It has now been six months since we started working to familiarise a female leopard and her 3 cubs with game drive vehicles. All three cubs (two males and a female) are still alive and doing well and their mother has done a fantastic job in rearing, feeding and protecting them.
I have been fortunate to have spent a great deal of time with the four of them and have watched the youngsters grow and develop unique personalities. At first the female seemed to use a handful of den sites (we only found a few of these). But after several months the cubs covered larger distances with their mother. Interestingly, in daytime she hid them in safe spots such as thickets and disused aardvark burrows, and the cubs would frequently be hidden in separate hiding places, often several hundred meters apart from one another. I can only assume this was a protection technique on the mother’s part. If one cub fell prey to a predator, the others would be safe.
The cubs are now estimated to be around eight months old and their mother works hard to keep them fed. They are not quite old enough yet to hunt any animals of significant size.
One morning I was watching one of the cubs in a large camel thorn tree. The young male was sleeping on one of the main branches. I parked my cruiser just underneath the tree, but on the opposite side of the leopard so as not to disturb him. A male lion, however, had different intentions and roared close by. The little leopard lifted his head immediately and I froze. Within no time the lion was in sight, and soon beneath the camel thorn! I held my breath. The young leopard lay motionless, watching the larger cat walking beneath him. As he approached another camel thorn tree, two leopards shot up into it – the mother and the other young male. But where was the female cub!? I dared not move my car as I did not want to influence the behaviour of either cat. After a lengthy ten minutes, the lion could be heard roaring further away. Down the road the little female popped out of an old aardvark burrow. Phew! The relief was profound.
The young male in my tree grew more confident with each distant roar of the lion, and soon began to walk across the branches towards me. I couldn’t believe it! He then proceeded to lay on a branch directly above my cruiser and stare down at me. As my camera flashed with a low battery warning, I had to carefully choose what moments to capture. Sometimes it is important to appreciate the moment. This was one of those moments. I pushed my seat back and my guests and I stared up at the young sleeping prince.
It is always rewarding to find a leopard, but to find these youngsters whose story I have followed closely from day one is very satisfying.
(words and images by Field Guide Michelle Sole)