Leopards are by nature incredibly secretive and elusive animals. Add to this a very lush and densely vegetated bushveld on the back of a very wet summer and a higher than average winter rainfall results in a very difficult task to find a leopard.
We’ve been lucky enough to get a few fleeting glimpses of the Mashaba Female’s latest litter of two, but for over a month now, all we’ve seen are tracks of the two little cubs. So where exactly is she keeping the cubs?
Female Leopard Territories
The Mashaba Female is the oldest female leopard that we see at Londolozi. At almost 14 years old she has long been one of the most viewed leopards on our reserve. Up to now, she has managed to raise two females to independence; the Nkoveni 2:2 Female (2012) and the Ximungwe 5:3 Female (2015). Mother leopards will usually cede a portion of their territory to their female offspring. The result is that the older more experienced leopard shifts her territory which means she will find and establish new den sites to keep her cubs in.
Towards the end of her roughly 3-month gestation period, she would’ve started looking for a suitable den to give birth in. A typical den site usually has a mix of thick bushes and rocks. This provides the young cats with ample places to hide while their mother goes in search of food. Over the years of following generations of Leopards at Londolozi, we have seen how leopards will very often use the same dens that they themselves were denned in. Perhaps this is one of the reasons their mothers cede territory to them.
Where have we seen the cubs before?
It was only a few months ago that we had seen the Mashaba Female in the central parts of Londolozi and she was heavily pregnant. It was a few weeks later before we managed to find her again but at this point, we could see she was no longer pregnant and had fresh suckle marks. The sight of a female leopard with suckle marks always brings with it a sense of excitement to the Ranger and Tracker teams at Londolozi.
Each day we all try to think where exactly she may be keeping the cubs. We think of the different roads to drive to look for her, slightly bigger than normal, tracks and to check any dens we know have been used in that area before. A specific set of boulders lies right in the centre of her territory which we refer to as Python Rocks. It got its name after a tragic sighting that John Varty and Elmon Mhlongo witnessed many years ago with the 3:4 Female. She was denning her cubs in these big boulders which, at the time, were covered in River Climbing Thorn (Senegalia schweinfurthii) bushes. A perfect den site if there ever was one.
John and Elmon had followed the leopard back to her den after a successful hunt and as she approached the den she called for her cub but to no avail. As she looked in the crevasses where the cub would normally hide she came across a huge African Rock Python. Immediately she knew what had happened and tried to attack the snake.
The python managed to curl itself right up against the boulders underneath the bushes where she could not get to. She sat atop the boulders waiting for hours before eventually, the python tried to make a quick escape. She was, however, onto it in a second and the snake regurgitated the cub. A sad but harsh reality of the threats that face young leopard cubs.
Born to the Tugwaan female in August 1992, this leopard would redefine the relationship between man and wild cat.
Years later the Mashaba Female having never been denned there herself, although a few other leopards such as the Ndzandzeni Female and Totowa Female have found this to be a perfect den for her latest litter too. Ranger Sean Zeederberg one day decided to try his luck and just check these boulders only to be surprised by the sight of two tiny leopard cubs sitting atop the boulder exactly where the 3:4 Female had sat waiting for the python; an almost poetic irony. After only a few sightings of the cubs here and another nearby set of boulders, we find ourselves where we are today having not seen them in over a month.
So where could the cubs be?
The cubs are almost certainly at an age now where she will be taking them to kills that she has made. From the age of about eight weeks, they will start eating meat. What this means is that she will most likely be moving the cubs from one den to the next after each carcass that she has taken them to. Over the past week tracker, Tshepo Dzemba and I have been searching high and low for any signs of the three leopards. With her new territory being a particularly densely vegetated area with roads that are quite difficult to see tracks on, we are having to base our search on where we suspect the cubs to be. We have had some really promising signs of fresh tracks of the small cubs in and around different boulders which means they are still alive and well.
The process of searching for her latest litter is a stark reminder of how fortunate we are to view these elusive cats as often as we do. I look forward to a follow-up blog in the not too distant future on an update as to where they are denning and how the cubs are doing.
The Mashaba female is currently Londolozi’s best-known leopard. Her relaxed nature means she is comfortable around the vehicles.