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.