In a feline face-off between lion and leopard, the larger species has a clear advantage. Even the heftiest leopards come up about 20 kilograms shy of the smallest lions, and the latter rarely travel alone. So when leopards encounter their tawny adversaries, they typically flee as quickly as they can, usually into the safety of the treetops where adult lions are unlikely to pursue them. But when a leopard in South Africa's Kruger National Park recently found itself surrounded by a pride of lions an arboreal escape was not an option. This cat had to stick it out.

Professional guide Kerry Balaam was taking guests on a game drive in the southern section of the reserve earlier this month when she came across a pride of lions. The cats were on the move so Balaam followed unaware that a leopard was lurking nearby. Suddenly two of the lions bolted towards a bush, scaring a leopard from its hiding spot and sending it running to some rocks close by. "Within moments, the whole pride was surrounding the leopard!" she told Latest Sightings.

Although it's a powerful predator, the leopard’s solitary habits and relatively small size put it at risk when facing off against carnivorous rivals. The solitary cats are outranked by most of Africa's big predators, and they lose as many as a fifth of their meals to other carnivores like wild dogs and hyenas whose strength in numbers allow them to easily chase the cats off their kills. Lions are an even bigger menace.

A study conducted recently in the Greater Kruger Park found that lions account for over 20% of leopard mortalities. Despite this, leopards do not actively avoid their bigger rivals and the cats often inhabit the same territories. For the most part, the two species coexist peacefully: leopards usually target small- to medium-sized prey, while lions opt for more sizeable quarry like adult buffaloes. When they do clash, however, it's the larger cats that almost always come out on top.

If a leopard finds itself cornered by a pride of lions, its best chance at survival is to act ultra submissive. The roly-poly routine that you can see in the video is a cat's way of saying "I know I am vanquished but I appeal to your sense of compassion," explains Dr. Paul Funston, Lion Program Senior Director and Southern Africa Regional Director for Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organisation. Funston points out that the leopard is a fully grown male, so if the cats did come to blows it's possible that there would be injuries on both sides. "I would bet if this leopard was young or perhaps even a female things might have turned out differently," he adds.

The leopard repeatedly rolled over,and cautiously waited for an opportunity to flee. "He obviously doesn't want to try running in front of them because that would instigate a reaction out of the pride," says Kris Everatt, Mozambique Lion Project Manager for Panthera. Even when the opportunity seems to present itself, the leopard continued to show submission. "He may have thought that a lion was still standing over him even after the female moved off and then jumped up and flipped over a second time because he got a fright."

Eventually, the cat spots a gap and takes it. "The lions gave a bit of a chase after the leopard, but then carried on sleeping on the rocks for the rest of the day, as lions do!" Balaam quips. 

Altercations like this likely happen more often than we know, but luckily for this leopard, the lions weren't up for a fight.

Top header image: Mihael Hercog/Flickr