The 2008-2009 period saw the Vomba young female, Maxabene young males and Nyelethi young female and males being raised on Londolozi. After this came a dearth in leopard cubs during which a lot of mating was taking place without many cubs being born, or at least surviving. The shining beacon of hope amongst the turmoil of the leopard population dynamics was the Tutlwa female, successfully raising two cubs in the thickets of the Sand River. This success she kept to herself, however, as it was very rare to catch a glimpse of the cubs, and even if one were so lucky, they were very skittish around the vehicles.
Things changed in 2012 when the Dudley Riverbank female gave birth to a single cub, who is alive and well to this day and starting to mate for the first time. At one stage in the months following this cub’s birth there were six female leopards on Londolozi raising a total of nine cubs between them. Four of these cubs survived, which at just under 50% is a good survival rate for a high-risk area like Londolozi. After this came a relatively tranquil period during which few cubs were birthed and a turnover in the male leopard population meant a restructuring of territories. The Piva, Inyathini and 4:4 males have all been settling in over the last year and mating with the resident females. We are hopeful that as territorial boundaries become established, the single biggest danger to young leopard cubs (males that aren’t the father) will become effectively negated as the males don’t stray too far out of their respective areas.
As was recently revealed, the Mashaba female gave birth to a litter of two in May of this year; one female cub and one male. These cubs are the first litter to be regularly viewed on Londolozi for many months, so we thought we’d provide a few photos of their journey so far…
The first time I saw the cubs. Obscured views like this are typical of leopard den sites, as the female will try to select a place hidden from prying eyes and with difficult access.
We waited quietly for about half an hour as the late morning temperatures rose, and were finally rewarded when in front of our disbelieving eyes the mother led them up onto the big boulder that formed the core structure of the den. We initially expected the cubs to be reluctant to follow her as they would have felt exposed in what was essentially their first time viewing a vehicle, but they scrambled up without hesitation. The lighting was harsh but this was more about capturing the moment than taking a great photo.
Even though while the cubs are very small their mother will return to them very regularly, sometimes twice a day, the affection they have for her and their excitement at each return is evident. A tender moment between mother and cub
The cubs were moved within a fortnight to a different den site, this time a large clump of boulders within a tamboti grove. The hole in which the cubs hid when their mother was out hunting was in the bottom of the tree on the left of the picture. Their uncertainty where vehicles are concerned is still clear here, as they peep cautiously out into the open.
A further relocating of the litter by the Mashaba female took them to a relatively inaccessible den on the banks of Winnis’ Donga. Their hiding place here was a hollow leadwood log, a refuge almost unassailable by another predator. Glimpses through the dense vegetation were the only views we were able to achieve.
Eventually the cubs were taken to their first kill, documented recently, at which ranger Kevin Power recorded his once-in-a-lifetime footage. The second kill they were taken to was an impala ewe hoisted in this Schotia tree. The tree was situated on the banks of a sandy drainage line, and a combination of the open branch pictured here and the sand below provided some amazing viewing for three days as the cubs finally relaxed in the presence of vehicles.
Both cubs ascended the tree to take advantage of the morning sun’s warming rays and to have a bath from their mother. If one looks closely, a little bit of blood is evident on the muzzle of the cub being cleaned, indicating that it had just been feeding on the kill.
During the heat of the afternoon these rocks in the shade of the drainage line provided a cool resting place.
Although being taken to kills and eating meat, the cubs are still heavily dependant on their mother’s milk at this age (around 3 months). After nursing and resting for a bit, playtime generally ensues, during which the cubs wrestle with each other, chase their mother’s tail and practice their newly acquired climbing skills.
To our certain knowledge, the Mashaba female recently made eight kills over a period of 15 days. This is a phenomenal record of success, especially as I’m sure there would have been one or two kills unaccounted for that were lost to hyenas before she had a chance to hoist them. Whatever the final number, neither she nor the cubs have been struggling for sustenance over the last fortnight. Sightings of the cubs over this time were generally highly entertaining, as high energy levels meant a lot of activity. Here one of the cubs leaps for the low branches of a gwarrie bush as the Mashaba female waits patiently.
Their mother’s tail is a source of non-stop amusement for the cubs, and she indulges them by lashing it around for them to stalk and pounce on, and – if she is feeling generous enough – chew on as well (the cubs already have sharp little teeth). One of the cubs watches its mother’s tail tip like a mongoose watches a cobra.
Play forms an essential part of a young cub’s development. Whether with each other or with their mother, the cubs will remain playful right up until independence and beyond.
We were parked next to this flat rock in the hope that the female would seek the shade and coolness that it offered. We were rewarded when she came and lay down close to the vehicle with the cubs following her without the slightest care. Although they are growing properly accustomed to the Land Rovers’ presence, we are still sensitive to their mood and behaviour, and limit vehicle movement around them.
Happy out in the open when their mother is present, we are hoping for an increase in sightings like this over the next few months.
The Mashaba female is currently Londolozi’s best-known leopard. Her relaxed nature means she is comfortable around the vehicles.
Written and Photographed by James Tyrrell, Londolozi Ranger