By James Gifford
The constantly evolving Savute ecosystem has produced an amazing array of unusual animal behaviour, but there are few sights that can rival that of a leopard actively fishing in flowing water. The hunt is silent and static: a motionless shadow hovering above a river of prey, the darting movement of a pair of gleaming eyes the only clue to the predator’s intentions. The spell is broken by a sudden, swift leap, its timing impossible to anticipate. A thunderous splash echoes through the darkness until finally, an unforgettable look of smug satisfaction peers out from a dishevelled coat of sopping fur, water streaming from the gills of the catfish trapped in its vice-like jaws.
We don’t know exactly how and when the enigmatic cats acquired this skill, but given that the river had been dry for three decades, it seems clear it was learnt only recently and not (like most mammal behaviour) acquired through the compounded knowledge of previous generations.
Watching the first trickle of water skate down the hot, sandy riverbed in 2010, it seemed scarcely conceivable that just a few years later the same channel would contain colossal catfish (also known as barbel). But as the annual influx of water increased, so did the size of its passengers, swept along by the current, until soon the channel was populated by a piscatorial smorgasbord catering to diners of all tastes and appetites.
An unwelcome surprise awaited the unsuspecting swimmers at the top of the marsh as the channel abruptly divided into dozens of tiny rivulets. For the larger fish, it was a sudden dead end. When the time was right, the leopards focused on a place just above this point where the river became a slender stream winding its way around Motsebe Island.
It is difficult to believe that this grubby graveyard had been a broad, deep river, home to a pod of hippos, just three months earlier. Many of the giant catfish were in fact still alive, patiently waiting to be rescued by a flood that never arrived. Over several days, I watched a steady stream of visitors to what was the last remaining drinking spot, from antelope to elephants – even the Marsh pride dropped by one morning. If the unsuspecting animals ventured too close to the camouflaged catfish, the mud suddenly sprang to life, triggering some amusing reactions.
It wasn’t until 2013, however, that they recognised the dining potential swimming literally beneath their noses. Their first clue came when the water level was at its shallowest, leaving the occasional catfish squirming in the mud. After the first taste, the spotted anglers were hooked, so to speak, and subsequently graduated to hunting in the flowing water.
This was no mean feat, for even after identifying the most productive stretch of river, the window of opportunity was extremely small. The water had to be just deep enough to coax the catfish into swimming the narrow gauntlet, but not so deep that they could easily escape an attack. As soon as it became too shallow, they would flee upstream to the safety of the main river.
Each year, the optimum conditions lasted for just a couple of weeks and, if the flood didn’t reach the marsh (such as in 2015), they didn’t occur at all. If the rains were truly exceptional, the felines might get two bites of the cherry – once around April when the rain-fuelled surge in river flow started to recede and again later in the year after the flood had peaked. But even the most favourable scenario equated to just four weeks in the whole year. And catfish are only active at night.
In addition to the compressed timeframe, it required considerable skill to trap the slippery fish, which possess a Houdini-like ability to escape from the tightest grasp and the sharpest claws. The leopards soon learnt the only way to get a grip on their wriggling victims was to submerge their heads completely and literally sink their teeth into the matter. Seconds later they would reappear, triumphant, eyes glinting in the moonlight.
It is no coincidence that such an unusual hunting strategy was honed by more than one leopard. The female resident at Leopard Rock, known as Saba, taught her fishing technique to a pair of then-adolescent cubs in 2013 and the Motsebe female, who is probably the most prodigious fisher of all, is another daughter from a previous litter.
In 2015 the rapidly shrinking channel gradually imprisoned the river’s inhabitants in a handful of separate pools. For the catfish, used to gorging themselves on anything foolhardy enough to swim (or occasionally fly) too close, the sudden role reversal from predator to prey must have been bewildering.
For the leopards, it was too tempting an opportunity to pass up and the Motsebe female soon arrived at what was once Hippo Pools to take full advantage. Successful at the first attempt, her golden eyes shone triumphantly beneath a mask of mud as she emerged from the mire with her splashing, writhing trophy clasped firmly in her teeth.
After Hippo Pools dried up, The Bend in the River became the last part of the channel with any water and the collection of catfish that slowly materialised from the muddy quagmire would have fed an army of leopards. Initially, the presence of a shy male leopard was enough to deter the females, but when he eventually disappeared, Saba soon arrived. Despite their lifeless appearance, several of the catfish were determined to fight to the bitter end, squirming and slithering in a futile attempt to escape her tight grip.
A couple of months later, in September, Saba was given the perfect opportunity to introduce her latest young cub to the delights of a pescatarian diet. By now all that was left of the channel was one meagre pond situated at The Bend in the River, home to a pod of grunting hippo just a few months earlier. As the summer heat greedily devoured the moisture from the pool, the true scale of the underwater monsters trapped below was slowly revealed.
Initially only a grey mass of slithering flesh was discernible, contorting itself in the baking mud like a fantastical creature from the darkest depths of the ocean. A few days later, the beast had morphed into dozens of individual bodies, some of them well over a metre long, writhing on top of each other in a desperate but futile quest for liquid safety.
In one morning, Saba killed and relocated four catfish, returning in the afternoon to massacre half a dozen more. What had started as a rare opportunity for an easy meal very quickly turned into a killing frenzy, driven not by the need to eat but by primeval instinct and an apparent urge for gratuitous violence. At the time, I naively tried to rationalise her behaviour: perhaps her cub had died, prompting this outburst of rage? But when she fetched Neo at the end of the day, I realised how wrong I had been. What I had witnessed was simply the natural behaviour of a successful predator, a character trait key to its survival which all too often we choose to ignore because it doesn’t conform to the innocent, ‘cute and cuddly’ persona we tend to project onto the planet’s wildlife.
It was a feast that could have fed a hundred leopards, but the continued presence of a belligerent adult male lurking in the shadows was enough to deter at least two females. A third, known as Torn Ear – her scraggy, mud-crusted appearance at odds with her inner audacity – attempted a couple of daring smash-and-grab raids, the last of which resulted in some fresh scars and an enforced change of scenery.
Eventually the male moved on and Saba plundered the pool of its riches in one bloody afternoon. Plucking the still-struggling catfish from the quagmire one by one, she disdainfully discarded all but the largest specimens, leaving their chewed corpses scattered on the cratered floor.
After stashing a fistful of monster meals in various bushes and trees, she finally hauled a shark-sized supper back for her five-month-old cub, the exertion of which left her breathless for several minutes afterwards.
It was difficult to appreciate the true size of the river monsters when they were half-concealed in the mud. Only when Saba started to haul them out, did the sense of scale hit home. The girth of some of the catfish was greater than their captor’s neck and they were almost as long. In truth, they looked more like sharks than fish and the strain Saba showed while lugging them up the riverbank was a true indication of their weight. After all, this was a predator who regularly leapt up vertical tree trunks carrying male impalas.
It was the youngster’s first introduction to sushi – something which could prove vital in the months and years to come. The fishing skills of his older siblings, for example, provided a timely alternative source of food during adolescence when all too often, traditional prey seemed too alert, too fast or simply too dangerous. Even during adulthood, the ability to adapt can often mean the difference between survival and starvation, especially in the constantly changing world of Savute.
This beautiful story is an excerpt from Savute - Botswana's Wildlife Kingdom - by James Gifford