There are many joys of being out in the wilderness and connecting to nature. The African bush can have an addictive effect on many people; as is evident in the many guests that travel thousands of miles each year over, returning to explore what can only be described as a feeling.
Not to mention the several rangers, trackers and other staff members in this industry who spend their days out in the field, constantly captivated by what this wilderness can provide. Most of the time these moments are memorable for their beauty and wonder. The sight of a sunrise on a cold winter’s morning, the deafening sound of a lion’s roar just meters away from you, or the fresh smell of rain on a summer afternoon are the typical memories that people associate with the African wild.
But occasionally, we are reminded that amongst all this beauty, nature in its rawest form can be as unforgiving as ever. However, we must ensure that we view that harsh reality in its entirety and see it as part of what has shaped and moulded this wonderful wilderness for without the severity we would not have the beauty.
Having been viewed by vehicles from an early age, this leopard is supremely relaxed around Land Rovers.
A few mornings ago, myself, along with ranger Guy Brunskill and our respective guests were witnesses to the death of one of the Ximungwe female’s 7 month-old cubs. This female leopard and her two cubs, which were estimated to have been born in mid-October last year, have provided some of the finest leopard viewing in recent months.
Guy and I set out that morning in search of the female, in the hope that we would be able to find her together with her two cubs. We made our way down into her territory and began scratching around looking for any fresh tracks to follow.
After half an hour or so the sound of impalas alarm calling caught our attention and we raced off in the direction that they were coming from. Shortly afterwards, Guy announced over the radio that he had found the Tortoise Pan male on the move. We moved in and enjoyed watching the young leopard as he marched through the dry winter grass and Combretum thickets.
It soon became apparent that he was following the scent of something, as he was keeping his nose to the ground and walking in a zig-zig fashion. He suddenly paused, raised his head and dashed off in the direction he was looking. At this point, we were in a relatively thick area and as we were trying to negotiate the vehicle through the trees and stumps we couldn’t quite see what he was after. We managed to stick with him though and soon spotted what he had seen earlier – the Ximungwe female was high up on a termite mound staring directly at the Tortoise Pan male who had now also stopped, giving us a chance to catch up to him. Directly behind the mound that the Ximungwe female was perched on, was one of her cubs, high up in the branches of a Marula tree. Our attention immediately turned to searching for the other cub who we now realised was in great danger.
I’ll briefly digress here to give some background on leopard’s breeding behaviour. Given that the Tortoise Pan male is a young male leopard, only just establishing himself as a territorial male in the past couple of months, he poses a major threat to all of the cubs in his range. Put quite simply, male leopards kill the cubs of any female leopard whom they have not mated with. They do not tolerate the perpetuation of the genes of another male and so by killing the cubs, the female shortly comes back into oestrus, allowing that male to mate with her and thus the male is able to perpetuate his own genes.
Therefore females, when in oestrus, will attempt to mate with as many males as possible in the area so as to trick the males all into thinking that the future cubs belong to them, which leads the them to tolerate the cubs and indirectly protect them. However, at the time that the Ximungwe female was in oestrus (roughly 10 months ago), the Tortoise pan male was not yet old enough to mate and had to be disregarded by the Ximungwe female during her bouts of mating, if she even ever came into contact with him. The same sequence of events took place with the Mashaba female and her second-to-last litter of cubs which ranger John Mohaud found to be killed by the Tortoise Pan male late last year.
Ultimately, the same fate would meet one of the Ximungwe females cubs on this day.
As I looped my vehicle around to get a side-on view with the Ximungwe female to our left and Tortoise pan male to our right, tracker Shadrack Mkhabela spotted the second cub a few meters in front of where we were parked. The cub and the Tortoise pan male had still not seen each other but were now only five meters apart with a small thicket between them. As the cub became aware of the danger it quickly dashed out of its cover in an attempt to get to safety but the Tortoise Pan male was too quick and in a matter of two seconds had pounced on back of the cub.
