How to get an enormous python out of a tree

Words and photos by Villiers Steyn

“Guess who’s been found?” asked our ranger, Morné Fouché, around seven o’clock on a nippy winter’s morning. “It’s Tingana, and he’s not alone!”

Tingana is a well-known, extremely relaxed male leopard that roams the northern Sabi Sands and an animal that we always hope to find on our ODP Safaris to Elephant Plains. Up until then he’d been eluding us like a spotted ghost, leaving only tracks to torment us.

“Apparently he’s feeding on something, but we’ll have to wait for one of the other guys to pull out before we can go closer”. That’s the rule in the Sands – only three vehicles per sighting – and it’s a good one. The less pressure you put on leopards, the more likely they are to ignore you when you get close, like Tingana seems to do 99% of the time you follow him.

A leopard pulling a snakes body down from a tree
The leopard still trying to pull the python out of the tree, much of the tail has been devoured

Finally, after what felt like an eternity, we pulled into a small clearing and there he was right in front of us, sitting at the base of a small red bushwillow tree looking up at the remains of what we estimated to be a four-metre long African rock python. Its head was still intact, but its low-hanging tail had been devoured by, well, probably Tingana and everyone else that had found it there before him.

“You won’t believe it, but the other rangers say that a honey badger killed the snake and then dragged it into the tree. They saw him feeding here last night”, explained Morné. What we would have given to have been there!

Nature is full of surprises – even the industrious Tingana couldn’t pull the snake out of the tree. No matter how hard he tugged at the reptile’s thick, scaly body, it was wedged in so well that its lifeless head, which hung higher up in the canopy, hardly moved. His frustration was tangible. He paced up and down next to the tree, jerked on the snake’s body a few more times, and then the penny dropped – he’d have to go up to untangle the mess.

Leopard thinking how to get the python out of the tree
The leopard jumping to get the python out the tree

In a single bound he was half-way up the tree and with nothing to lose he bit the python’s body about a metre and a half behind the head…and then he let go of the tree with his paws. For a second he was suspended in midair, hanging by his teeth, but then his weight dislodged the snake’s body, causing the massive reptile to drop to the ground with an almighty thud. The python dwarfed Tingana, who quickly caught his breath before dragging his half-eaten prize a hundred metres to a much larger tree in which he could eat safely and much more comfortably.

The spectacle lasted only 11 minutes, but everyone on our vehicle agreed that it had been our best leopard sighting ever. It’s one thing seeing a big male leopard like Tingana, but seeing him opportunistically scavenging a colossal python right in front of us, in stunning light…that’s once-in-a-lifetime stuff!


The leopard jerking the python out of the tree
One more tug

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The leopard finally got the python out of the tree