The birth of leopard cubs is always just cause for excitement levels to rise in the guiding team. When a leopard who was pregnant reappears after she hasn’t been seen in awhile, questions like “Did you see suckle marks on her?”, and “Where do you think she is denning?”, are thrown around after every drive, and the friendly competition as to who will be the first to lay eyes on the newborns begins. It is a very sensitive stage of a leopard’s development because depending on how we as guides operate around newborn cubs and their den sites, it will determine how they perceive vehicles and what their attitude towards them will be in the future.
When a leopard den site is discovered, sensitive measures such as limiting the amount of vehicles that can go there at a time and minimizing the off-roading around the den site are implemented to ensure that the new leopard cubs get used to the vehicles at an early age.. This means that as they grow up they do not associate the vehicles with anything negative, and become relaxed around them allowing, us to view them in their natural environment whilst they behave in a way that they would even if we were not there. It is this sensitive approach that allows us to better understand – and get a glimpse into the lives of – these beautiful animals.
So just over a week ago when I had some guests arrive with high hopes of seeing leopard cubs, we set ourselves the goal of tracking down the Nhlanguleni female and spending time with her until she hopefully took us to where she was hiding her litter. It was a bit of a tall order, seeing as though these cubs had been particularly elusive for the last couple of months, but we were all up for the challenge and our week-long search began.
Previous sightings of the cubs had been fleeting at best; they were not used to vehicles owing to where their mother had been stashing them. Just like their mother, they had been born deep in the inaccessible rocks and vegetation of the Sand River, and were unaccustomed to the sound of our Land Rovers. This meant that they were quite skittish and tended to hide out of sight whenever a vehicle was near. However, this did not deter us.
The first two days of searching yielded no results, and after endless hours spent driving the roads through the Nhlanguleni female’s territory with not even a track to work from, we started to lose hope. But then we got a breakthroug;, Kevin Power together with tracker Raymond Khoza spotted her on the northern bank of the Sand River and saw her two cubs very briefly disappear into the reed beds alongside the bank. We now knew where to begin the search the next day!
Early the next morning we moved straight to where Kevin and Ray had seen her. Very soon after, trackers Rich Mthabine and Elmon Mhlongo found her tracks and the search began in earnest. Constant radio updates came through the whole morning, informing us of their progress. They tracked her and her two cubs through the riverbed and up onto the southern bank, into the rocky hillsides that make up the western parts of Londolozi. Come late morning we were forced to end the search as the tracks disappeared into a particularly rocky section and we knew that even if the cubs were found there was no way that we would have been able to get a vehicle in there. Hope, however, was restored, as we knew roughly where they were and we were even more determined to find them.
What we didn’t know at this stage was that the next few days would give us all an in depth look into what it takes to be a mother leopard in the African bush. Even though we wouldn’t come away with pictures or sightings of little leopard cubs we would come away with a new understanding of the word patience, as well as a newfound respect not just for the Nhlanguleni female but for female leopards in general.
On day four of searching for the leopard cubs we came across the Nhlanguleni female again, not too far from the river. She was resting and we sat with her for awhile until a few yawns and a good stretch indicated to us that she was ready to move again. After zigzagging through an irritated herd of elephants she spotted a herd of impalas and began to stalk them.
We put our cameras down and gave her the space she needed to hunt especially seeing as though she wasn’t just hunting for herself. For the next few hours until it got dark we watched her get closer and closer to her unsuspecting prey. She would crawl for 20m with her stomach pressed to the ground and eyes locked on target before freezing completely motionless for the better part of an hour to ensure that she had not been spotted. The impala would move off and she would repeat this process again. We started to get restless and fidget with cameras in the vehicle and she didn’t flinch. She hadn’t eaten anything for the last two days and this was a brilliant opportunity to change that. The sun went down and we struggled to see her lying in the grass as it got too dark. Not wanting to ruin her chances by turning on a spotlight and giving her position away to the impalas, we left the area determined to return the next day, adamant that under the cover of darkness the chances of her having made a kill were high.
