One thing you learn fairly quickly as a ranger or tracker out here is how risky it is to get attached to a wild animal, particularly a cub. With the odds stacked against them and survival rates low for the big cats, happy stories are, sadly, few and far between.
So when one does occur, there is much rejoicing.
The Tatowa female, one of Londolozi’s least seen, was last viewed with her two cubs well over a month ago. Inhabiting an area in central Londolozi where very few things are in your favour when it comes to finding leopards (extensive thickets, difficult vehicle access and difficult substrates for tracking), sightings of her have been sporadic . Since her cubs have been weaned for a number of months now, a simple viewing of the female would give no indication as to whether or not they were still alive, as she would not have suckle marks telling us that the cubs had been nursing.
Given that the cubs are around 9 months old now, we knew that the Tatowa female would be leaving them for longer and longer as she hunted to feed all three of them, so even though she hadn’t been seen with either male or female cub for a good few weeks, we still held hope that they were alive, concealed in a thicket or deep drainage line of which her territory is full.
And our hope was rewarded a few days ago when Londolozi’s Managing Director, Chris Kane-Berman, was out on drive and radioed in that he had found a female with two cubs next to the Tatowa drainage line (after which the female is named). Knowing that the Tatowa female was the only leopard that could possibly have two cubs on the reserve (the only other female still raising a cub is the Tamboti female, and she only has one) we immediately raced to the area, and found Chris viewing the three leopards lounging on the fallen trunk of an old Schotia tree.
The young male had a full belly although the other two were slightly less well-fed, so we presume they had just finished off a kill, most likely something small.
The mother led the cubs away down the drainage shortly after they were found, eventually leaving them in a rocky area near Python Rock, itself an iconic location in Londolozi’s leopard history. There they remained for the next 24 hours while she went off and hunted. Rangers returning to the scene next morning found them nearby, huddled together on top of a termite mound.
And now, once more, they are gone; disappeared into the fastness of their mother’s territory. As discussed previously on this blog, the survival chances of leopard cubs are highly dependant on how successfully the dominant male (their father) can defend his territory. The number one cause of mortality in leopard cubs is male leopards that aren’t the father, and in this case, it is the Inyathini male that is ruling the roost down in southern Londolozi. Thankfully for the Tatowa female and her cubs, the death of the Piva male, although it saw the Inyathini male expanding his territory further north, didn’t see him abandoning his southern areas. He still patrols through the area, venturing right down beyond Londolozi’s southern boundaries, and the Tatowa female’s territory lies firmly within his.
So while the Nkoveni, Mashaba, Tamboti and Nhlanguleni females have all experienced the knock-on effects of the Piva male’s demise, the Tatowa female has not and it has been business as usual.
As long as the status quo remains unchanged, even though we may not see them for another month, the two Tatowa cubs are looking more and more likely to be the first litter to survive intact to independence since the Tutlwa litter of 2012!