It’s common knowledge that leopard cubs have a high mortality rate.
What’s also well known is that competing males are the single biggest cause of cub deaths; interlopers and rival territorial males will kill young leopards that they didn’t father, both to remove potential future competition but mainly to bring the territorial female back into oestrus.
Knowing the facts doesn’t quite prepare you though, when it seems you might see the actual event taking place live in front of you; something that even the most hardened bush-goer won’t want to witness.
The Nhlanguleni female has been stashing a pair of cubs in and around the western reaches of the Sand River on Londolozi, although sightings of the litter have been few and far between. Recently however, Equalizer Ndlovu and Freddy Ngobeni tracked the female and cubs to a prominent boulder cluster where both she and the Mashaba female have been known to den before, and they caught a brief glimpse of one of the cubs on foot.
With no sign of the mother, it was decided that we should return the next day to see if they were still there.
After finding the Anderson male nearby on the morning we returned, we were hoping for the cubs themselves on the rocks themselves as the cherry on top . We weren’t too worried about the Anderson male having been close, as he had mated with the Nhlanguleni female a number of times and it was suspected that he was the cubs’ father, and therefore not a threat to them.
Born to the Tutlwa female in early-mid 2011, the Nhlanguleni female spent her formative months (and years) in and around the Sand River.
Unofficially the biggest leopard in the Sabi Sands, the Anderson male is an absolutely enormous individual in north western Londolozi.
We checked the den and then the surrounding area, driving loops, checking game paths and all the dusty tracks, but we couldn’t find any sign of the female returning to her litter, or of her leading them to a kill (they are old enough now to be taken to kills).
Concluding that they were probably still at the den, just remaining hidden, we decided to head home for breakfast, but as we were bypassing the boulders for the last time, we suddenly spied the two cubs on top of one of the big rocks.
It was a beautiful view, with the relaxed cubs lying out in the open, completely unconcerned with the presence of a vehicle, which is in stark contrast to the behaviour of the Nhlanguleni female’s last litter.
Not knowing whether or not the mother was there amongst the boulder field, we took a few photos and were preparing to leave the cubs be, when the alarm chattering of a squirrel from further up the riverbed suddenly burst out. Glancing towards the tamboti grove where the squirrel was calling, we saw an adult leopard emerging from the grass, and were thrilled that this was probably the mother returning to the cubs.
However, as the leopard came out into the open, we realized to our horror that this was a male completely unknown to us, and therefore the deadliest threat to the two small leopards, who were still lying exposed on the rock.
The unknown male was sniffing around carefully, and was clearly very aware that another leopard had spent time in the area. He came closer and closer to the den-site to investigate, and our concern levels were rising steadily with his approach.
He got to a point opposite the cubs and paused, and it seemed like he was staring straight at them, but I think they were hidden behind a clump of bushes, and the angle was deceiving us. He still hadn’t caught sight of them.
As soon as the male put his head down to sniff some more, the cubs silently slithered off the back of the rock, hopefully into a deep crack where they would be safe. This is exactly the reason that female leopards choose such dens; crevices and holes provide safe refuges that bigger predators can’t fit into to reach the young.
The male was by now down at the base of the boulders, and after staring for a long time towards where the cubs had been (and he may well have heard some scuffling of them in a hole), he leaped across to the main den area.
By now we were really worried, and concluded that whatever happened, we didn’t want to be around to see it. Should the male catch either of the cubs, “unpleasant to see” wouldn’t quite describe it adequately, but if they stayed safe, there wouldn’t be much to see anyway, and he would most likely simply slink away.
Driving off, we were understandably anxious for the cubs’ safety. Ranger James Souchon and tracker Richard Mthabine checked the area that afternoon but found no sign of the youngsters or their mother. The unidentified male was found again to the north of the Sand River (the den was on the southern bank), so at least he was no longer in the proximity of the cubs’ hiding place.
We knew it might be days before we knew the fate of the cubs, or that we might even never know, but to our enormous relief, 48 hours later, ranger Greg Pingo caught sight of them scurrying back into the safety of the den when he drove past, still alive and none the worse for wear after their ordeal.
Although rival males are the single biggest threat to young leopards, I shudder to think how many times small leopards have potentially fatal encounters like this but escape by little more than a whisker…
At a less secure den site, the outcome might have been very different, and far more tragic.