A few weeks ago, a guiding dream came true for me. Every guide has something out there they’re dying to see, and I had always wanted to discover a leopard cub at a den. The Dudley Riverbank Female, interestingly one of the only Londolozi leopards I had never seen, obliged.
It was a very quiet morning, one of those rare times when you don’t even see impala, the birds aren’t singing, and of course the radio is silent. We decided to check a road less traveled in the south of Londolozi, based on a single, long-distance bushbuck alarm call breaking the calm. We never found the bushbuck, but we did find a set of leopard tracks. ‘Dudley Riverbank Female,’ Freddy noted. ‘Not fresh.’ Regardless we decided to follow the tracks, as they were the only chance of us finding something that morning. She walked along the one road for miles, and each time Freddy relocated the track on the hard ground, he seemed surprised when he said, ‘Still on the road. More fresh now…’
The tracks eventually took us to a water hole and then headed off into a deep drainage line called the Tugwaan. The bush became very thick but there was a small track heading straight into a beautiful rocky section of the drainage, shady, pristine and tranquil. Freddy whispered to me, in Shangaan, ‘This is where she has had cubs before.’ To say I went paralytic with excitement is an understatement. We followed the tracks in the sand straight to a set of rocks with a small crevice in the middle. Freddy hopped off the tracker seat to have a closer look, but there was no need. The Dudley Riverbank Female was lying next to the crevice, and seeing Fred on foot startled her slightly. ‘Oh,’ Fred said quietly, smiling. ‘No one move. Just stay still.’ He slowly walked around and climbed on the vehicle.
I was too excited to explain to the patient guests why we were whispering and peering into the dark hole next to the leopard, but thankfully the level-headed Freddy chimed in: ‘The way she is behaving, she does have a baby, yes.’ We waited quietly as the mother relaxed. Then, she looked towards the dark hole of the crevice and the cub slowly appeared! It cautiously moved towards us, looking, as it nuzzled up to its mother while being groomed. That intimate moment is one I will remember my whole life.
In the weeks that followed, I would learn a lot about the maternal behaviour of leopards. If it were up to me, I would have gone to the den every game drive! But obviously our guests also want to see other things, and I quickly realized that the discovery of a den site does not mean guaranteed cub viewing… at all. In order to not pressurize the tiny cub and its mother, we set up some viewing ‘rules’ for the den site, which is called ‘Paul’s Crossing’ in honour of a former ranger. One vehicle would be allowed to head towards the site per game drive. No viewing after dark. If the mother’s tracks are coming out of the Crossing, you must leave the area. This was all to minimize the chances of unwanted visitors being attracted to the area, such as hyenas, as well as to habituate the cub to the vehicles through slow exposure. Of course the prospect of seeing a leopard cub is a source for huge excitement, so we decided not to advertise it on the blog – it is simply not fair to the cub.
Before every game drive I ask Freddy, ‘Where are we going today?’ After finding the cub, my question was always, ‘Where are we going today… Paul’s Crossing?’ with high hopes. But each time, he would shake his head and say, ‘Not today’. My heart sank, knowing that going against Freddy’s opinion would not only prove him right when we didn’t find the cub but also induce some kind of bad bush karma from a ranger/tracker team not working together. Sure enough, other rangers with equally high hopes would subsequently report over the radio that the den site showed no sign of the leopards.
‘We need to understand something,’ Fred said after about the twentieth time I begged to go back to the site. ‘A leopard den site is unique. They are not like wild dogs, they are not like hyenas, and they are not like lions. To go first thing in the morning is a waste of somebody’s time. That is the mother’s time for work – she will be out hunting. Maybe she will go back in the late morning. Maybe in the afternoon. But then she will leave well before dark to hunt again.’
It made perfect sense. Lions, hyenas, and wild dogs are all social creatures who have the group to help look after their little ones, as well as help in hunting. Leopards need to spend longer hours hunting to secure a kill, and keep their young even more concealed in remote places. These are some of the reasons why it is so rare to see leopard cubs. When Fred glanced over his shoulder one afternoon and softly said, ‘Why don’t we try Paul’s Crossing?’ I just about broke the radio microphone while grabbing it to claim our intention to be the vehicle that would follow up that afternoon.
We did not have any tracks coming out of the den site, so we went in to check. She was not at the opening of the rocks as she had been previously. We waited, the adrenaline wearing off as our hopes faded. After about fifteen minutes I decided to call it. As I turned the ignition, Freddy whispered, ‘Wait. Right there. She’s up there,’ and pointed to the tall grass on the hill above the rocks. I still don’t know how he saw her. Us mere mortals with ‘normal’ vision had to wait until she actually moved out of the grass to see her. And the cub followed!
We watched for about forty-five minutes while the cub played on the rocks, occasionally looking at us curiously but for the most part very relaxed with our presence. We listened to the soft sounds of the mother contact calling when the cub strayed too far. As the light dimmed, the mother groomed herself, and looked at us, as if to say ‘OK, it’s time for me to go hunt now. Please leave.’ So we left her alone to put the cub back in the den.
The third time we tried our luck at the den site was once again successful, thanks to Freddy’s intuition. She was not on the rocks nor in the grass, but this time Freddy suggested we try taking a different route out of the drainage, driving on the northeastern side. There she was, the female, lying out in the open, enjoying the afternoon light. With a few minutes of silent patience, the cub slowly appeared from behind a thicket. We watched for about an hour as the little one played and nursed, climbing all over its mother.
Then another learning experience. Monkeys arrived on the scene. They started alarming loudly upon seeing the leopards, which sent the cub tumbling back down towards the den. The mother was not happy. She stood hissing up at the monkeys in the trees. Usually, when a leopard is spotted by monkeys, it will eventually move out of the area and the monkeys will quieten down. But she hadn’t finished nursing her cub, and the cub was still too young to be moved from the den site. She had no choice but to stay.
The cub eventually came back out despite the loud intruders. She finished nursing and the mother once again gave us the ‘You’ve had enough time’ look. We left and watched the sun set from a crest nearby, wondering if the Dudley Riverbank Female would be successful on her hunt that evening.
The following morning, another vehicle reported that the monkeys were still lurking around the area of the den, but they did not see the cub. The Dudley Riverbank Female was seen around the den site a few times after that, but it seems the cub has now been moved.
This left us to wonder: did the monkeys cause the female to move the cub? And did our presence attract the monkeys in the first place? This is why we have to be so careful when viewing wildlife, particularly vulnerable youngsters like this cub. Luckily there have been many tracks of the cub seen in other areas since then, so we know it’s still alive…
Written and Photographed by: Talley Smith