. Balancing his massive body on the slim branch with his long tail, the big cat appeared to have the equilibrium of a tightrope walker. His silhouette against the rising Serengeti sun hushed the witnesses into silence.

Above, the black and yellow-spotted beauty gnashed the flesh between his powerful jaws. Below, the empty-bellied loser sulked in the rustling grass, waiting for the meager droppings to fall. We slid back into the leather seats of the Land Cruiser and headed back to our tented camp for another sumptuous meal, prepared by our safari chef. Life is good on the Serengeti unless you are a Thompson Gazelle or an outwitted hyena.

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