Like lightning, the Ximungwe female hurtled down from the mound and smashed into the male, knocking him off the cub. The two leopards fought ferociously for what seemed like minutes but was probably no longer than 20 seconds. As the fight slowly dissolved, the Ximungwe female turned to face her cub, which was lying motionless a few meters behind her. She walked up and nudged it with her snout and began grooming it but as she was licking the cub we began to see the blood.
The attack on the cub, although only lasting a couple of seconds had proved fatal. All of us sat there speechless, struggling to process what had just unfolded in front of us.
As humans, our immediate response to a situation like this is a mixture of emotions; sadness and pity for the female leopard and her cub and anger towards the male. Turning to my guests, I wasn’t quite sure what to say. It then became apparent to me that we had just witnessed nature in rawest form. It was a stark reminder that our human emotions can often cloud our perception of what we are seeing – not only in nature but in our day-to-day lives.
I believe living creatures in some way or another, make decisions from a point along a spectrum ranging from instinctual on the one end to emotional on the other. Humans dwell far more towards the latter while most other creatures sit far more towards the instinctual end. While emotions can no doubt have a positive effect on our daily outcomes we must always bear in mind that, in order to understand some things, most of what is around us is operating on a far more instinctual level and this level is largely fuelled by two factors: i) the desire to survive; and ii) the desire to reproduce. In the case of the a male leopard killing a cub, it is essentially these two instinctual factors between two creatures, fatally clashing.
Since that morning, the Tortoise Pan male and Ximungwe female have both been seen still hanging around the vicinity of where the cub was killed. Fascinatingly, the cub was found to be hoisted and partially fed on by the mother – a behaviour that John Varty has recorded twice before in the three instances that he has witnessed the death of a cub. The other cub which was last seen bolting down the trunk of the Marula as the attack ensued has still not been found again.
It is sad Chris but you explained it well and I do understand the reason behind it happening. Us humans are far too emotional. Life goes on and so does nature. I do hope the other cub will be found.
Thank you, Chris, for sharing this story of life in the wild. I know this is how nature perpetuates itself, but this brought tears to my eyes. I love leopards and so enjoy watching the cubs play and explore. Thinking of one being killed and knowing the fate of the others is very insecure now with the Tortoise Pan male establishing his territory is very hard to fathom. However, life goes on as it should in nature. Our human emotions must be experienced, then set aside. Life is different in the bush!
I was heartbroken as I read this. I have been following posts since I saw them. I very much appreciate your words which brought great understanding and perspective. Thank you!
Beautifully written Chris. Thank you for sharing and for your insightful conclusion.
Sad but informative. Reality of life can be brutal. Sometimes we humanize these animals and become attached in a small way. You reminded us of the daily fight for life and death. Thanks Chris
We feel fortunate to have gotten the chance to see these cubs out with you and Milton just last month, Chris. Thanks for sharing this story with everyone. Best of luck to the other cub!
Great framework for a difficult experience for humans to comprehend unemotionally!
It’s so sad that I hardly know what to say. I remember so well when Nkoveni ‘s 2 cubs were similarly killed by, I think, the Tortoise Pan male’s father. Chris, you wrote an excellent, thoughtful blog that explains it well – but it remains a raw story, hard each time it happens.
Hectic, do we know if it was the male or female cub?
Wow Chris, a fascinating and compelling sighting that you cannot turn away from. Sad but just the leopards personification of the Cycle of Life. Probably the most unusual sighting those guests have ever had!
Dear Chris. Thanks so much for this very sad incident which happens – and has been happening in the Bush – for many centuries. Do hope the other youngster will be found soon – alive and well. So hard to watch though all the same. Thank you for this well written article. Wendy M
Chris, great blog, really tells the story of leopards, including why the male goes after any young leopard that is not his prodigy.
Wow, that must have been difficult to witness. I know that a similar situation happened at Elephant Plains Lodge where the Xidulu Female was seen carrying her partially eaten cub that had been killed by another female.
I’m mournful at the loss of a young cub or perhaps two, but I understand how the feline predator males work to establish their status.
