I sat staring, my jaw hanging open. No more than 10 feet from me, Xongila, an adolescent female leopard, was practicing pouncing on a lifeless impala. The prey was still fully intact — its fur gleaming, its black eyes open, and its mouth gently pulled back. It was clear that this was a fresh kill, hunted just hours earlier.
Xongila paced away a few feet, then turned her head and stared at the carcass. She moved slowly towards her prey a second time — back arched, shoulder blades protruding. With a swift move, she was on top of the impala, biting directly into its neck. I glanced around our jeep at the other passengers — Angeli Gabriel, writer and host with National Geographic and Alex Goetz and Justin Grubb, winners of the company’s “Wild to Inspire” film contest. Everyone wore the same expression: “I can’t believe I’m watching this right now.” We all cringed in unison as bones cracked like hard candy under Xongila’s bite.
James Hendry, our NatGeo WILD safari guide, explained that Xongila was practicing important hunting skills, which would be essential once she was on her own. Her mother, Karula, was known by the NatGeo team as an excellent caregiver, having successfully raised 10 cubs (a huge feat in the big cat world). She sat nearby, unfazed by her daughter’s mischief. Karula kept nodding off as the young leopard went back and forth between her mother and the impala carcass. The two cats were up on a hill, out in plain sight and our view of them couldn’t have been clearer.
Watching this play out, I was struck by how similar the scene was to a mother and child relationship in the human world. Child playing with a toy at a safe distance, mother napping nearby while keeping an eye on the child. At one point Xongila accidentally bit down on her mother’s tail, and Karula barred her teeth and hissed with irritation.