The Nhlanguleni Female’s journey through motherhood has been fraught with trials and tribulations. While we are well-acquainted with the hardships that leopard mothers face, it seems that the Nhlanguleni Female repeatedly draws the shorter straw. Out of at least nine litters, encompassing no less than 15 cubs, she has only succeeded in raising two daughters to independence: the Nkuwa Female and the Finfoot Female, born in March 2018.
After discovering her most recent den, we were ecstatic. Notably, we were in fact, unaware of her pregnancy. She had already had and lost a litter earlier this year, born in January, and tragically, they perished at six to eight weeks old. However, a simple calculation, based on the last sighting of her previous litter 116 days before we found the den, reveals that her recent cubs were around a week old. A leopard’s gestation typically spans 95 and 100 days. Factoring in it could have taken a couple of days before the loss of the previous litter, an additional few for her to enter a subsequent estrus cycle and the mating process to begin and for her to conceive.
The Nhlanguleni Female, a prominent leopardess to the west of Londolozi’s Camps, has mastered the art of concealing her cubs during their vulnerable early months. Her territory is teeming with ideal den sites, an abundance of prey, and suitable hunting grounds. We have noticed a general trend of her birthing her cubs somewhere difficult to find, at a few weeks old she tends to move them into the Sand River, before eventually moving them to a cluster of boulders central in her territory, Mhangeni Double Crossing. It was here where we were granted our first glimpse of these utterly adorable balls of fluff, now approximately six weeks old. Small, cute, and full of energy, they eagerly played and explored under the watchful eye of their mother. Never venturing too far.
Over the course of several weeks, the rangers and I were treated to numerous exceptional sightings. Despite her elusive nature, our patience paid off. Whenever we found her at the den, the sightings never seemed to disappoint. Leopard cubs, with their adorable nature and playful antics, often rank high on the wish list of safari enthusiasts. And let’s be honest, every ranger and tracker dreams of sightings of a mother and her tiny cubs.
One morning, we received word that she was at the den with both cubs. Nonchalantly, she led one cub toward the second set of boulders south of the road at Mhangeni Double Crossing, only about 50 meters away. Now open and exposed, it was at this moment that unfortunately, a pair of hyenas entered the scene. The hyenas spotted the mother leopard and her cub and made a beeline toward them. She noticed the hyenas too late, and they were left in a precarious situation. The mother growled and hissed at the hyenas, initially keeping them at bay. However, her only chance was to escalate her aggression, charging at the hyenas, resulting in a skirmish where the hyenas appeared to pin her down. Her efforts temporarily allowed the cub to escape, scurrying back toward the den. Tragically, the mother’s tactics couldn’t keep both hyenas at bay, and one of them caught up with the cub, leading to a tragic end.
A question that perpetually runs through my mind is why she didn’t simply snatch the cub up in her mouth and sprint to safety. We may never truly fathom her decision, but, in my perspective, that could have been her best chance. However, it’s essential to remember that the Nhlanguleni Female was the one confronting this dire situation, and I have faith that her instincts would have made the best choice.
With her ninth litter now reduced to one cub, the Nhlanguleni Female could focus all her energy on this lone survivor. Miraculously, she emerged from the ordeal with the hyenas without injuries, which could have sealed the fate of the second cub much sooner. She kept her cub at the same den for another week, though sightings were infrequent. During one particular sighting, both mother and cub were perched atop a boulder, offering a truly sensational photographic opportunity. This was my last sighting of the cub.
The fate of the last remaining cub remains a mystery, unlike the first cub, whose tragic end was witnessed. In recent times, the Nkuwa Female, also raising a litter of cubs around 11-12 months old, was seen more frequently on Londolozi and encroaching into her mother’s territory. The overlap between Nhlanguleni Female’s territory and her daughter’s led to speculation among the rangers. What would happen if the two mothers encountered each other’s cubs? At times, they were spotted within a mere 200 meters of each other, with tracks indicating the presence of both mothers and the Nkuwa Female’s cubs on the same game paths, aptly described as a ‘leopard highway’ by Barry.
As Nhlanguleni Female moved her cub to the last den, she was inadvertently moving it closer to an area where the Nkuwa Female had been frequently seen with her cubs. She was undoubtedly aware of the Nkuwa Female’s presence; but did she not perceive it as a genuine threat? Did she perhaps trust that the cub would evade danger by retreating into the den? Or did she dare to hope that the Nkuwa Female would recognize her cub, acknowledge their relation, and refrain from causing harm? While the latter theory is questionable, it remains a possibility.
What about the Nkuwa Female’s cubs? Would they pose a threat to the Nhlanguleni Female’s cub, with their youthful curiosity and penchant for play, honing their hunting and stalking skills? Often, young leopards practice stalking small prey like lizards, mongooses, scrub hares, and squirrels. If they had noticed the cub moving near the den, it’s likely they would have attempted to catch it.
There is also the looming presence of hyenas, frequenting the drainage lines, with their tracks constantly evident in the area. If nearby the cub could easily attract their attention.
Lastly, a sombre theory emerges – the possibility that a mother leopard or lion might abandon a cub she deems too high risk to raise alone. Given the already high probability of loss, she may choose to relinquish the cub, redirect her focus, and hope to conceive again to raise a larger, intact litter. While it might seem plausible on paper, it’s hard to comprehend why a mother would abandon a cub into which she has already invested so much time and energy.
In the end, Nhlanguleni Female’s loss of another litter is undeniably tragic. Her journey has been fraught with difficulties, and as she grows older, her chances of successfully raising another litter continue to dwindle. We may never know the answer to the ultimate question posed here: What happened to the last Nhlanguleni Cub? If you have any ideas, we would love to hear them in the comments section below.