At Londolozi we are incredibly privileged to be able to watch things come full circle, whether in the bush or with our friends and within the Londolozi family.
A recent example of this is one that will always bring a smile to my face, as it involves a good friend of mine.
Talley Smith (she of The Week in Pictures fame) joined Londolozi in early 2011, roughly at the same time as me, so we share a lot of our earliest memories of this place.
Talley was paired with tracking wizard Freddy Ngobeni from the word go, and the pair’s O.C.D. approach to tracking and finding animals regularly bore fruit. One of Tal’s favourite memories of a track-and-find came in early 2012, when they found the old Dudley Riverbank female at a den site in the Tugwaan Riverbed with a very young cub. This cub grew up as the Dudley Riverbank Young female, to be renamed as the Ndzanzeni female early this year when she became territorial.
The Ndzanzeni female bore her first litter in March, but after a brief sighting by some staff, the cubs sadly disappeared.
Fast forward to September this year, and Tal and Fred were once again on tracks. Freddy – who regularly has moments of apparent clairvoyance in the bush – had recommended for reasons unknown that they go look for the Ndzanzeni female that day, and he soon found tracks of a female leopard moving parallel to the Tugwaan drainage line.
Within a relatively short time, Fred had followed the tracks to Python Rock, a well-known leopard den site on Londolozi for rather sinister reasons. Tracks going in and out of the rocks immediately led Freddy to conclude that the Ndzanzeni female was keeping a litter there, but just to make sure, he scouted the area on foot. He and Talley caught a brief glimpse of a tiny spotted shape in a prominent crack in the rocks, which was clearly a cub, so they moved back to the vehicle.
I love the fact that it was Freddy and Talley that had been the first ones to find the Ndzanzeni female when she was a tiny cub, and now it was the same two that were the first to find her new den site, over four years later.
Since the female wasn’t there, Tal and Fred left the area, but over the next few weeks we were to get brief glimpses of what we initially thought was only a single cub nosing about the Grewia thicket atop the rocks while its mother lay in a cleft. To our delight, rangers Don Heyneke and Fin Lawlor, scoping out the den through their binoculars one afternoon about three weeks after the initial discovery, reported that there were in fact two cubs!!
Soon after Fin and Don’s sighting, the Ndzanzeni female moved the cubs to a new den a few hundred metres away, and shortly after that to a third spot in another boulder clump. This one we didn’t know of at first, and it was only when Dave Strachan was tracking the Inyathini male past the rocks and he came face to face with the snarling form of a female leopard that we realised that this was the new hiding place for the cubs.
The cubs are currently being moved around by the female and accompanying her to kills. This a dangerous time in their lives as they are exposed to multiple threats, mainly in the form of lions and hyenas that would attempt to rob a leopard of its kill, and would have no hesitation in killing a cub should they be able to get hold of it.
The cubs are only just over two months old as far as we can work out, so their climbing and evasion skills are still relatively poor.
Our most likely guess is that the Inyathini male fathered the cubs, but since females frequently mate with multiple males it is hard to say for sure. With the Makhotini male regularly encroaching into the western portions of the Inyathini male’s territory, it is our hope that the Ndzanzeni female also mated with him in order to confuse the paternity. Since roughly 35% of leopard cub mortality is attributed to rival male leopards that aren’t the father, the most important factor for the cub’s survival is probably going to be the Inyathini male’s hold on the area.
With the sad demise of the 4:4 male recently, and the likely instability of the male population around the Sand River for some months to come, it is comforting to know that the area the two Ndzanzeni cubs are currently being raised in seems relatively stable as far as dominant males are concerned, and the cubs’ chances of survival are as good as we can hope for…