Leopards are among the most secretive of the big cats and seem to have an uncanny awareness of their surroundings which allows them to melt away undetected. But even these experts in elusiveness let their guard down on occasion. Recent footage from South Africa's Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve shows a leopard only barely escaping the clutches of a lion that managed to stalk within metres of the spotted cat before launching a charge.

Safari guide Ahmed Laher was taking guests on an early morning game drive when he came across a leopardess resting under a tree. "We sat and watched her for about 20 minutes," Laher explained to Latest Sightings. "She eventually got up and was in stalking mode and very focused on what was ahead of her." With the leopard entirely engrossed in ambushing an impala for breakfast, a male lion was able to slowly creep up from some distance away – his presence undetected by the preoccupied leopard.

"It was nail-biting as he [the lion] kept getting closer and closer," Laher recalled. "He was silent and closing in on her inch by inch." Finally, after an intense and careful approach, the lion made his move and lunged towards the leopard with a guttural snarl. The leopard spotted the advancing threat just in time and retreated into a thicket before bounding up a tree to relative safety. Adult lions are too heavy set to be accomplished climbers and the leopard clambered to the highest point of a tree where it's unlikely the much-larger cat would follow. She remained in her lofty retreat while the lion dozed at the base of the tree. "He eventually got tired of waiting for her and wandered off," Laher explained.

In a lion-leopard face-off, the bigger of the two species has a definite advantage. Even the largest leopards are at least 20 kilograms shy of the smallest lions. So when leopards encounter their tawny adversaries in the wild, their first instinct is to flee, typically into the safety of the treetops.

In some areas, lions may be responsible for as much as 20% of all leopard mortalities, so it's important for the smaller cats to steer clear of their stronger rivals. For the most part, the two species stay out of each other's way: leopards usually target small- to medium-sized prey, while lions opt for more sizeable quarry like adult buffaloes. 

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Top header image: Jessica Shippee/Flickr