A sight eternally etched into my memory involves the fleeting glimpse of leopard rosettes darting through a thicket only a meter ahead of a lioness and the rest of her pride. It was a May morning in 2015 and the burst speed of these contrasting coats frightened me as there was no time even to comprehend what was happening in front of us or to realise the potential consequences of a leopard being caught by a lion. Thankfully, the flash of rosettes redirected at a right angle and settled high up a dead tree to reveal a clearly frightened Mashaba female, whilst the Tsalala pride of seven circled below with itchy claws and flicking tails.
It does happen, from time to time, when competing predators unwittingly meet during their nightly movements, and when a lioness outweighs a female leopard three times over, the latter tends to retreat high up into branches, well out of a lion’s reach. It was an incredible event to witness and while rangers, trackers and guests alike were pleased with the result, there was additional information adding to the universal relief; two evenings prior to this the Mashaba female was heavily pregnant, and clearly no longer. She was a new mother!
The realisation that at some point the day before, possibly even that night, she had given birth to a secret litter made it all the more comforting that she had managed to escape the charging lions and live another day in order to care for her helpless cubs most likely hidden somewhere nearby!
What followed has been an amazing 16 months of nurture and protection, to bring the one surviving female cub to where she is today.
Several den sites were used by the Mashaba female throughout the first year of her 2015 litter’s life, and both the small cubs (one male and one female) remained well hidden for months. Only the lucky few were privileged enough to spend any sort of time with them and their mother until they were four months old when easier viewing began to occur. But soon after reaching six months of age the young male vanished, most likely to a scavenging hyena, although general observations within the Sabi Sands and surrounding areas indicate a very wide range of threats to leopard cubs.
Curiosity continued to grapple with the young female as she grew under her mother’s guidance and was soon a hit with all who saw her as her character emanated through playful bouts with her mother at any chance possible.
The warmth around this duo flourished well in 2016 and the youngster quickly began exploring without her mother’s supervision, climbing lots of high trees, traversing the deep drainage lines and even stalking large prey just for practice. For the majority of the past six months, the young female would spend at least two days alone while the Mashaba female would patrol the outer boundaries of her territory and then hunt closer to its central area, where the two leopards would share in the meal should a kill be made by the mother. However, the past several weeks have hinted towards a change in the dynamic between the two…
The Mashaba young female has started showing real signs of independence by spending extended periods of time apart whilst still remaining within her mother’s territory. Recently, the Mashaba female had herself an adult ram impala kill which she hoisted into a large Marula tree and the young female never showed up for a share in the meal. This has been the first time, in our observations, that the Mashaba young female has not joined her mother on a large kill in the heart of her territory at all, and may be the clear action of an enforced independence from her mother.
During these periods apart, the Mashaba young female is most likely making her own small kills – ground birds, squirrels, mongooses or even large lizards – and thus feeling quite confident and self-sufficient. This commonly occurs around the age of a year and half or younger and so it seems she is well on her way.
Recently, a young nyala ewe was found hoisted near camp in a well hidden thicket and we never managed to see any leopard feeding on it. However, the Mashaba young female was seen hanging around the general area and we could only speculate that it was her kill which she was too nervous to return to during the daylight hours. Subsequently she has been seen hunting in the clearings nearby and looking noticeably more stressed as she has not had a large feed with her mother for weeks now… It is time she made a large kill of her own, hopefully further from camp where she would hopefully be more relaxed without the background noises of people and vehicles throughout the day.
The suddenly nervous and unrelaxed Mashaba young female has potential to be a phenomenal hunting leopard as she grows, and all it will take now is for her to kill and hoist her own antelope on which she can feed for several days. This will no doubt relieve her worry and give her the much needed self-confidence to live an independent lifestyle, while the Mashaba female maintains her dominance.
Keep an eye on the blog and particularly the next few Week in Pictures posts every Friday for any updates on this beautiful young leopard.