Despite the almost unrivalled leopard viewing that reserves like Londolozi enjoy, the fact remains that the vast majority of a leopard’s life takes place out of sight of human eyes.
If we do some simple maths on it, we’re probably looking at under 10% of a leopard’s week during which it is being watched, and more likely less. If an individual was viewed for 2 hours per game drive, twice a day, 7 days a week (which never happens), that amounts to about 17% of the week during which it is under scrutiny. In reality, no leopard is viewed that much. Not even close. The Nkoveni female, whose territory encompasses the Londolozi camps, by rights should be being viewed almost daily, but in fact only a few sightings of her take place each week. She may be anchored in one place for a couple of days by a kill, but after that we will sometimes go a good 72 hours before we see her again, as she disappears into the Sand River or one of her many drainage line haunts. The fact is that due to the high density of leopards across the reserve, the viewing is fairly evenly spread across the population.
When it comes to leopard cubs, we see them even less than the adults. Probably 95% of their young lives are spent with no Land Rovers anywhere near them, and with so much of their time being away from any human presence whatsoever, it’s no wonder that so much of their development is missed. Yet adolescence for a young leopard is a continual time of learning; muscle development, honing of instincts, and unknown and often unseen by us is much practice of the fundamental skill sets a leopard will need when it gets older.
The Nkoveni female was found with a monkey kill a few days ago, and as dusk set in on a cloudy evening, those who were there were treated to an incredible sighting in which her female cub repeatedly took the carcass up into a small Peltaphorum tree before dropping it again, playing with it on the ground, then taking it back up into the branches. A small kill like this would have been inconsequential in the greater scheme of things had a hyena run in and stolen it. Both leopards appeared well fed, and must have just moved off another kill, as the monkey had hardly been touched. The small size of the carcass provided a perfect opportunity for the young leopard to practice hoisting and manoeuvring a kill.
Many times we have seen cubs attempting to reposition larger kills in trees and have them fall to the ground (the kill); the cubs’ strength and experience just aren’t enough to properly handle the weight of a bushbuck or impala carcass. Should there be a hyena lying nearby – which there usually is – the kill will invariably be lost before the mother can rush in to re-hoist it, although she will sometimes manage to do this in time.
In this instance however, the Nkoveni female didn’t really stand to lose much, so gave free rein to her cub to practice. Although it looked like play (as it does with domestic cats), it is in fact a serious endeavour by the animals; practice for the real thing.
Over the next few months the cub will hopefully be kills of its own. The impala lambing season is almost upon us, so expect to see updates of the Nkoveni female’s cub honing her new-found hoisting skills on the bounty that will accompany the rains.