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.
Filed under General Nature History Leopards Photography Safari experience Wildlife
Finding a den site is certainly at or near the top of a guest’s bucket list, but the reality is, so much is dependent on discovering a leopard who has given birth. Timing is everything! I would love to experience the thrill of seeing week’s old leopards with or without their mom, but there so many other opportunities for special sightings of other animals, birds, etc. that the true enjoyment is just in being in nature……
An utmost perfect circle of life, to witness the birth of a cub and then seeing she is denning her own cubs. Too precious pictures! I appreciate the way you recognise leopards without collaring them, they stay wild and free and so their delightful cubs. Leopards dreamland!
Chris it is a momoth task to find a leopard den, not to mention the time, patience and determination from the Rangers and Trackers to keep looking until they find the den site. There is just something so special in seeing a tiny leopard cub, even more special if you can see it with your own eyes being transported by the Land Rovers and Guides and Trackers of Londolozi. We that can’t get to Londolozi, depend on the foto’s and video’s of leopard cubs, are truly grateful to be able to see these gorgeous tiny cubs and how mommy leopard cares for her cubs. Thanking you much for all these precious foto’s and video’s.
Such a special blog and photos Chris . Thank you. Leopards are the reason we originally came to Londolozi. All the people are why we keep on coming back.
Wonderful story of hide and seek with the mother leopards. Thanks for the pictures Chris.
Being able to watch leopard cubs is really one of the greatest experiences in the bush.
There is a lot of skill involved from the side of the guides and trackers, but also a lot of good luck.
Sometimes one just happens on a leopard mother and cub, sometimes the mother calls the little ones and allows us to watch them for a while. This is so rewarding.
A few weeks a go, we drove round a bend in the road – and right in front of us a leopard mum was carrying her tiny cub to a new den side. It all happened so fast – and it was still pretty dark in the morning – that nobody was able to take a photo.
Only days later and at another spot there were three cubs playing close to the road – they vanished into the bush very fast. Their mother was somehow. to around. What nice surprises the bush sometimes holds for us.
A fascinating read Chris. It definitely seems like you are looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Is there a defined breading season or can they and do they have cubs at any time of the year? I guess I’m asking which months of the year are you more likely to see leopard cubs? Just preplanning.
Lovely blog, thanks Chris. I was lucky enough to see Ndzanzeni suckling her 2 young cubs, who then played catch-your-mother’s-tail. The male cub is now Tortoise Pan, and I love comparing my photos of him as an incredibly cute young cub and the magnificent adult he has become.
Leopards…….there is absolutely nothing that I don’t like about them! Leopards and their cubbies…..and leopards playing and eating and interacting……just pure magic!