Marula trees, open clearings, impala lambs and year-old leopard cubs are just about as perfect a combination of things as you can get in the bush.
Impala lambs to provide the prey, the leopard cubs to do the hunting, the trees to hoist the kills into or just survey the ground from and the nice open areas from which we can view everything is a pretty accurate summary of what we have been finding on Ximpalapala crest in recent months.
The two remaining Ximpalapala leopard cubs (from an original litter of 3) and their mother have turned the crests around their namesake koppie into an impala killing zone, and never more than a week goes by without some evidence being found of another impala that has met its demise under their claws and canines.
I was on leave in I think May or June last year when ranger Dean Smithyman sent me a text message saying simply “Unidentified female +3 on Ximpalapala”. An unknown leopard is exciting enough in itself, but hearing about the 3 cubs I actually headed back to Londolozi early to try and catch a glimpse of them myself!
We think the Ximpalapala female moved into the area from west of our boundary, most likely to occupy territory left vacant by the deceased Nyelethi 4:4 female. Still nervous around vehicles, she has most likely grown up in an area where she didn’t see many Land Rovers.
Her cubs – we think fathered by the Marthly male – were also skittish at first, but the fact that they spent a large amount of time on Ximpalapala koppie itself, where the vehicles couldn’t go and where they could choose how closely they approached us where we were parked down at the base, meant that before long they had become significantly more habituated than their mother.
Since then they have provided spectacular viewing, often to be found in marula or jackalberry trees and more often than not within a few hundred metres of each other.
Lambing season amongst the impala was just around the time when they were starting to hunt small mammals themselves, and the newborn impala made perfect targets in the long grass of Summer.
The two cubs are roughly a year old by now. Both females, they will most likely set up territories neighbouring their mother’s should they both survive, and as one year is roughly the age at which leopard cub mortality drops significantly, they have a good chance.
As the following photographs confirm, the cubs are partial to lying on marula branches, fallen or otherwise…
Photographed by: James Tyrrell, Bennet Mathonsi and Kate Neill
Written by James Tyrrell