I was on a drive with Guy and Shadrack last November when we came upon the little Ximungwe cubs, tucked away safely in their rock fortress, little fluff balls barely visible through binoculars. I sat there quietly in awe, mesmerized by the new additions to the leopard family. My memories of that sighting left an imprint, knowing new lives had an opportunity to grow and become part of the Londolozi leopard population. Learning my favorite male after a prolonged viewing, my first day, was the one who killed this young cub, saddened me but I understand. Perhaps now that he’s mated with Mashaba, and potentially could mate with the Ximungwe female if both of her cubs are lost, he will cease hiss killing spree. Time will tell.
Hi Chris, very sad to hear. And I am sorry to hear about the experience for your sake as well. And to think that this exact concern with the young male had been written about in the blog just this past week, makes me feel even closer to the experience myself. Ironically, I have become a daily reader of the blog for this very reason. To feel a little closer to the characters in and around londolozi. And so as I get to know them all a little better I can feel a little closer to the experiences that are written about. And for the longer term goal for when I am finally blessed enough to be able to make the trip, that I feel even more connected than just having been dropped off not knowing anything about the coming and goings at londolozi. But as you say, these aren’t necessarily the experiences we sign up for in one way or another but we are reminded in these times of just how fragile life is within the confines of the amazing African reserves that exist today, and that each life matters more than ever.
As far as the actions of the mother after the incident. Coincidentally, It is interesting, I have read about this very experience probably a half dozen times just over the last couple months (in combination with the many times over the years). Both in articles and also documented on video. As of late, the witnesses to the experience are rather shocked at this action. But then there is me, and I have yet to watch/read about a cub being taken this way and the mother not reacting like this. One of the most widely available documentations of this is the Nat Geo series “Savage Kingdom.” I believe it was season 1 we see one of the leopard cubs taken by the local lion pride. The mother acted the same as what you write about here. I am confident this is normal behavior. And we can only speculate the purpose. I am going to assume it is the Mother’s last way of protecting her cub from the outside world. That she is going to go through this process in order to inhibit any living being from acquiring an interest or taste into one of her cubs. And secondly, for sake of pride, she just isnt going to let anybody feed on her baby. It is her way of giving her cub a more honorable goodbye. Of course, they arent as intellectual as this, but I really think it is an assortment of these feelings that lead a leopard mother to act in this manor. Certainly, it isnt driven by hunger. These cats an all big cats are far more intune with their lives and wit nature and just the world around them than we give them credit for.
What an incredible blog, with some fantastic insights into leopard behavior. I have chills reading this and although am absolutely heartbroken, it bears testimony to the level of tenacity this female leopard has to have gotten this far in life and to allow us into her private world. Thank you for this blog. I’m hoping we get to see her and her surviving cub later this year.
A raw story told very well. It is nature’s way, but sad to read much wise see in person…. regardless of understanding the why’s. Young Leopard cubs have such low life expectancy that we all celebrate a positive outcome. Nevertheless, I feel terribly saddened.
A sad reality, but such is nature. I suspect the mother ate the cub as a way to regain some of the energy she spent raising it, if that makes sense. I have seen rodents eat their young, but it’s usually right after birth. I can only assume in those cases the babies weren’t well enough to survive, or the mother did not have the energy or fitness to raise all of them, so she raised some and ate the others to improve her own position. Perhaps rodents and leopards aren’t that dissimilar in that regard. Regardless, I hope the other cub survived/survives, but wonder why the mother wouldn’t have moved her if the male was still hanging around in that area.
Thanks Chris, that must have been hard to see, it is nature at its most raw as you say but all the same difficult to play witness to.
Wow Chris, what a story. Incredibly sad for sure, and it must have been hard to face your guests… Amazing that Mashaba mated with him, but she is one smart female and she knows “how the game is played!”. Fingers crossed for the second cub!
Nature is not always a Disney movie. We know it can be harsh and relentless, but seeing it happen in front of you must be very emotional. It is the brutal truth of nature and one we as humans find hardest to accept.. Thank you for sharing and I hope the Ximhungwe female has better luck raising her next litter. Tortise Pan is a handsome boy!
Thanks for sharing. What a sad, informative post. Nature is a rough place. It’s some comfort to me that one of the leopard’s main competitors and an animal I really prefer, the hyena, has a society where this doesn’t happen for a reason I love – females won’t let it happen.