Male leopards are well-known to practice infanticide, i.e. killing cubs that are not their own offspring.
This is well documented across large cat species. Once the cub has been killed, the male will often carry it around limply in his mouth.
What we are talking about here, is a situation that happened at least twice, in which the Senegal Bush male was observed carrying a live cub carefully just like the mother would. The cub was lifted gently by the back of the neck, which induces calming behaviour, causing the cub to lift its legs and stay still.
To give a bit of background – the Mashaba female recently gave birth to a single cub and was denning it in a small eroded cavern on the banks of the dry Maxabene riverbed. The den was situated in the heart of the Senegal Bush male’s territory. The Mashaba female and the Senegal Bush male had been seen mating on several occasions leading up to her pregnancy, so he is the suspected father. Although we did not observe her mating with any other males, there is a chance that she may have. This is typical of a female leopard in oestrus – a tactic to try and avoid infanticide with shifting male territories in future months.
When ranger Sean Zeederberg observed the Senegal Bush male staring into the Mashaba female’s den, with no mother around, real anxiety set in.
Although well hidden, the intent with which the male was staring into the den from about 30 metres away showed that he knew something was there. Nothing happened at that time but days later, the Tracker Academy checked on the den. The Senegal Bush male was there again. No mother was seen around the den at first. Within minutes of arriving, the male promptly went straight into the den and lifted out the three-week old cub. It let out a loud whine, typical of a cub begging to nurse when reunited with its mother after a period of absence. The fascinating part of it all was that the male did not harm the cub at all. The force of the leopard’s jaws is enough to crush an adult antelope’s skull. If it wanted to kill the cub, it would have done so immediately – it also would not have grasped the cub by the scruff of the neck (as shown above). However, he carried the cub onto the bank with great care, just like the mother would.
The mother came running in within seconds, attracted by the whine of the cub. We assume she was resting close by at the time. Instead of aggression, her initial response to the male with the cub now lying between his paws was submissive.
She rolled over, exposing her vulnerable underside to the male. Was this not a clear sign recognising him as the father? Her maternal instincts kicked in however, and a quick slash out at the male enabled her to retrieve the cub and guide it behind her. What then followed was quite amazing. The trio settled up within metres of each other with complete calm between all. Male leopards are not known to have any direct role in raising cubs. By securing their territory, they stop unrelated males from getting near to the cubs, thereby playing an indirect protective role. No babysitting (as in wild dogs) or direct contact as is seen in lion prides. So why has the Senegal Bush male been seen around the den on numerous occasions? It seems he has focused his time almost entirely in the direct vicinity of the den over the past few weeks.
After grooming the cub for quite some time, the Mashaba female moved the cub from that den to a concealed hole a bit further upstream in the Maxabene riverbed. She chose to use a den that she has used before, one in which a previous litter was lost to the Tortoise Pan male. We carefully placed an unobtrusive, infrared camera trap on a tree nearby.
The footage captured has provided invaluable information such as the time spent at the den, times visiting the den and also, unbelievably, which leopard is visiting the den. Yes, the Senegal Bush male was back. He was once again sniffing around, and was captured on camera again removing the cub from the den! See the footage below.
“Very Strange. I’ve never seen anything like this in any cats…” Guy Balme – Panthera, International Director of Leopard Programme.
The mother was right behind him; two minutes behind to be exact. The trouble now is, we don’t know where the cub has been moved to as we weren’t there to witness it. What we do know is that this den is no longer being used. Over the past week, tracks of the Mashaba female have been back and forth in the same area. Has she moved the cub again to another den? Or this time did the Senegal Bush male kill the cub out of uncertainty? For now we continue our search for the answers…