This is one we’re still scratching our heads over.
Every time we reach the conclusion that the litter must have been lost, new evidence pops up that gives us hope that at least one of the cubs might still be alive.
Let’s rewind the clock.
On Christmas night, the Mashaba female gave birth to a litter of three in a deep drainage line not too far from camp, but the den was very exposed. With the cubs being so small, we left the den alone. Tracks of the mother continued to lead down into the gully, and for at least two weeks she continued to keep the cubs there.
Eventually a check-up on the den revealed that she had moved, but to our consternation, hyena tracks were all over the area, and Tracker Innocent Ngwenya found a spot where there had been a big confrontation between the female and a couple of hyenas. We feared the litter was gone, but subsequent tracks over the next week or so suggested that the leopard may have moved the cubs in time, to a previously used den in the next drainage system to the east. Tracks of her visiting this boulder cluster and leaving again seemed to confirm this.
This particular den we knew of from previous litters, and it was a simple hollow under a large boulder, flanked and protected by a termite mound. Termite mounds can be as hard as rock, and the den was therefore deemed a good one.
Within a few days of the supposed cub relocation, trackers found a fresh trail of pug marks heading towards the den, and a vehicle was dispatched to see if the female was on site and a possible view of the cubs could be obtained. To their horror, the termite mound that protected the entrance to the den had been completely excavated, and the den’s opening was totally exposed. Of the cubs there was no sign.
Although the initial suspicions were of hyenas, the tracks around the digging were revealed to be those of a honey badger!
Honey Badgers are known to have a catholic diet and it is not inconceivable that vulnerable leopard cubs could represent a meal for one (or more).
Whatever the case, the den was clearly empty.
Tracks of the Mashaba female moved past the site on a couple of occasions over the next week or so, then stopped doing so.
We simply thought that that was it.
Then about a fortnight later, Dave Dampier found the female on a kill much further to the south. He couldn’t see if she still had suckle marks or not, but the next morning while driving in the Maxabene Riverbed, I bumped into the female returning to the kill. And here’s where the real mystery starts.
Female leopards will generally only ever leave kills to get water or to nurse cubs. The nearest available water to the kill was a pan system filled with good rainwater, very close by to where the impala carcass was hoisted, yet the Mashaba female was coming from much further afield. She was moving through relatively thick bush, and I was unable to see whether or not she was still lactating, but it appeared to me as if she was.
She has hardly been seen over the last couple of weeks, but her tracks continue to go into and out of a particular block to the south of the Maxabene Riverbed. Tracker Judas Ngomane attempted to backtrack her one morning to see if she was denning cub/s there, but was thwarted by a herd of elephants feeding in the thickets.
Does this leopard still have cubs? We have recorded multiple occasions in which we have believed a litter lost, only to discover one or more of them alive and well weeks later.
We’re keeping fingers crossed that this is simply another of those times.