That is the golden number of months at which leopard cub mortality drops away exponentially, and their chances of survival rise rapidly. A number of factors contribute to this, but a combination of size, speed, agility and experience all play a part in helping these growing leopards avoid the numerous dangers they will continue to encounter on an almost daily basis.
Bearing in mind that that statistic doesn’t take into account the influence that their mother has on them, how then are we to imagine what sort of chance two newly orphaned 14-month-old cubs have of making it to maturity?
As I’m sure many of you will be aware now, the sad news reached us only a few days ago of the death of one of Londolozi’s oldest leopards, the Xidulu female.
At just under 16 years, she was in the twilight of her life, but still should have had at least a year left, without having it cut short by an encounter with two male lions. Her body was found close to where these two as-yet-unidentified males were resting, and the tracks seemed to indicate that they had caught her unawares. As leopards approach old age, their senses will necessarily dull, and muscles that once had incredible spring in them won’t be as able to launch them into the branches as quickly as they once could. Whilst no one actually witnessed her final moments, it seems likely that the two lions either caught her while her attention was elsewhere, or if we want to put a romantic spin on it, she may even have been defending her two cubs unto death.
How many times before would she have put her life on the line to defend offspring? With at least five of her previous cubs having reached independence, the answer is probably many. Should the cubs she has now left behind survive as well, her record will stand at seven offspring raised; a phenomenal number in the fiercely competitive arena that is the Sabi Sands, an area in which a leopardess will be lucky to raise even three to independence.
It will be interesting to see who moves in to fill the incredibly desirable territory she leaves empty. The Nkoveni female, territorial just to the west, is the most likely candidate, but the Island and Tamboti females are also possibilities. The questions that are left focus mainly around her cubs of course; one male and one female. Both have been seen hunting small mammals and birds with increasing success, and even with their mother still alive they would be entering a phase in their life in which she would have left them for longer and longer periods of time. The Mashaba young female was fully independent at 15 months, and the old Maxabene female, who died in 2012, was separated from her mother at only 11 months, yet managed to survive.
So although we mourn the loss of a magnificent leopard, all is not doom and gloom for the Xidulu young male and female. The area they are currently residing in is rife with impala and other hunting opportunities. The territory is currently controlled by the Piva male, presumed to be their father, who will be tolerant of their presence for some time to come (this applies more to the male cub). And they have turned that magical twelve-month corner. While statistics mean nothing to the individual, I am pretty hopeful that the cubs have as good a chance as they could ever have, and if I was a betting man, my money would be firmly on them to survive to continue their mother’s legacy.