It has been a difficult year for the female leopards of Londolozi. With the new blood in the form of the Piva, Robson’s and newly-named Nyamakunze males setting up shop in the central parts of the reserve, there has not been a lot of stability, which makes it tough to raise cubs. Although we are seldom sure of the exact fate of the cubs, the instability in the male population may certainly be a contributing factor.
The Tamboti female lost a litter of two, and the Tutlwa female in the north lost a litter of three, we think to the recently displaced Marthly male. She was seen in clear distress, calling for her cubs in the area we knew she had been denning, and that same afternoon the Marthly male was spied on the same rocky outcrop. He was not the father of the cubs, so would have killed them had he encountered them. The cubs were never seen again.
The latest loss is, sadly, the cub of the Nanga female.
This young male, just over four months old, was killed by another leopard.
Male leopards in the Sabi Sands have been found to be the single biggest contributor to leopard cub mortality, with roughly 35% of infant deaths being attributed to male leopards that aren’t the father. The next two biggest threats are spotted hyenas and lions.
What has not previously been recorded however, is female predation, ie. when a female leopard kills another’s cubs. Although it has most likely taken place in the past, it has not been properly documented, at least not in this area. Yet in the north of Londolozi, one of the female leopards, already mentioned in this post, seems to be turning into a cub killer.
The Tutlwa female, sadly, was responsible for the death of the Nanga female’s cub, and, we believe, the death of her litter last year. When viewed logically from a genetic standpoint, there is no reason why a female leopard should not wish to kill an unrelated female’s cub. They do not share the same genes and the cubs may grow up to be competition for her, so to kill them makes sense, as harsh as that sounds. What is interesting for me is that this behaviour hasn’t been properly documented in the past. Maybe it is unique in this instance.
The theory goes that while male leopards disperse far and wide, female leopards will attempt to set up territories adjacent to their mother, so that as more female cubs survive one finds a little related group of females, with the recognition between them reducing competition, or at least aggressiveness, which should increase the likelihood of cub survival. Again this makes sense from a genetic standpoint, but it falls short if these females are removed from each other by more than a generation. If they are not coming into contact with each other regularly and during their youth, there will be no recognition and conflict will likely ensue. The Mashaba and Tutlwa females are technically sisters and genetically very similar, born to the Vomba female and both fathered by the Camp Pan male. However, they are from different litters, so when they encountered one another a year or two ago, and the Mashaba female had her cub in the vicinity, they went at each other incredibly aggressively, as the following clip shows:
It seems clear that without the contact in youth, there is no recognition of relatedness.
I digress, in that this post was meant to purely be a short tribute to Nanga’s cub. I guess as one stays longer in the bush, the more hardened you get to sad events like the loss of a little cub, yet you are never immune to the emotion. What is particularly sad in this instance is the sorrow that was evident in the rest of the staff. Many camp managers and non-rangers had the privilege of viewing and spending time with the little leopard, and there was a general air of mourning for a few days after he was killed. He was everyone’s favourite.
But life continues in the bush. The Nanga female was found in the company of the Gowrie male this morning, and she will be coming into oestrus again before too long. The Mashaba female is lactating and denning a litter somewhere we believe, and the Tamboti female has been seen mating with the Piva male. Life will endure, and within six months I am confident I will be posting the happy announcement of the Nanga female’s new litter.
We would be interested to know if anyone has any knowledge of other instances in which a female leopard has killed another’s cub(s)…
Written by James Tyrrell, Londolozi Photographer and Writer
Photographed by Nick Kleer and Simon Smit
Filmed by John Varty and Mike Sutherland