This will probably be a controversial question, given the delightful mother/cub interactions or cubs vs. litter-mates chasing antics that can be seen in a leopard litter or lion pride. But by its definition, can any of those behaviours be described as play?
If one looks up the meaning of the word, it refers to an activity undertaken for enjoyment rather than for any serious or practical purpose. Yet it is fairly clear that cubs do get great practical benefit from stalking or pouncing on other cubs; they gain experience. This experience leads them to a certain proficiency level by the time they become independent, so it can be said with a fair amount of confidence that these activities are undertaken for a practical purpose. Which effectively cancels them as play.
I guess the other way to look at it is to ask how much enjoyment they get out of it, or whether they can feel enjoyment? Again, these questions can be controversial, but the more I look at exact definitions of terms, the more I feel we are subconsciously personifying the wild creatures in whose very wildness we delight.
It is more often than not convenience that drives us to the use of the terms we assign. We want to say “play” without having to go into an adequate description of what that actually entails. And you know what? that’s ok. Language is there for communication, and we all know what the other means when they talk about lion cubs playing. I simply suggest that a deeper appreciation for the sighting can be achieved if one knows the real implications of that behaviour.
I think the important message here is that we need to be mindful of the characteristics we attribute to animals, and need to be sure that we are not projecting what we want to connect with in a situation onto them and their actions. In sightings like these, there’s usually very little need for any projection anyway. Simply watching a mother and daughter leopard interact, completely in the wild and un-impacted by man, is special enough.
Having said all that, I think the Nkoveni female was absolutely playing with her cub in these photos. And yes, I think they were having fun!