Motherhood is not easy, whatever species you might be. Successfully raising one or several young to adulthood, feeding, protecting and teaching them how to find food is a great feat. But being a mother from a solitary species like leopards, things can get exceptionally hairy. Unlike lions or wild dogs where the whole pride or pack helps raising and protecting the younger members, leopard mums have to hunt, protect and raise their cubs alone.
Young leopard cubs are at their most vulnerable when they begin to be mobile. The outside world filled with visual and olfactory delights is irresistible. Between attracting the attention of baboons, which are among the leopard’s biggest enemies and getting lost after wandering too far from home, leopard cubs have a lot on their plates!Leopards hunt alone when their cubs are very young; with time the cubs will accompany them and learn the strategies of a successful hunt. Leopard mothers will leave their young cubs in a hidden place either a tree if they are old enough to climb or a pile of logs or a rock cave; any place safe from predators. The mothers then set off to find some prey which will fill their bellies as well as indirectly feed their cub. At an age of 10 – 12 weeks, leopard cubs are weaned and start consuming meat from their mothers kills.
We had just arrived in the Delta that afternoon and as we started out on our first drive, we wondered what was in store for us. The typical Delta landscape with its grasslands punctuated with small tree clusters looked promising. We had heard that there was a leopard which had just begun bringing her young cub into the open and our guide suggested we look for this small family. Hobbs’ exceptional spotting skills did not disappoint.
She was incredibly tiny and bursting with curiosity to go investigate the smells and sounds around her. Perhaps it was instinct that made her stay safely tucked away high up in the fork of a jackalberry tree where her mother left her before going to hunt. Peering down at us, she was able to satisfy her curiosity from her sheltered spot. When another vehicle pulled up next to us, the young cub got up and changed positions to get a better view of the new-comers.
Her mother, meanwhile, was less than 500 metres from her, hidden in the marshes along the water. Whether she was actively looking to hunt or just opportunistically patrolling the area, we couldn’t know. The leopard sprang up onto a low branch of a tree and looked out at the water, quietly observing jacanas walking on lily pads looking for insects, and geese grazing on the bank. She jumped down and after walking around for a while, she decided to head back to her cub. As she moved in the direction of the cub, the mother started making a very special gentle call, specifically aimed at her cub. This call, difficult to describe, sounded like “yioi”.
As she approached the jackalberry tree, the little cub struggled out of the fork and started looking for a way down. Her first attempt ended half way down, at the tip of a branch that stopped five metres above the ground. Not a good plan! After several unsuccessful attempts she realised with much frustration that the only way down was the main trunk. Now the question was head-first or back-first? The first seconds of head-first proved it was impossible. So backwards down it was. And in an intensely comical (for us) and laborious (for her) process, she successfully made it down the trunk into the warm embrace of her mother. Not without a most certainly heart-stopping moment for her when she lost her balance and regained it thanks to a rapid movement of her tail. The plentiful affection from her mother was certainly worth the scare! The next half hour was a jumble of bonding, head-butts, grooming and suckling punctuated by short dashes to investigate curiosities which appeared suddenly in her field of vision.
The next morning, we decided to search for the little cub and her mother. We set out early on this cool morning in late spring, to make the most of the blue light hour. As we approached a little wooden bridge just beyond the airstrip, we saw an animal crossing over towards us. It was the leopard mother. As she strolled over the bridge leisurely, she kept looking to her right where a group of red lechwe were grazing in the marshes. These lechwe were seemingly unaware of the leopard’s presence, rather looking upwind in the opposite direction behind them keeping an eye out for any potential danger. So far so good. We positioned ourselves so as to limit any interference caused by our presence and allow the leopard and the lechwe to carry on as they would have had we not been there.
Leopards are opportunists when it comes to hunting; they will prey on whatever is easiest and readily available. In some areas of the Okavango Delta, among the more common antelopes is the red lechwe.
The tall grasses in the marshy area made it difficult to keep track of her movements, so we kept our attention on the red lechwe which so far were oblivious to the presence of the predator. As they grazed, they kept watch on the other side; something seemed to be distracting them but we couldn’t see what it was they were sensing. A dominant male held control over a few females and this caused a younger male to move just a little bit further away from the group, but not more than four of five metres. It turned out, she had indeed been focussing on this fully grown, younger male to our left. She leaped, caught and immediately pulled the antelope down by its neck. In the blink of an eye, the other lechwe broke into gallops in all directions. It seemed impossible that the leopard could have gotten to within less than three metres of a lechwe without the antelope noticing her, but she was successful.
A few seconds later, she had a good grip on the lechwe’s throat and held on tightly waiting for it to succumb. He was nearly as long as her and both their bodies aligned in the tall grass. If it wasn’t a prey-predator, it would almost seem as though the scene resembled a peaceful encounter. It was not an easy kill; the beautiful stag abruptly tried to break free, his legs cycling in the air trying to get out of her hold. After a short while the lechwe went still. The sacred transfer of life was completed when she opened her eyes. The leopard could let go now and catch her own breath. She began tearing into his rump in a typical leopard style. After breaking open the skin, this cat got up and lifted the lechwe by the neck with immense strength. As she dragged the carcass through the grass, the mother looked for a suitable place to hide it. A thicket presented itself and she moved with the kill into the middle of this confusion of branches and leaves.
While we observed the leopard drag the kill into the bushes, Hobbs shared an interesting observation about this individual: she was not a very experienced mother- by leaving her kills on the ground rather than “caching” them high up in trees. This is a typical behaviour for leopards to keep their kills safe from opportunistic lions and hyenas. This also made her little cub even more vulnerable. We left the mother and her kill to continue our search for a male cheetah we had heard the night before. He had been making curious very distinct calls, searching for a mate and we wanted to see if he had found one.
When we returned in the evening, the leopard mother was in the bushes calling her cub who joined her soon after. It was endearing to watch the cub stride in the tall grasses with her tiny legs, trying to get to her mother as quickly as possible. The two enjoyed a beautiful bonding moment before climbing onto a log. But the little cub was only interested in one thing- food. And so, we left them as they jumped down and settled in a quiet corner, protected by bushes and the minuscule cub began suckling.
It has been an extraordinary privilege to experience a glimpse into the lives of these two magnificent wild animals. Tragically, the young cub lost its life a few weeks later when a male leopard entered the territory. Leopard cub survival rates vary depending on numerous factors- the local baboon population, male leopards trying to get females back into oestrus (ready to mate again which is not possible while they are still suckling their young) and other predators. A study in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve found that 40% of leopard cub deaths were caused by male leopards.
This leopard mother has had her share of bad luck, but hopefully in the future she will find ways to keep her cubs safe and raise them to adulthood. The presence of another male could mean a little cub by the next season and a chance for a new generation.