The Nkoveni female leopard is expected to give birth to her second litter any day now.
Her last litter was never seen, as is regularly the case with leopards. We saw that she was heavily pregnant, then knew she had given birth from her suddenly diminished belly size and signs of suckling on her teats, and trackers Andre Sithole and Terrence Mahlaba, along with ranger Greg Pingo, actually found her den site; following the leopard’s tracks to a dense cluster of flood debris in the Sand River just downstream from the Londolozi camps. The team could even hear the plaintive mewing of at least two cubs coming from inside the pile of dead sticks and leaves. Due to the nature of the den, there was absolutely no way for anyone to get a view of the cubs while they were still in there, and whenever the female was found to be heading back to the site, she would be left alone in the knowledge that she would shortly disappear from view.
We waited patiently for the cubs to grow a bit and for the Nkoveni female to move the den so that hopefully we could catch our first glimpse of them, but ultimately it was not to be. After a few weeks with no sign of them, and scant evidence of her returning to the den, she was seen mating with the 4:4 male, with no visible evidence of suckle marks, and it had to be accepted that the cubs had been killed. As with many leopard fatalities over the last few years, the Tsalala pride were suspected as the culprits.
As it currently stands, the Sand River is flowing, although nowhere near as strongly as it could be a this time of year. When the Nkoveni female denned in the river last year, there were a few scattered pools in the riverbed, but nothing else. The drought had seen to that. The river back then was therefore a far more appealing and safer prospect than it is now as a place to scout for a den. As a cub, the Nkoveni female had actually been taken out of the river by her mother the Mashaba female the day before the floods hit, and was thus saved from drowning. Whether that was some kind of animal intuition at work, we will never know.
The question now is where should she birth cubs? We saw her a few days ago sniffing around some debris piles near the Causeway, most likely looking for potential dens, but the risk of rising water levels may well not be worth her looking at the river as an option. How aware leopards are of the potential danger of flooding we cannot say for sure. The rest of the Nkoveni female’s rather small territory is relatively devoid of rocky outcrops in which to den, although there are other options, including hollow logs, termite mounds and dense thickets alongside drainage lines, that she could use.
I was reading a book recently called Will it Make the Boat Go Faster? by Olympic rower Greg Hunt-Davis and the British 8’s approach to racing in the 2000 Olympics. One of the chapters focused on risk, and it stipulated four main types:
– Risks you can afford to take
– Risks you can’t afford to take
– Risks you can afford not to take
– Risks you can’t afford not to take.
The differences between the above four may be subtle, but it got me thinking about the Nkoveni female and the risks she incurs when choosing an initial den-site for blind and helpless cubs. With dangers like hyenas, lions, flooding, pythons and a multitude of others all to be taken into consideration, the reality is that virtually no den-site comes without its risks. The second reality is that it is highly unlikely that a female leopard is able to categorise risks in her mind and logically weigh up the pros and cons of various options. I suppose that kind of thing is for us to surmise.
The Sand River, for now, presents the best den-site options, but the more rain that falls and the more the Tsalala pride continues to operate in the area, the more that choice may be a risk that the Nkoveni female can’t afford to take…