Leopard are the flagship animals of Londolozi. They represent the success story that is a reconciliation with the land and its natural inhabitants over the last four and half decades. Secretive, elusive and solitary by nature, leopards were shrouded in a deep sense of mystery until a concerted effort was put in by the founding guides and trackers of Londolozi to get just a glimpse into the world of one of Africa’s most iconic species. It was the Mother Leopard that paved the way for generations to come; allowing us to surpass our wildest dreams of leopard viewing.
From here, we began to understand the intricacies of the leopard’s world, their movements, interactions and habits which in turn allowed us to better conserve and preserve the land around them. Today, Londolozi is a leopard haven and we benefit every day from the work that was put in by those individuals.
Every leopard lover’s desire nowadays is to find and sensitively view a leopard in their most private moment; when they den their young cubs. Dozens of leopard den sites have been discovered across the reserve over the years however, while viewing these animals may have become par for the course, finding a den site takes a great amount of patience, skill and luck.
So what is it that we look for when looking for a leopard den site?
Firstly, you need to be sure that a leopard has given birth to cubs. This may seem like an obvious requirement but for some of the female leopards that we seldom view, their short gestations mean that they could fall pregnant and give birth without us being aware of the fact as they don’t show their pregnancy until the final stages. The tell-tail sign that we look for is suckle marks and a milk pouch on the belly of the cat which confirms that she has given birth and is currently caring for these tiny cubs.
Now the search begins. News will spread amongst the guiding and tracking team of a potential den site in a particular area and we then make a concerted effort to work that area during our game drives. Excitement levels grow as healthy competitiveness settles over the team.
Who will be the ones to find the den!?
We start to try to understand the micro-movements of the mother who invariably will be returning to the den site on a regular basis. We look for tracks of her that are hopefully moving to and from a certain area repeatedly and narrow our search down. It’s somewhat of a race against time as well. Mother leopards will change their den sites periodically and if we haven’t zeroed in on an area before she moves them, we start from square one again.
Prior knowledge comes into play as well as leopards will tend to use the same den sites for multiple litters, so long as their territory remains in the same region. However, this isn’t always the case and they may move to completely new dens as they grow in experience or shift/expand their territories.
Once you narrow down a potential den to a certain area you start to look for the finer details of what constitutes the perfect leopard den site. The main purpose behind using a den is that leopard cubs are incredibly vulnerable in their initial few months. Their biggest threat comes in the form of other predators and foreign male leopards. The stark reality is that the survival rate of these helpless newborns is low and sits somewhere between 20-40% depending on the area. The perfect den site is therefore geared towards protection.
The small cubs, who are born at a weight of just 500 grams (20 ounces) require small, very hidden and/or somewhat inaccessible areas to their major threats. Rocky places with small overhangs and crevasses that they can wedge themselves in. Occasionally termite mounds, previously dug out by another species, are used as their tunnels provide similar protection. Fallen trees, with dense vegetation, often in thick, deep gullies are also an ideal spot. The opportunities are endless which makes the task of finding the den a challenging one.
You could easily have looked at a certain area a few times only later to discover that it is in fact the den site as the cubs like to remain hidden when their mother is out hunting. In an ideal situation, you search for the mother, find her and patiently follow her back to the young ones if she so allows.
The sheer thrill of following a mother leopard as she dips down into a potential den site making her soft chuffing call to entice the cubs out is next to none – a moment that every ranger and tracker dreams to experience. The moment one of the most secretive animals on the planet decides to let you into their intimate world and expose you to one of their most vulnerable sides is an experience you’ll never forget.