We’ve written a few times about 12 months being the golden number in leopard infant survival. Graph mortality vs. age and you’ll see a drop-off after this time, (although roughly 6 months is where the graph experiences the greatest decline). Granted, the first few months of a cub’s life are by far its most vulnerable, but it is only at around 12 months that their climbing skills, speed, and probably general awareness are such that they are finally becoming capable of avoiding or escaping the dangers that abound in this environment.
The Tatowa young female from her mother’s previous litter disappeared just short of 12 months, and the Nhlanguleni female’s last litter were killed by the Flat Rock male at around the same age. The Nkoveni female lost her two cubs – also to the Flat Rock male (well, one of them for sure) – at around the age of 9 months. I haven’t gone into the exact figures yet, but off the top of my head, almost every cub on Londolozi that has made it to a year old in the past decade has survived to independence.
So what does this mean for the current Nkoveni young female?
Well, the young leopard has been found frequently over the last couple of months; more often than not enjoying the fruits of her mother’s hunting success. Long grasses have provided ample cover for leopards all across the reserve, and the Nkoveni female in particular has been reaping the benefits. Impala after impala has been taken down and hoisted, and mother and cub have probably been the leopards featured most prominently in our sightings data since January; partly because the Nkoveni female has her territory close to the Londolozi camps, but also because of her prolific hunting success. That, combined with the extensive marula groves in the area mean that hoisted kills are generally quite visible to the eagle-eyed Londolozi trackers (and occasionally rangers when they manage to spot something before the trackers, an event in itself a cause for celebration).
At the age of one, the NYF is already taking on prey of her own, and has been encouraged to refine her stalking, killing and hoisting techniques by her mother (see video below). In a torrential downpour a couple of months ago, the Nkoveni YF (then aged 10 months) made an approach on a herd of impalas that was cut short by there being just too much distance between the thicket she eventually concealed herself in and the herd that was hunkering down against the cold and rain. What was most encouraging to see was her immediate recognition of a hunting opportunity, and with prey significantly larger than her. She had been up in a marula tree when she spied the impala, and immediately descended to make the approach. Her target would almost certainly have been some of the smaller impalas in the group, but still…
Read Mike Sutherland’s post from a few years ago about a previous Tamboti young female (now the Island Female) that caught an impala lamb when she was only 8 months old (the leopard, not the impala). It should be clear that a leopard is able to catch and kill prey from a young age – far earlier than 12 months – although availability of such vulnerable prey as a newborn impala lamb is going to be dependant on the time of the year.
Whilst many textbooks will tell you of how leopards become independent at anywhere between 18 and 24 months, we’ve historically recorded them becoming independent far earlier than that at Londolozi, usually between 15 and 18 months.
Going on the history – which is a good indicator in this area – I think we can expect the Nkoveni young female to have split permanently from her mother by the end of winter. When the impala lambs start dropping in late spring, she will have a huge boon of food to carry her through into her third year.
So back to the title question; can we start to celebrate her turning one year old? Well, she already technically has, but does this mean she’s going to survive?
Anything can happen of course, but if we simply examine a roll-call of the last few years, the Ndzanzeni young male, Tatowa young male, Ingrid Dam young female, Three Rivers female and Tamboti young female have all made it and are prospering. They all went storming past the one-year barrier and are set to take their places in the annals of the Leopards of Londolozi.
I’m feeling fairly confident that we can start planning a page for the Nkoveni young female as well…