A sighting of a female leopard and cubs could never, under any circumstances be referred to as ordinary, but I had one of the Nkoveni female and her two seven month old cubs recently that really stands out for me.
A young female that lives to the east and south of camp. Easily recognised by her 2:2 spot pattern she is often to be found in Marula trees.
Before diving into the details, it is important to understand that given the depth of studies into leopards and leopard behaviour, it is widely understood that their hunting and general survival behaviour is predominantly instinctive, with only a marginal amount being attributed to taught behaviour.
Being solitary and territorial, adult leopards only associate long enough to mate, and the young become independent as sub-adults anywhere between a year and months (although less than a year and as old as three years are ages at which cubs have been recorded as still dependant). Born altricial (blind and helpless), and weighing between 400-600 grams at birth, leopard cubs are concealed in dense thickets or rocky outcrops, only venturing away from these hiding spots for very short excursions with their mothers from about six weeks onwards. At roughly ten weeks old they begin to feed on meat. At around the three to four month mark, and weighing in the region of three kilograms, the leopard cubs will be almost entirely weaned off of their mothers milk, and will feed exclusively on meat.
The mother will typically spend shorter periods of time away from the den site during the first few weeks, returning to it fairly regularly to nurse the cubs, up until about two months, when she will spend the majority of her time away from the den site hunting for prey, and protecting her kills from scavenging species such as hyenas or lions. At roughly three months (coinciding with the cubs’ ability to climb trees) the female will head out on a hunt, and if successful will stash her kill, either in a thicket or up a tree, then head back to collect the youngsters, returning with them to the kill and allowing them to feed. This type of behaviour persists right up until the cubs’ independence, which is where the argument stems that their ability to hunt and survive is instinctive rather than learned.
Whether on their own, or in the company of siblings, leopard cubs tend to use the time away when their mother’s away as a time for impulsive play and exploration. These play sessions are crucial in the muscle and skeletal development of young cubs, and allows them to hone certain skills required for hunting and survival later on in life. In fact, from about 10 months onwards, leopard cubs will usually start executing small kills of their own, having probably never watched their mother during her hunting forays. It is therefore difficult to believe that any of their hunting behaviour could be learned.
However, in the time spent with their mothers, to and from well-stashed kills, even when simply moving through the territory with her, there is believed to be a marginal amount of behaviour that can be learned through observation, and it was this behaviour that we witnessed recently.
Tracker Euce Madonsela had originally tracked and found the Nkoveni female on her own. Based on ten years of experience, Euce determined from her body language and behaviour that she was most likely returning to collect the cubs. He was right. Moments later, she appeared from a well-covered drainage line, and the two cubs followed in short succession. What unfolded for the 20 minutes thereafter was something quite spectacular.
The adult female would often walk ahead, and the cubs would follow where she had walked. On two occasions she also appeared to start stalking, only to look back and see if the cubs were watching (which they were). The cubs then started to climb a series of tall trees around us, seemingly exploring every branch in the hopes that they would find the kill that their mother had stashed for them.
After about the fourth tree, a cub climbed up a well-covered Jackalberry Tree, found the small bushbuck kill, and accidentally dislodged it from the branches, sending it crashing to the ground below. The interesting thing here is that the mother almost purposefully allowed the cubs to perform an exploration of their own to find the kill, rather than leading them directly to it, which guides have witnessed many times before. It was almost as if it was their first lesson in finding a kill on their own, without the guidance and assistance of their mother. It was a truly amazing experience for us to witness!
With the kill now on the ground, and without the relative safety of a tall tree, we were forced to leave the area to avoid attracting the attention of any unwanted scavengers. We can only assume that the Nkoveni female re-hoisted the kill at a later stage, allowing the youngsters to continue feeding in safety.
This may very well have been a first major life lesson for these young cubs, and it will most certainly not be the last.