Some of the most special stories that unfold from the bush arise from following the journey of a leopard from birth to adulthood. They start out as tiny, blind, helpless little fury bundles that are faced with many life-threatening encounters almost daily.
As the months go by, surviving each day, they slowly progress and transform into beautiful and powerful cats. All of which have a unique story behind them.
For the first 6 weeks, they are well hidden by their mother in a few pre-selected den sites within the core area of her territory. These could be dense stands of vegetation or thicket, a narrow gully along a dry watercourse, within boulders or rock crevices or even inside old, inactive termite mounds.
A mother will go to and from the den in the utmost secrecy, and avoid drawing any attention to the area. The greatest danger to leopard cubs is other males that assume no paternity over them. Although their father provides no direct parental care, he will defend his territory, within which the cubs’ mother’s territory is encompassed. He, therefore, provides a ‘safe zone’ from these rival males.
Territories however are not set in stone. They will shift around and move from time to time as and when pressures from the surrounding environment or other leopards arise or subside. This will mean that a mother with cubs will need to remain within the presumed father’s territory in order to retain this protection from other males.
Recently we have observed that the Ximungwe Female and the Three Rivers Female have both shifted the core areas of their territories to mirror the recent territory shift of the males who are the presumed fathers of their cubs (Senegal Bush Male and Maxims Male respectively). If these females were not raising cubs, they would be less inclined to do so. I suspect that once their cubs have reached independence, they will gravitate back toward their known areas.
Forced into early independence as her mother was killed by the Southern Avoca Males.
Fairly skittish male that is presumed to have come from the Kruger National Park.
Once the cubs become a little more mobile, they will no longer make use of a familiar den. This marks a significant new stage in their lives. They now become exposed to dangers that even their mother is vulnerable to. Every day their mother will need to make crucial decisions regarding their safety. They will still need to be stashed or hidden somewhere safe when she is out hunting. Successfully raising leopard cubs involves a lot of strategising by their mother. Much like playing a dangerous game of chess with the bush – one wrong move could cost her the life of her cubs.
This may be conjecture, but less than 30% of leopard cubs make it to adulthood. This is counting known cubs that we have actually seen. The true figure could well be less. In the Sabi Sand Wildtuin, an area with high densities of other predators, this figure seems feasible. Highlighting the extreme vulnerability of these cats whilst in their infancy.
The weaning process begins at about three months when they begin eating meat and young leopards tend to develop a voracious appetite. They grow incredibly quickly during this stage in their lives and they place an enormous workload on their mothers. A mother will need to hunt for herself as well as her hungry dependents. It goes without saying that the bigger her cubs get, the more frequently she will need to make kills. Each step forward that young leopards take towards their independence tends to place increasing demand on their mothers.
Once cubs reach about a year old, they are almost equally as mobile as their mothers. Their body proportions start to make them look like little adults. Still dependent on their mother for survival, she will however be far more confident in their ability to fend for themselves while she is out hunting. She will no longer need to hide them away. The cubs will be left in a general area where they might roam around and keep themselves occupied by either playing and exploring or practising hunting small prey.
Not that the job is quite done yet, but a little after a year a mother leopard will begin to assume that her once-tiny bundles of fur will soon be fully-fledged young adults. Although the cubs might have developed a great deal of prowess and physicality, they definitely lack the experience of their mother. It will only be a matter of time until they reach independence and go off on their own. The females will generally leave their mothers at roughly a year and a half, and males closer to the two-year mark.
These cubs will begin to spend less and less time with their mother and they will begin to do more of their own hunting. Their deeply ingrained instinct to set up their own territory and one day have cubs of their own, draws them away from the comfort zone of being with their mother. In the case of young males, it’s the instinctual urge to leave a familiar area and finally set sail. An enormous new and unexplored wilderness awaits them, where they will look to grow and mature. And one day carve out and maintain a territory of their own.
And within as little as a few months for the successful mother leopard, the cycle will start again.