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