When a cat fight breaks out in the African bush, the results are sometimes a little disturbing …

A leopard in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park on an African wild cat kill. Image: Gerda and Willie van Schalkwyk

On an early morning game drive in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, an arid wildlife reserve in the west of the southern African subcontinent, photographers Willie and Gerda van Schalkwyk were lucky enough to spot a leopard on the hunt. "Leopards are among the most elusive of cats and we were thrilled," the couple told us via email. "Seeing and photographing a leopard always remains high on our wishlist when we visit Kgalagadi."

There may be fewer than a hundred of these solitary cats roaming the 38,000-square-kilometre (15,000-square mile) reserve, so catching a glimpse of one makes for a story worth sharing.

And this sighting was particularly special. The spotted cat was on the hunt and she had her sights set on an African wild cat. "There were two hunting attempts," the photographers explained. "The first – a sudden and quick dash across the riverbed towards us – ended in the wild cat outrunning her and disappearing."

It seemed as though the bigger cat had given up the chase.
The leopard, known as "Itumeleng", on the hunt. Image: Gerda and Willie van Schalkwyk
Itumeleng pursuing her feline prey. Image: Gerda and Willie van Schalkwyk
On the first hunting attempt, the wild cat managed a hasty getaway. Image: Gerda and Willie van Schalkwyk

The leopard criss-crossed the riverbed, darting in and out of camelthorn trees and marking her territory as she went. "We kept up by following in our vehicle," the duo recalls. "All of a sudden there was a thud and dust and she and the wild cat fell from a tree – from a height of approximately five metres."

After dispatching her prey, the leopard began to play with her bounty, in typical cat fashion, before eventually carrying the unfortunate feline out of view behind a thicket.
Undeterred by the failed attempt, the leopard continued to search the riverbed for a meal. Image: Gerda and Willie van Schalkwyk
Even big cats play with their food ... Image: Gerda and Willie van Schalkwyk
After resting for a while, Itumeleng began playing with her kill. Image: Gerda and Willie van Schalkwyk
After suffocating her prey, the leopard lay down to rest, a small scratch on her cheek marking the spot where the wild cat had fought back. Image: Gerda and Willie van Schalkwyk
The leopard moving her prey away from prying eyes. Image: Gerda and Willie van Schalkwyk
The last view of Itumeleng as she moved off into the distance. Image: Gerda and Willie van Schalkwyk

Apex predators like leopards will readily take on rival species to snub out any competition for food, even if those rivals are fellow felines. As opportunistic hunters, the big cats will prey on anything that's edible (even bloated zebra carcasses), and they're known to have the most varied diet among the arid Kalahari predators. Although the African wild cat is a crafty and powerful predator, it's no match for an adult leopard. 

The leopard in this sighting was later identified as Itumeleng, one of many spotted cats that have been catalogued using the Kgalagadi Leopard Project ID guide, which was started in 2014 by Dr Matthew Schurch. Drawing on approaches used in his work as an astronomer, Schurch systematically compiled reference material for all of the park's leopards in the hope that citizen science might bring new insights about the movements and ecology of these important predators. Each leopard has a unique spot pattern, making it possible to identify individuals from their distinctive coats.

With large home ranges, the ability to adapt to a variety of habitats and a notoriously elusive nature, leopards can be tricky to study, so contributions from citizen scientists are valuable. The project allows regular visitors to the park, like Willie and Gerda, to put a name to each spotted cat they see, while also growing a database of knowledge that could help inform important conservation decisions for the species.

Once widely distributed across much of Africa and Asia, leopard populations have become "reduced and isolated" as a result of habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, prey declines, illegal trade and poorly managed trophy hunting, according to the IUCN

As avid wildlife lovers and nature photographers, Willie and Gerda share a concern for the continent's wild species. "Sadly, there are few places on earth where there is little or none human interference. If humans do not change their attitude towards our fellow creatures on earth, we shall soon have lives devoid of wild animals, and shall be so much poorer for it. We need 'wild' places like Kgalagadi to bring us back to the basics, to put into perspective our own fleeting time on earth."