When I first arrived at Londolozi I had only ever seen one leopard in my life. One. And that was only the briefest glimpse as he/she disappeared into a thicket next to the road, barely enough to even claim having seen it.
But just over 2 years later and I’ve had the privilege of seeing a great many of these stunning creatures. There really is no more beautiful animal in the Lowveld than the majestic leopard. Poise and grace in equal measure; perhaps the poise more prominent in that self-assurance of a big male, like the Senegal Bush Male as he snarls at a vehicle that has intruded on him mating with a female.
The grace is more prominent in the females, like the Three Rivers Female as she effortlessly leaps from one thin limb of a Marula tree to another. There’s a captivation in bearing witness to a leopard just be. But there’s also the fun element of being able to ID who’s who out there. And with cubs, this can be somewhat challenging.
As a means of tracking each individual and their movements for research and reference purposes, we have devised a certain strategy to identify a leopard by using various spots that are found just above the whisker line. Each leopard is then given a name for coordination and reference sake. When identifying a leopard, for instance, in an adult, you’d immediately assume an individual based on sex and what area they are in before finally going to check the spot pattern in our ID book that contains almost all of the 30-odd leopards that may be found on and around Londolozi.
But if you are in the central-eastern parts of the reserve and you are lucky enough to find tracks of a female leopard with two little ones following tightly behind, then you can’t help but get excited at the prospect of seeing the Nkoveni Female and her cubs, both also female. And if you find them, then you know you are in for a treat, this little trio can melt the hardiest bush-goers heart as they cavort across Tu-Tones clearings, chasing and pouncing on one another, the cubs constantly honing the skills they’ll need later in life.
A gorgeous female who is found to the east of camp. Easily recognised by her 2:2 spot pattern she is often to be found in Marula trees.
How does one tell the difference between the two cubs?
Well firstly, before you get caught up in trying to differentiate, I’d advise just enjoying the sighting. It’s a rare thing to see 3 leopards together. But secondly, I need to point out that we don’t officially name the cubs until they are independent so for now, they are just going to be Cub A and Cub B.
They are both females, now what? There is the seemingly obvious checking of the spot pattern. But this isn’t so easy when trying to lock onto these constantly moving targets. Cubs tend to be somewhat rambunctious and aren’t always in the mood to allow one to get anything more than the briefest glance at their face and spot pattern through one’s binoculars.
Size seems to be a big clue when solving this little riddle, Cub B is significantly bigger than Cub A. And then we can look at coat colour, Cub B has a noticeably darker coat than Cub A, much more golden than its sibling. The differences are quite subtle but definitely noticeable in the field. (you’ll just have to trust me on this!)
And finally, if you can get a bead on them through the binoculars or manage to snap a photo, you can look at the spot pattern! Which will, one day be their absolute defining characteristic when they become independent and are named and listed in the Panthera database.We have decided to go with the Cub with the 2:2 pattern to be Cub A, and the 3:3 pattern to be Cub B for simplicity in remembering which is which.
And here is where it gets very interesting. Given the extremity of the differences between the two cubs, a few of us suspect that something extremely interesting may have happened, something very unusual but by no means impossible (even in humans!), namely:
Superfecundation: the fertilization of two or more ova from the same cycle by sperm from separate acts of sexual intercourse, which can lead to twin babies from two separate biological fathers.
This is a fascinating concept that meshes well with the idea that a felid’s ovulation is induced through mating. A female may come into oestrus at any given point but it takes several days of mating to actually stimulate the release of her eggs; in that time, a stronger male may (by no means always) chase off the current mate and take his place.
The obvious benefit of this process, especially to the female, is that the strongest genes be passed on to her offspring. An added bonus is that the paternity of the cub is confused and therefore both males, having both mated with the female have a vested interest in ensuring the safety of the cub. This can be extremely beneficial when the female’s territory may lie on the rough boundary between two males.
And that is what some of us think may have happened here; twin sisters born of two different mating events! Given the territories, there are a number of combinations that could be possible; The Flat Rock Male, the Senegal Bush Male or Maxim’s Male would be my primary guess but either of those three in combination with a male leopard whose holds territory nearby could also be a possibility!
And as much as I enjoy the idea of this scenario actually playing out, living proof of the concept of confusing paternity in ensuring cub safety, there is also a strong chance that they are just naturally formed twins of single parentage. In the end, one must never forget to just enjoy the fact that you are witnessing a trio of leopards thriving in the wild together, by no means something you get to see every day!
A stunning young female with a very similar spot pattern to her mother, the Nkoveni Female. Litter still completely intact March 2022.
Also young and playful but rather with a spot pattern of 3:2. She is slightly bigger than her sister.
It hadn’t occurred to me they could have two different fathers, but it makes perfect sense. I guess they only way to know would be a blood test. Does Panthera ever take blood samples for their research?
Interesting Kyle! I am not into these hereditary things. Do you mean the spots of a leopard (or coatcolour) could be what is received from the father? Or just the spots that one can identify a leopard with?
Monitoring animals by knowing their characteristics and not by collars with transmitters is great. This trio is the highest example of beauty, grace and fun in the animal kingdom. I love leopards, they exhibit also a very various and complex, interesting behaviour. This mum has been just too smart and had luck in keeping her two precious cubs alive, I wish them a bright future! Thank you for telling on them
Thanks Kyle – I’ve just been looking at my photos from February, when we were lucky enough on our last drive to see both cubs playing together. I can now tell which is which! Now they’re 15 months old, it surely can’t be long before Nkoveni leaves them? – then I guess the playing stops and the hunting starts.
Thanks, Kyle, for the interesting article on identifying leopards.
The photos of the two cubs and their mother are just stunning.
Kyle the two cubs of the Nkoveni leopard are beautiful and it is a clever move from her to have to males matting her so that the lives of the cubs are more secure. Because male leopards usually kill the cubs because they do not carry his genes. The difference in the dots above the wiskers is a unique pattern to identify the leopards. I absolutely love leopards, for me, there is no other animal that is so majestic, agile and just so gorgeous. Especially those tiny little cubs with those blue eyes and furry bodies.
Kyle, thanks for the lesson in leopard identification . It helps when I look at the pictures that are posted.
What a great story! Lots of plots and twists.
Almost like a “who done it!!” Still leave you wondering 🙃
Cats…Cats…Cats we never get tired of watching them, and the antics of Leopard cubs chasing, pouncing, tackling each other and their mom never gets tiring! It took us several trips to Africa (mostly Kenya & Tanzania) before we ever saw our first Leopard. But in having found Londolozi we have truly “hit the mother load” as my wife is prone to proclaim. Thanks for sharing the basis of the naming protocol which for a long while was a mystery but your explanation and pictures explain it quite well.
Kyle, I love this interesting article. You’ve given us so much information about the identifying marks on a leopard in addition to how it is possible for twins to have different fathers. Now I don’t want to make something that’s most likely simple more complicated, but I definitely think it’s possible the Nkoveni cubs have different fathers due to the great differences in size and coloration. Either way they’re beautiful cubs and hopefully they will grow to independence like their siblings. By the way, I really appreciated the images highlighted with the red circles to define the identifying marks.
Great blog post! I took a photo of a female leopard in the Klaserie area in 2019 years ago. She had the most distinctive “swirl” of the markings on the left side of her forehead. Do you ever see any variations in the spotting in that area?
Wow, a fantastic article on leopards! My favorite animal is not only strong and beautiful, but fascinating to study! Thanks so much for the information!