It’s a beautiful thing winning the trust of a wild animal, especially one as enigmatic and vulnerable as a leopard cub.
It’s certainly not that they begin to trust you, but that they realise this big green thing trundling about their environment with funny clicking noises coming out of it is not a threat, and they can continue about their business with relative impunity (I’m talking about the Land Rover, FYI).
It can be a relatively short process; some cubs differ massively in temperament and there are a few that are unfazed by the Land Rovers practically from Day 1. Others – like the Piccadilly female’s cub we are currently viewing in the north of Londolozi – take a little longer.
It’s only been since the early parts of Lockdown that we started viewing the Piccadilly female with any kind of regularity, but in the last few months she has pushed deeper and deeper into Londolozi, and yesterday we saw her as far west as we ever have, beyond the Londolozi camps even. Her cub had been left only a short way behind her, being stashed for the day while the mother went hunting.
A sighting of a mother leopard with a nervous cub on the move through dense thickets is tricky. You have to balance keeping the leopards in sight, trying to get your guests the occasional good view for a photograph, yet remain at a distance at which the cub doesn’t feel threatened. Many is the time you will lose sight of the leopards completely, sometimes for minutes at a time, and only anticipation and healthy dose of luck allows you to find them again; a slight deviation in their course while they are moving through a dense Gwarrie thicket and you’ll never find them.
We were fortunate enough to spend well over an hour with the Piccadilly female and her cub as she led it away from where she had been keeping it for the previous three or four days. Timing was on our side and we found the pair just before sunrise as they were just about to enter the thickets. Two minutes later and we’d have missed them completely.
From there it was a constant tightrope walk of trying to enjoy the viewing while not scaring the cub. There was a real thrill in seeing how over the course of the morning the cub gradually relaxed. Although it was never completely at ease, always casting furtive glances in our direction, it was visibly more comfortable with the vehicle by the time we left it.
The view we had been hoping for all morning was mother and cub in the sands of the Manyelethi riverbed, but it was not to be as a Russet Bushwillow that had been pushed over by an elephant blocked our access down into the river, but James Souchon, watching with his guests from a high vantage point just to our south, had an amazing view of the pair moving across the exposed sand.
Apparently it was his guests’ first time seeing a leopard, and I simply can’t have imagined a more spectacular first sighting. I’m actually glad we didn’t manage to access the river, as seeing James’s photo of the two leopards in that pristine spot made me realise how much more special it was that there wasn’t a Land Rover in the background.
Some cubs are relaxed at three months, some never fully relax around the vehicles. As amazing as it can be to watch very young and already-habituated cubs doing their thing around a den or a fallen tree while their mother looks on, personally I find the reward of viewing an unrelaxed leopard – be it cub or even an adult – and slowly having the sighting become better and better because of careful management, far more satisfying.