The life of a Leopard cub was something that fascinated me long before I began guiding. Most guests I have driven will understand my pure curiosity and attraction to these small animals and the hardships of survival and learning they face in the early stages of their lives. Not to mention the excitement and joy one experiences whilst spending time with a Leopard cub and having the privilege to photograph them.
Photography has become a real passion of mine in the past 18 months, but photographing Leopard cubs has been humbling and somewhat overwhelming. Their innocence, playfulness, energy and affection is contagious and I wish to share this with you all. Not only this, I also want to enter into the world of a Leopard cub and begin to explore how they live their precarious lives.
Post interaction between a male and female, mating, copulation and gestation period of around 100 days, these small, furry balls of spots are born into an incredible wilderness. To sounds, smells and dangers that where unknown to them in the safety of there mothers womb. Leopard cubs are born in an ‘altricial’ state. A basic definition of this is: “requiring nourishment”, and it refers to the pattern of growth and development in organisms which are incapable of moving around on their own soon after being born. Each Leopardess understands this and knows that in order for these cubs to remain alive and out of harms way, she needs to find one or more suitable ‘den sites.’ An area of extreme safety where no other mammal, particularly other large predator, will venture or frequent.
The gestation period is a short one, due to the fact that this large cat needs to continuously nourish herself with the appropriate vitamins to allow her cubs to grow. But simply put, she needs to hunt to keep herself, and the cubs alive. When she is ready to give birth, she will retreat to the chosen den site with all the silence and stealth she possesses. This is where the hard part begins. These little cubs cannot see for the first few days of their lives, they can barely move and need protein, in the form of their mothers milk, to grow. In order to produce protein rich milk, their mother needs to leave them, in the safety of their den, and go hunting. This is when they are at their most vulnerable. Other large predators such as Lions and Hyenas, and other Leopards can end the life of a young Leopard cub swiftly and with no remorse.
Back and forth, day in and day out, this process continues. The cubs grow strong, their eyes open and they begin to crawl and move freely on their own. They remain in the comfort of the den for approximately 6 weeks until they are strong enough to follow their mother for short periods of the day. During the initial 6 weeks, the den site will change to a few, preselected, alternate dens as to not attract too much attention to one place, as well as avoiding a build up of parasites within one den site.
During these first 6 weeks, it is almost impossible to see the cubs, unless you are extremely fortunate, patient and sensitive. Once the cubs leave the den for the first time, their lives will change dramatically and this is where we begin to appreciate their beauty fully.
The inspiration for this post has come through my fist few sightings of the Tamboti females current litter. This is the first litter this female has produced and the outcome has been purely magical. Rangers and Trackers alike spent many patient weeks tracking and finding this Leopard, following her to the den site and then having to leave due to the age of the cubs. However, the patience has sensitivity has paid off and we can now follow and photograph the 2 small cubs without any hesitation. They are currently around 4 months old and have become a highlight of any guests trip to Londolozi.
Leopard cubs at this young age grow quickly. They indulge at each meal they are led to, and with full stomachs they will still try to suckle from their mother. They chase each other, climb onto their mother, stalk her tail, attack butterflies and birds and literally climb any object they see. This has allowed me to capture some special moments and some highlights of my time at Londolozi thus far.
Besides their energy and playfulness, these cubs are symbol of what Londolozi has done for the past 40 years in Leopard Conservation. The relationships that have been formed with these wild animals and the way in which Guests and Rangers view them is a true privilege. A humbling experience and a life changing one aswell.
Written and Photographed by: Mike Sutherland