From plated armour and clever camouflage, to speed and even chemical deterrents, the defence strategies of Africa’s wild animals are fascinatingly varied. But sometimes survival comes down to a bit of good fortunate. The award for “Predator Defence Tactic Least Likely to Succeed (But Somehow Did)” goes to an African civet that recently evaded two leopards simply by squatting in a muddy puddle.

The female leopard seemed reluctant to get her feet muddy. The civet can be seen semi-submerged in the water behind her. Image © James Tyrrell/Londolozi
A female leopard descends the marula tree in pursuit of the civet. Image © James Tyrrell/Londolozi

Photographic guide James Tyrrell was on a game drive recently in South Africa’s Londolozi Private Game Reserve, when he heard the distinctive alarm bark of a kudu antelope. Eager to investigate, Tyrrell followed the call and eventually found a female leopard resting in the boughs of a tree – her kudu kill stashed nearby. As the vehicle edged closer, a trio of young civets broke cover and burst from a thicket triggering the leopard to leap down from the branches in hot pursuit.

One of the civets ran towards a small mud wallow and – with little other options available – plunged into the water. “The leopard circled the wallow a few times while the poor civet shivered in the cold water, but [the cat] seemed reluctant to get all muddied up, and simply settled down to wait,” Tyrrell explains over at the Londolozi blog.

The African civet – a member of the viverrid family, which besides other civets includes genets, linsangs, and the binturong – is a mid-sized nocturnal omnivore widespread south of the Sahara. Little is known about these secretive creatures, and it’s unclear how often one might end up on the wrong end of a leopard, but footage from 2009 and 2015 indicates that it does happen on occasion.

When threatened, civets will hiss loudly and make themselves appear larger by fluffing up their fur and erecting a crest of black hairs along their spines. No amount of noise and bravado is likely to deter a hungry leopard, however. While it’s unlikely that leopards will actively hunt civets, they are opportunistic carnivores and will rarely turn down an available meal.

With the chance of survival for the civet already doubtful, a second leopard slinked into the playing field, swinging the odds firmly in favour of the cats. The new interloper – a young male – was more interested, however, in the remains of the female’s kill. After a brief altercation that ended with both cats scaling the marula tree that contained the last stringy bits of a kudu carcass, the young male claimed possession of the kill and settled in to feed, while the female chuffed from higher up.

“We were silently urging the little civet to take its chance and bolt for freedom, when the male [leopard] suddenly noticed it and descended to investigate,“ Tyrrell wrote. Fortune favoured the sodden civet once again as the young male also seemed reluctant to get his feet muddy and turned his attention back to the carcass instead.

After some time, the leopards seemed to lose interest in the civet and it finally made a dash for it. Scampering into a nearby thicket, the racoon-like creature once more attracted the attention of the female leopard who rushed in to investigate. “Fortunately, despite sniffing around intently for a few minutes, she didn’t manage to find where the [civet] had hidden itself,” Tyrrell wrote. “[S]he walked off into the grasslands, leaving the male still chewing on a kudu leg bone and the luckiest civet on Londolozi hiding somewhere among the grass.”

Here's a look at how the action played out:

A final glimpse of the civet as it makes a clean getaway. Image © James Tyrrell/Londolozi