She is the ultimate predator – a sleek and stealthy killer. Pouncing on her prey, she silences the baboon with one swipe of a vicious paw. Then, suddenly, something stirs in the dead animal’s fur, and the law of the jungle is rewritten.
From the bedraggled pelt of her kill crawls a tiny infant – a one-day-old baboon. In that moment, this young leopard forgets she is a hunter, and nurtures the baby baboon as if it were her own cub.
Smelling blood, a pack of hyenas gather to finish off the kill. Legadema, as she has been named by the camera crew who took these moving shots, carefully carries the baby baboon high up into a tree for protection. There, she cuddles the newborn to her for warmth through the long, African night.
“It was as if nature had turned on its head completely,” says Dereck Joubert, a filmmaker who followed Legadema for three-and-a-half years in her natural habitat, the Okavango Delta of Botswana – the verdant flood plains known as Africa’s Garden of Eden.
“She had killed the mother primate, but then found this live new-born on the ground. The little baboon called out, and we thought we were going to hear a major crunch and the leopard smacking its lips, but instead the baby baboon put its paws out and walked towards the young leopard.
“Legadema paused for a moment, apparently not knowing what to do. Then she gently picked it up in her mouth, holding it by the scruff of its neck and carrying the infant up a tree to keep it safe.”
Baboons are arch enemies of the leopard, and one of their major food sources, but Legadema – the local Setswana word for “light from the sky” – was in the transitional stage between cub and predator, and it seems her maternal instincts came to the fore.
The film crew kept watch through the night. “Several times, the baby baboon fell out of the tree,” says Joubert. “Each time, Legadema raced down to pick her up before the hyenas descended, and carried her back up to safety.
“The baboon clearly thought of Legadema as a surrogate mother. For several hours, they nestled in the tree.”
He adds: “Legadema was like a cat looking after her own kitten, rather than predator and prey. She was part inquisitive cub, part mother -and forgot momentarily that she was a hunter. It was quite extraordinary and very moving to watch.”
Tragically, when morning came, the camera team realised that the tiny baboon was no longer showing signs of life. “We think it was simply too small to survive the night without its natural mother and the sustenance she could provide,” says Joubert. “As the sun came up, Legadema realised that the baby had died, and moved on.”
Joubert observed this scene while filming a wildlife documentary, Eye Of The Leopard, which follows Legadema from birth to adulthood. “We came across a mother leopard and her eightdayold cub, Legadema, and followed her as she grew up,” he explains.
“We were filming the adult leopardess when this adorable little cub stuck her head out of the log which was their den. It was possibly the first time she had ventured into the outside world, and she stumbled around in the sunlight, falling over as if she were drunk.”
On finishing their project, the film crew left Legadema to follow her own path in the wild – but they still check up on her occasionally.
Joubert adds: “We have just heard that she will soon have her own baby to care for, just as she cared for that tiny day-old baboon.” Eye Of The Leopard premieres on National Geographic HD Channel on Sunday, December 17, at 8pm and launches the new channel Nat Geo Wild in March 2007