I don’t know what I expected but it certainly wasn’t what we got…

It was late in the morning and myself along with two other rangers (Fin and Kevin) and their guests had been searching for the Nkoveni female leopard. She had killed a wildebeest calf the evening before but had been unable to hoist it. Judging from the tracks and the distinct lack of remains it seemed hyenas had stolen her kill during the night. So when Kevin found her resting near the banks of the Sand River, when it had really started to heat up late in the morning, none of us thought we’d be witnessing too much activity.

Upon seeing her I immediately noticed wet and flattened fur around her teats, indicating that she had suckled cubs recently. The thought that she had youngsters nearby thrilled me, but judging by the terrain she was lying in I really didn’t hold too much hope that they were close by. She was lying above a shallow eroded gully with a hole at its base, although I wasn’t aware of the hole from my angle. There was one sparse guarrie bush at the top of the mound and around it the area was bare. Typically leopards tend to seek out densely vegetated spots or rocky outcrops to stash their cubs for safety reasons and so I shrugged away the thought.

After a short while, the female stood up and went to go investigate around the back of the gully, apparently trying to sniff something out. Then without warning, she turned and walked away from it and to our complete surprise, two tiny cubs stumbled out behind her.

Abandoned aardvark burrows, root systems, debris piles, hollow logs… A variety of den-sites are used by female leopards. Photograph by Alistair Smith

Small cubs have their spots so close together that their fur takes on an almost grey appearance. Photograph by Kevin Power

We believe the cubs to be a young male and a young female. Photograph by Alistair Smith

A hushed silence fell across the three vehicles as we all sat completely awed.

Bright blue eyes are only seen on very young cubs. Photograph by Callum Gowar

Firstly, it’s almost unheard of to see cubs at such a young and vulnerable age. If you are lucky enough to do so, it will almost certainly be at a distance and they’re typically in very dense bush. Here, three vehicles had unsuspectingly been in the presence of these tiny cubs all along and now they had brazenly just walked out into the open for all of us to see. Judging by their size and the colour of their eyes, they looked to be less than a month old.

What we also found fascinating was that Alistair Smith had seen the Nkoveni female sticking her head into this exact hole just a few weeks prior (picture below). They had assumed at the time that she was hunting and had smelt potential prey that had shot into the hole for safety. It seems though that she was actually scouting out the den site she would later give birth in, or at least move the cubs to in their first few weeks.

The Nkovenei female investigates a potential den a few weeks prior to the first sighting of the cubs. Photograph by Alistair Smith

The Nkoveni female herself, daughter of the Mashaba female, had been born in a section of the Sand River that was difficult to access. She was therefore a little more wary of vehicles until six or seven months into her life, after which she came to trust our presence. Now just five years later, she was openly bringing her own cubs out for game viewing vehicles to see. It was an incredibly special moment.

The cubs are unbelievably relaxed with the vehicles present. It usually takes months to get them used to the presence of a Land Rover. Photo by Andrea Campbell

Although relaxed with their mother present, a few furtive glances were nevertheless still cast in our direction. Photograph by Andrea Campbell

This time last year, the Nkoveni female had her first litter but sadly lost them. We’re not sure what happened to the cubs but the Tsalala Pride were spending a huge amount of time in that area and are thus considered the most likely culprits. Due to the high water levels in the river at the moment though, she is now having to den the current litter further from the banks in an area that’s slightly more accessible. The new den site is more vegetated and the grass slightly longer and so we’re hoping this will only add to their chances of survival.

In my life I’ve found that the lessons which have led me to greater happiness and fulfilment come from nature. This situation was no exception. It reminded me how we should live inspired in the knowing that something miraculous can occur at any moment. When I woke up that morning I had no idea I was going to see tiny leopard cubs. I wasn’t striving towards finding them. I wasn’t attached to the idea of seeing them. In fact, I didn’t even know that they were there. And yet they just appeared. I’m not suggesting we live in perpetual hope that around every corner is something startling, life changing or magical. Although I am suggesting that acknowledging the mere possibility of it brightens the world we live in. For me, this reminder drives me towards a more trusting and joyful existence.

Filed under Leopards Wildlife

About the Author

Amy Attenborough

Media Team

Amy has a rich field-guiding history, having spent time at both Phinda and Ngala Game Reserves. This diversity of past guiding locations brought her an intimate understanding of different biomes across South Africa, and she immediately began making a name for herself as ...

More stories by Amy

17 Comments

on The Newest Cubs on Londolozi
    Sumei says:

    Oh what joy to see these small leopard cubs. Brilliant blue eyes 🙂 I am so tempted to fly out to Londolozi just to see the cubs. Always been a dream to see just born (well almost) leopard cubs.
    Lucky guests 🙂

    Susan Krüger says:

    Man you are soooo lucky 😄 keep us updated ♡♡♡

    Chris says:

    Hi Amy. What an incredible sighting! Do you know who the father of these cubs could be?

    Gillian Evans says:

    How very special! Wonderful photos everyone and lovely blog Amy. Having just returned from Londolozi and still dreaming of leopards.. you have brought them right back to us. You are entirely right that it is the unexpectedness of what we see in the bush that brings us so much joy.

    Lynne says:

    What a truly wonderful surprise for you all ! Hope they stay safe !

    Cindy Tyrrell says:

    What an amazing privilege for you all! Great blog and SUPERB photos.

    Kay Schmid says:

    Amy, such precious cubs!!! What a treat for your guests, you and we readers.

    Jim and Joan Catlett says:

    This was an amazing experience. Kevin found this beautiful animal just lounging. He knew she had given birth but we never expected that she would bring these cubs out of the den and literally put them on display for us. We will never forget this once in a lifetime viewing.

    Judy Boch says:

    So adorable! I sincerely hope that they survive and thrive. Please keep us all up to date. Thank you for wonderful photos!

    Mary Beth Wheeler says:

    The cubs are sweet & lovely, Amy – and your words inspiring. I’m looking forward to seeing them in just a few weeks…

    Ginger says:

    So precious-love those baby blue eyes.

    Diane says:

    I love seeing these beautiful Cubs and all of the wonders of Londolozithrough your photographs and stories. I can’t wait to meet you in April! See you soon!

    Lea says:

    What a fantastic experience for you all Amy. Nature is such an amazing thing and I hope that these babies will live and grow to add to the leopard population. Beautiful article. Thanks for sharing.

    Ann Seagle says:

    This was wonderful!!! Thank u.

    Stuart Manford says:

    Absolutely Magic!

    Loretta says:

    Such a great blog! Camp Pan lives on in his beautiful great grand cubs. I hope Nkoveni can raise them both to adulthood. Such precious commodities born to my favorite female leopard. I am excited to meet them soon!

    Vicky Sanders says:

    Soooo cute & precious! As it is (like you said) a rare occurrence to see cubs so young, especially after the area is zoned, this is a momentous occasion for you & your guests. Sure wish I was there. Thanks for all the pics.

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