As I’m sure many of you read in Chris Taylor’s recent TWIP, he mentions the finding of not one but two new leopards dens.
The Ximungwe and Nhlanguleni females have both had heavy milk pouches and fresh suckle marks seen on more than one occasion. What makes it so exciting is that I mentioned in a blog post roughly a month ago when we found the Ximungwe female with a kill in the south-eastern part of the reserve, and by observing her behaviour we could as good as confirm that she had cubs/a cub somewhere; we just had not found them yet.
With the bush still very thick thick, it is easy to drive straight past a leopard in the grass, never mind finding a cub of only a few weeks old.
We had spent the better half of the morning with the Three Rivers female in the deep south-east, who I should add also has suckle marks, but this sparked conversation with my guests about which other females could possibly have cubs on the property, and one I was fairly confident in saying was the Ximungwe Female.
We had struggled finding her and if we did, struggled staying with her due to the nature of her movements through unnavigable areas. This was all about to change.
We were no more than 10 minutes away from camp, energy at a high after a successful morning, mid-conversation, when teammate and tracker Shadrack let out an excited call of “Leopard, leopard, leopard!”, faster than most could talk. We stopped and reversed to get Shadrack into the vehicle in order to approach through the thickets.
As we looped around we were positioned directly in line with her as she strolled towards us. It was the Ximungwe Female.
Ecstatic was probably an understatement of the emotions on the vehicle when we realised it was her, and the first place we looked was at her belly; to see a full milk punch and fresh suckle marks was a huge sigh of relief. She had clearly just left her cubs.
She was walking north up the road not far away from camp but parallel with a small riverbed. One can only imagine the flick flacks my brain was doing trying to scan my memory and recall any potential den sites in that area. We followed her and she cut off the road into a thicket where she didn’t pop out.
We stopped and listened and after a few minutes we could hear the crunching and cracking of bones. We manoeuvred our way into the thicket where we discovered she had stashed an impala ram kill. We watched in anticipation in the hope we were going to see her cub emerge out of the bush somewhere, but it was a long shot given that she looked like she had been returning to the kill from a den.
We left after 45 minutes, and decided we were going to return early that afternoon to sit with her until she hopefully walked us back to her den. We arrived at around 16:00 to find no sign of her; the kill was still stashed away in the thicket but we couldn’t see the leopard. Shadrack and I then moved out and walked the drainage line a few hundred metres away to see if we could see any fresh tracks of her, to try and establisha more accurate direction of the den. After searching for about half an hours we came up with nothing.
I returned to my guests and left Shadrack on foot. James Tyrrell had now joined him (watch out for this story coming soon on our Instagram and YouTube channels) and we went back to the kill. To find her feeding again! Where she had been hiding we weren’t sure, but this time we weren’t letting her out of our sight.
This didn’t last very long until she crossed the drainage where our vehicles couldn’t go. The search began again; a couple of us were searching the area in the direction she had last been seen heading. I looped around and sat patiently so see if we could hear any francolins or something alarming at her. But no luck.
Moments after that I got a radio call from Shadrack and James were were walking in the drainage just in front of where I was, I stopped, hopped out and as I started to walk in their direction when my radio crackled to life. It was another call saying they had just found the den!! The sense of excitement was overwhelming. We had confirmation that there was at least one cub.
We now sat at the den in dead silence waiting for the mother to return. It finally happened: 45 minutes later we heard the soft contact call and chuff from the mother. Almost simultaneously we saw movement a the base of the rocky outcrop. We followed the rustle of the grass until we knew mother and cub had reconnected. We have been back twice since and only had very brief view of the cub. It is still very nervous around vehicles and we are yet to get a clear photograph of it. Nevertheless it’s so incredible knowing that there is a possibility of seeing it more often with time to come.
This for me will go down as one of my most memorable days and something I shall not forget in a hurry.