What is it about baby animals of any species that appeals to us? Regardless of the species, whenever we are out on safari we get the oohs and aahs when we encounter baby animals. There are few better ways to sway the negative opinion of a predefined stereotype of a less revered species than to show guests the few-week-old version of the adult form. This is certainly true with animals like wildebeest and hyenas.
However, I’m yet to meet a guest that is not itching to see a leopard cub. So what is the current status of Londolozi’s most revered felines and their cubs?
There are deep psychological reasons why humans find babies of all species so cute. Scientists believe that the powerful nurturing instinct we have for our own children spills over into an affection for anything that even loosely resembles them.
Only a few months ago tracker Tshepo Dzemba and I were trying to think of which territorial female leopard on Londolozi didn’t have cubs. Our conclusion was, as long as they were old enough to actually bear a litter there was not a single leopard without cubs that were at the very least still somewhat dependent on their mother. Fast forward four months and the status quo has changed. This a reminder that the harsh reality for female leopards is that it is not an easy task to raise cubs to independence.
There are many dangers that lurk around every corner in an ecosystem filled with apex predators constantly vying for their next meal or eliminating any competition for resources. It is not uncommon for even our largest carnivore, lions, to lose their cubs to a leopard that stumbles upon an unguarded litter while out on patrol of his/her territory. The reality is that we don’t always know what happens to the leopard cubs. For the first few months of their lives, they are moved from den to den and sightings can often be few and far between. Once they reach an age where they are led to a meal by their mothers our chances of good sightings of the cubs increase, as they spend a day or two feeding on a hoisted carcass. We can often, but not always, use this as an indication of whether the cubs have been lost. If a mother has a cub she is very likely to bring it to a carcass to feed or go back to nurse it and feed it milk. If she does not over repeated carcasses then we can assume the cub did not make it.
This can often, although not always definitely, be an indication that the cubs have been lost if a female leopard has been feeding on a carcass for a few days with no sign of her having fetched the cubs.
A Brief Synopsis of the female leopards and their current cubs
Ximungwe 3:3 Female
Having successfully raised the Mahlahla Male to independence towards the end of 2020 we were all excited when at the beginning of 2021 she was seen reusing some of her old dens again. Fast forward almost two years and she has now successfully raised her second cub to independence. The Ximungwe Young Male is now almost always seen without his mother apart from a few isolated sightings but with his mother clearly showing subtle yet aggressive signs to him that he now must start to fend for himself. Her recent bout of mating with the Senegal Bush Male is all but a final sign that her young male cub now has only himself to rely on going forward.
Having been viewed by vehicles from an early age, this leopard is supremely relaxed around Land Rovers.
A single cub of the Ximungwe Female's second litter. Initially rather skittish but is very relaxed now. Birth mark in his left eye.
Nhlanguleni 3:2 Female
Her last litter was a litter of two born towards the beginning of 2022. A large part of her territory is the Sand River west of our camps. This section of the Sand River is particularly thick with few easily accessible areas to get a vehicle into. She tends to frequent dens that she has used in the past and so we were fortunate enough to spend some quality time with her latest litter. Our last sighting of her, with what became only one cub, was in a drainage line only a few weeks ago. Since then we have seen her mating with the Senegal Bush Male on two separate occasions, each for several days at a time, and so we assume her efforts are now solely focused on a new litter in the next few months.
Initially skittish she spent a lot of time in the Sand River, now relaxed she makes up the majority of leopard viewing west of camp.
Nkoveni 2:2 Female
She has been one of the more frequently seen leopards on Londolozi for a number of years and having only successfully raised one cub to independence at the age of 10 years old we were all hoping for her latest litter to get to independence. Her two female cubs from the same litter born in February 2021 have provided us with some incredible moments over the past 18 months. All three leopards are still sometimes seen together but these moments are becoming less and less common as the two young females are spending more and more time alone as they approach independence. The next six months will most likely see these two young females go their own separate ways and the Nkoveni Female will most likely look to start mating again soon.
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.
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.
Plaque Rock 3:3 Female
Although the Plaque Rock Female’s territory is very close to camp she is not seen as frequently as one may think. Even more so were the two separate litters that she has had over the past year. With only a few sightings of each litter and with tracks of her going in and out of dense Wild Date Palm thickets that line the Sand River east of our camps we assumed her cubs were kept well hidden from vehicles along the river. Having seen her with no suckle marks over the past few months as well as her mating with the Maxim’s 5:3 Male it is safe to assume that this young female still has a lot to learn to hopefully raise one of her next litters to independence.
Three Rivers 2:2 Female
She lost her mother at a very young age and defied the odds to survive after being forced into early independence. This is perhaps part of the reason that only at the age of 5 did she have what seemed to be her first litter. Her male cub now approaching a year old has grown tremendously in size and is about the same size as his mother already. The toughest part of raising a cub is the first few months until about 6 months old when they become quite accomplished climbers which allows them the sanctitude of the treetops to evade any danger when left alone. Having surpassed this milestone it looks very promising that this duo of leopards will continue to meander the southeastern section of our reserve over the next year before the young male will need to start fending for himself.
Forced into early independence as her mother was killed by the Southern Avoca Males.
One of two cubs to survive, the sister lost at five months. Still dependent on his mother, but is growing into an impressive young male.
Ndzanzeni 4:3 Female
After losing her litter of two towards the end of 2021 she has become more elusive in the deep southeastern parts of Londolozi. We had seen her with fresh suckle marks and a milk pouch in the first quarter of 2022 but she managed to evade numerous efforts from our Ranger and Tracker teams’ in finding her cubs. With her becoming one of our older territorial female leopards and an essential link to our Mother Leopard lineage we are hoping for her to be able to raise another successful litter post the Tortoise Pan male of 2018.
This female is a success story all in herself, being born as a single cub to the Riverbank 3:3 female in early 2012.
Mashaba 3:3 Female
Having spent countless hours tracking this female and her cubs around the middle of 2022 tracker Tshepo Dzemba and I were rewarded with albeit a brief glimpse of her last remaining cub. The cub has only been seen by vehicles on a handful of occasions and so it was extremely skittish. Sightings of the Mashaba Female have been more frequent over the past few weeks but we have yet to see the cub again. We aren’t sure whether she has been able to keep the cub alive, but it certainly would be quite an achievement to do so as a 14-year-old mother.
The Mashaba female is currently Londolozi’s best-known leopard. Her relaxed nature means she is comfortable around the vehicles.
Xinzele 4:4 Female
As a six-year-old leopard she has not yet been able to successfully raise a litter but her latest litter, born in April 2022, has been giving us all some hope. Her litter of two has been reduced to one last female cub. Sightings of them have been few and far between mostly due to their territory which falls partly on our property and partly on our northern neighbours. Her territory is easily one of the more picturesque areas on the reserve and so exploring the beautiful banks of the Manyelethi riverbed with its adjacent leadwood forest always offers the rare reward of seeing what seems to be the youngest cub on our reserve right now.
A small female often found in NW Marthly. Similar spot pattern to her mother the Ingrid Dam Female.
The beauty of spending the amount of time that we do on our reserve is that we get to follow the story of all of these fantastic felines. The tough part is to try not to get too attached to the young cubs. The reality is that most of the cubs we get to see will not make it to an age where they can fend for themselves. With the status quo having changed from most female leopards having dependent cubs to one where they are either without cubs or theirs are approaching independence means we could be in for a bout of searching for dens with new cubs. The story always continues…