The Ximungwe female had stashed a kill under a thick Combretum bush that was growing at the base of a marula tree. The grass was long and we could hardly see her two cubs that were also present at the sighting.
Less than 50 metres away, the Mashaba female – the Ximungwe female’s mother – was lying in the branches of another marula tree, well fed and sleeping.
It has been well documented in the Sabi Sand Reserve that female leopards will regularly establish territory alongside their mother’s territory, or even appropriate some of it for their own. Adult females will in fact cede off territory to their daughters, so eventually you end up with pockets of related females – mothers, nieces, cousins, etc. – with the theory being that a high level of genetic relatedness helps reduce infanticide, thereby furthering genetic lineages, which is the whole point of being a reproductive organism. Although this approach in leopards will only really work above a certain degree of relatedness (third cousins twice removed won’t recognize the fact; it will generally only be between immediate relatives eg. mothers and daughters or siblings from the same litter that there will be tolerance), it is still effective enough to work, and we have seen a number of mother/daughter interactions over the years in which cubs of one or the other are tolerated by the encroaching female.
The Ximungwe female and cubs started feeding on the kill one by one (they will almost never feed on a carcass at the same time). One of the cubs started moving into a more open spot and the quality of our view skyrocketed.
Suddenly the adult gripped the kill in her jaws and started walking with it. We quickly looked around to guess which tree she was likely to hoist in. A marula tree about 5o metres away seemed the obvious choice; the closest marula in the direction she was walking had a long vertical trunk which would have been difficult to get up and hard for the cubs to climb. Having made up our minds and hoping the leopard had reached the same conclusion, we drove ahead to position ourselves near the chosen tree.
The Ximungwe female paused at the the first tree and looked up; a good sign she would hoist there. Our hearts fell.
She then decided against that tree, thankfully, and continued towards where we had parked.
The angle of the trunk was far easier for a climb with a kill, and up she went:
The way the kill was initially positioned in the tree was rather precarious, and we suspected it may fall before too long. Sure enough, after about 10 minutes, down it came, slipping just too fast for the female, who made a quick snatch at it.
The light was fading, and the leopard was almost certainly aware of the chance of losing the kill to hyenas if it stayed on the ground, so she scurried down the tree and immediately re-hoisted it:
Unfortunately my camera battery died just about now.
The Mashaba female meanwhile had come down from her marula, and moved towards the Combretum thicket where the kill had originally been stashed. She began following the scent trail of where it had been dragged, steadily approaching the new tree where the kill was now hoisted. The Ximungwe female saw her mother approachin, and shot down the tree to confront her, snarling and making sure she knew her presence was unwelcome. The Mashaba female responded by scent-marking, while the two Ximungwe cubs shot to the upper branches of the marula they were in.
The Ximungwe female stayed at the base of the tree growling, while her mother moved off into the gloaming.
It was fascinating to see the hostility between the two adult females. They may be mother and daughter, but the overriding instinct in the Ximungwe female was to protect her cubs, even if it meant acting aggressively towards the female who birthed, cared for and raised her…