The activities of Africa's nocturnal hunters often go unseen, concealed by the cover of night. But earlier this year, one field guide in South Africa got lucky: she came across a pair of leopards tussling in the treetops and managed to capture some remarkable footage of the night-time sighting.

The video drops us right in the action: a female leopard, glowing white in the beam of a spotlight, crouches defensively on a leafless bough. A fresh antelope carcass draped in the fork of the branches below her is attracting unwanted attention from other predators. On the ground, a second leopard approaches purposefully, pausing to avoid a clash with a hyena that's standing guard at the base of the tree.

Field guide Chene Wales-Baillie captured this tense footage in northern Sabi Sand, a cluster of private game reserves huddled against the western boundary of South Africa's Kruger National Park. It's an area famed for its abundance of leopards, and many of the resident cats have been given names by local guides and researchers.

The leopard snarling from her elevated perch is Tiyani (meaning "strong one") – a cat famous enough to have not just one, but two Facebook profiles created in her honour. Born in May 2015, she's a familiar sight to the guides of northern Sabi Sand. 

Tiyani photographed near Nkorho Bush Lodge, Sabi Sand. Image: Manuel Graf Photography

Less is known about the interloper moving in to snatch Tiyani's hard-earned meal. Called the Ingrid Dam female, this leopard is an uncommon visitor in these parts, and it's possible that she spends much of her time prowling the vehicle-sparse areas adjoining the popular reserves. On this day, however, the Ingrid Dam female chose to make her presence known.

The cats exchange growls until more hyenas charge into the fray, sending the grounded leopard slinking into the shadows. In the branches, meanwhile, pressure is mounting on Tiyani. Although the hyenas can't snatch the carcass from her lofty cache, one wrong move and she could drop the meal to the hungry horde waiting below.

Despite their size and strength, leopards are outranked by most of Africa's big predators (barring their sleeker cousins, the cheetahs). To avoid losing meals to thieving hyenas and lions, many leopards cache their bigger kills in trees and return nightly to feed. A mid-sized antelope could provide several meals for an adult leopard, so this is not a carcass that Tiyani wants to surrender.

With hyenas circling in the undergrowth and a rival cat planning a carcass-snatching siege, Tiyani must wait it out. The hyenas become increasingly excited, jostling for prime position, and the Ingrid Dam leopard sees her moment to bound up the tree trunk.

But Tiyani is not giving up this kill without a fight. She grips the lifeless impala and tries to manoeuvre it to a safer spot as the challenging cat sinks her teeth into the carcass. A meaty tug-of-war ensues, complete with a cacophony of rasping growls. Neither cat is willing to back down. The challenger charges in again, and the predators meet in a ball of claws, teeth and spotted pelts. This time, though, the scuffle has cost both animals a meal. In the melee, the rival leopard loses her balance and tumbles, along with the prized carcass, towards the hyenas waiting below. Game, set, match.

Leopards are considered solitary cats and interactions like this are rarely witnessed, although it's possible they occur quite regularly. "Leopards commonly pirate kills from one another," explains Dr. Guy Balme, Leopard Program Director for Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organisation. "Our recent study on leopard caching behaviour showed that leopards in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve typically lose a fifth of their kills to other carnivores. Spotted hyenas are the most common culprits, accounting for half of all kills lost, but leopards come in next, accounting for 40% of kills stolen."

A three-way carcass clash recorded in Londolozi Private Game Reserve in 2012.

It is more common for male cats to steal kills, but females will also clash over food. As a transient subadult, Tiyani is particularly susceptible to carcass theft from a rival, resident cat. "It’s also worth noting that leopards do not always chase each other off kills," Dr Balme adds. "On at least a third of occasions where we documented intraspecific kleptoparasitism (i.e. leopards scavenging kills from other leopards), the leopard which originally made the kill was able to continue feeding in tandem with the scavenger."

In this case, however, both leopards lost out to one of the hyenas who proudly marched off with the impala carcass firmly gripped in its jaws. "You don't get to see it in the video, but as the one female fell from the tree, she fell into the frenzy of hyenas below and bounced out of them, then ran off before the impala kill fell to those hungry mouths," explains Wales-Baillie.

Some of the most interesting wildlife interactions play out under the cover of darkness – this is one of the reasons why African game reserves offer the option of guided night drives (an ideal encounter, however, is one that causes minimal disturbance to the animals, and in this case, a red filter on the spotlight would have made this viewing less intrusive).

"This was an extremely rare sighting for me. In almost two years of guiding I have never seen two leopards fighting, let alone up a tree over a kill. It was amazing!" adds Wales-Baillie.



Header image: Rogan Templer