Day 5 of the search for leopard cubs dawned and the morning plan was to see whether she had made a kill the night before. We searched throughout the morning but to no avail. Even though we had spent enough time in the same area searching for her we wanted to know and see more. Through a combination of intuition and pure luck we found her again that afternoon and eagerly waited for her to stand up and reveal her stomach which would indicate to us whether she had eaten or not. She hadn’t, and that afternoon didn’t yield any hunting success for her either. It was a repeat of the previous afternoon as she patiently stalked a herd of impala again and we sat and watched from a distance. As night fell we left her, again realizing that she hadn’t been to the area where she had left her cubs nor had she eaten in three days.
We had become attached to the story of this female leopard trying to provide for her two cubs and we so desperately wanted to see how it would unfold.
Our wishes were grant on the morning of day 6 of the search. Dave Strachan and Judas Ngomane found fresh tracks of where a leopard had dragged a kill during the night and decided to follow. They found the Nhlanguleni female with a fresh kill. With the sun only just risen, our day’s plan was made; we were going to sit with her all day to see if there was any sign of her cubs.
On arriving at the sighting we saw that her kill was an impala ram. it was a big meal for her and we knew that this meant she could possibly remain in the area for a few days and was likely to bring the cubs to the kill. At roughly 6 months of age, the cubs were almost certainly fully weaned off milk by this time. Our patience was put to the test again as we parked in the shade of a nearby marula tree and waited the day out.
During the heat of the noon sun she rested and so did we. We took turns to watch her whilst the others in the vehicle caught up on some sleep so that we always knew what she was doing. Only in the late afternoon did we see our first sign that the cubs could be near. She started calling. She moved away from the impala kill letting out a series of small contact calls as she tried to find her cubs. We followed at a distance hoping to hear the unmistakable high pitched ‘yelp’ of a leopard cub answer her but after awhile she returned back to the kill and lay down again. We sat in silence, scrutinizing every sound around us as again nightfall came and encouraged us to leave, disappointed.
We had one more morning drive the next day and once again the plan was to return at first light to see what had transpired during the night.
We arrived at the same spot where she had made the kill the day before and the first thing we noticed was the impala carcass hanging from the branches of the same marula tree we had parked underneath. She had carried her meal into the branches to protect it from hyenas and lions that may have discovered it during the night. We scanned the area for any signs of leopard and quickly spotted her lying up at the base of the tree but no sign of the cubs. As we drove closer to get a better view Rich, who had now moved from his tracker seat to sit next to me, pointed excitedly at the ground and proclaimed, “Look at the tracks, the cubs were here!” I glanced down and in the sand I saw what he was pointing at. Over our vehicle tracks from where we had been driving the day before were tracks of the two little leopard cubs. She had brought them to the kill during the night and they had to be close by.
We parked far away from the Nhlanguleni female and her kill, hoping that we would finally get to see these cubs that we had been trying to find for a week.
We sat there chatting quietly about the events of the last week and what this particular female leopard had been through in order to have a meal. We added up the hours of stalking that we had watched and felt guilty for getting impatient as to why she was taking so long. We reminisced about the first sighting we had of her at the beginning of the week and retraced her steps each day forming a timeline of her week. We knew her exact spot pattern and some of the distinctive rosettes on her coat from all the time staring at her through binoculars. We joked about how she doesn’t seem to be particularly bothered by elephants as at one time she lay motionless while a herd passed by just metres away.
Seeing the cubs would have been amazing but we were certainly not disappointed. We had spent a week following this leopard and just to have been afforded this brief window into her life made us all respect her just that little bit more. Initially, the goal had been to see and photograph leopard cubs but by the end just knowing that they were close by and the events that had led to this was an experience in itself.
For me the whole week was ultimately a lesson in patience and brought to mind this quote from Mother Theresa:
“ Without patience, we will learn less in life. We will see less. We will feel less. We will hear less. Ironically, rush and more usually mean less. “