Having already raised two offspring to independence (Nkoveni and Ximungwe females), the Mashaba female cannot be said to be an unsuccessful mother. Two or more cubs raised over a lifetime is a good number for a female leopard in a high-density population like Londolozi, so she has already done what she needs to do to secure her genetic line. Still, we can’t help but feel saddened that she has lost her last 9-11 offspring. I can’t give an exact number because one litter was never seen, and may have contained 1, 2 or even 3 cubs.
The Mashaba female is currently Londolozi’s best known leopard. Her relaxed nature means she is comfortable around the camps and vehicles.
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.
Having been viewed by vehicles from an early age, this leopard is supremely relaxed around Land Rovers.
In mid-2016 the Ximungwe female became independent, which soon put the Mashaba female back into oestrus. She birthed a litter in the Bushbuck drainage not far from the Londolozi camps, but timing-wise she was unlucky, as the incumbent 4:4 male was mortally wounded around that time by the Ntsevu pride, which left the territory open for a new male. The Flat Rock male arrived on the scene within a few weeks, and is believed to have killed that litter.
In Winter of 2017 a litter of three cubs was being raised by the Mashaba female in a deep drainage system, but all were killed, possibly by lions moving through the area, as a lot of tracks were found on the morning that the cubs’ deaths were discovered. In March of this year a litter of at least two were seen in some rocks near the Sand River, which put the total birthed and lost since the Ximungwe female at at least 6. There may even have been another litter from early or early 2017 that I’ve forgotten about.
Then a couple of months ago the female was seen heavily pregnant, sniffing around the Maxabene riverbed, seemingly on the lookout for a new den. This was around about the time the Tamboti female had disappeared, and the Mashaba female had wasted no time in moving in to claim that territory. A brief sighting by Grant Rodewijk and Jerry Hambana of the Mashaba female moving a single cub into a termite mound den confirmed that she had given birth, but it wasn’t until a couple of weeks later that ranger John Mohaud and tracker Euce Madonsela followed the female from a kill back to a new den in the banks of the Maxabene Riverbed and they could confirm she had given birth to three cubs. The den was incredibly hard – if not impossible – to view the litter at, as it was a small hollow behind a tangle of tree roots, into which one could not get a view from any angle; you were entirely dependant on the mother or the cubs poking their heads up over the rim in order to get a view, and even then there was a dense Num-num bush mostly obscuring your view.
Making a number of kills not too far from the den over the week or two after its discovery, the Mashaba female’s movements were incredibly localised, and as far as we could tell her nightly forays were never further than a kilometre or so. Fortunately the proliferation of impala in the area meant that food was plentiful, and she never had to venture far.
One afternoon at the start of this month, rangers were working in the area, and hearing monkeys alarming in the very Tamboti thickets among which the den was situated, went to check if they could catch a glimpse of the female, and with any luck, the cubs. Arriving at the den itself and catching a brief glimpse of a leopard’s back in the hollow, it was initially assumed that the mother was there with her litter. Hope turned to horror however, when the leopard that stood up out of the hollow was not the Mashaba female, but the Ndzanzeni young male, and in his jaws was the limp form of one of the cubs.
This male had been seen on a number of occasions only a short distance to the south, pushing up with his mother the Ndzanzeni female in the wake of the Tamboti female’s death. With the Mashaba female having chosen to birth her latest litter right in the heart of this newly contested zone, it should have been on everyone’s minds right from the start what a danger this male posed to the litter, as he would naturally be exploring the area as much as possible in his new-found independence and under the umbrella of his father the Inyathini male’s territorial control.
The Nzandzeni young male was confirmed to have killed at least one of the cubs, but seeing as how there have been no further sightings of the other two since that day, and the Mashaba female has re-shifted her territory, it has to sadly be assumed that the whole litter was lost.
While it is tempting to get attached to individual animals, ascribing personalities to them and assuming they might be different to the rest, the Ndzanzeni young male’s actions simply prove once more that they are wild animals. They have no human agendas and aren’t interested in what we think of them. They probably don’t have the capacity to be in any case.
Whilst we may gasp in horror at this young male killing three defenceless cubs, we need to recognize that this is nature in its rawest form, and ultimately he didn’t do anything wrong. He was simply behaving the way he is genetically programmed to behave.
In the wake of her loss, the Mashaba female has shifted her movements back to her old stomping grounds of the drainage systems just south-west of camp. With the Nkoveni and Nhlanguleni females having moved in behind her when she left, however, it remains to be seen whether she is able to come back as easily as she might have hoped.