I will never forget the day…
We found the Xinkelengane female leopard, as she was known to us, on an impala kill on the morning. She had hoisted the remains of her kill high up the branches of a Leadwood Tree. Over the previous weeks it had become obvious to us that she had already given birth to the babies she had carried for over 3 months, and was now hiding her precious new cubs somewhere safe.
Mother leopards tend to not go too far from new born cubs, and they do lie to hunt within a kilomete or so of where they are keeping them.
She had killed an impala only a few hundred meters from the foot of the Lebombo Mountains, and right within a dense thicket of Sticky Thorn Acacia’s. I knew the cubs had to be close, it was the perfect place for her cubs to be hidden within. They had the safety of the ridge and the cover of the dense thorn thicket.
My suspicions were realized that evening. As I arrived at the sight of the carcass my tracker, Glass Marimane, immediately signaled to me to stop and switch my vehicle off. I instinctually knew why!
There, at the base of the Leadwood, were two very tiny leopard cubs. They were alarmed at the presence of my vehicle as they have never before come face to face with anything like it. There was a good 50 or 60 meters between us, and I made sure we were all as quiet and motionless as possible. Mom was not too far off, and the cubs kept their massive eyes fixed in our direction, analyzing every movement. It was such a special moment!
Little did I know at the time I would spend many more hours with these cubs in the years to come, and that the little female would have a profound impact on me during a difficult time of my life.
Over the next few weeks we kept seeing more of the leopard family. Fortunately for us, their mother was a leopard well known to us. She was completely relaxed in the presence of our vehicles, and allowed us to tag along on many adventures. We had gotten to know her, and she had learnt that we never meant any harm to her.
We could easily recognize her by the scar on her lip, clearly evident as you can see below.
Thanks to this beautiful relationship with a wild leopard, she never felt threatened and felt at ease with us whenever her cubs were around. It is extremely difficult to view leopard cubs if the mother has a disliking for the vehicles. She will run and in turn this behaviour will be transferred to the cubs, atleast in most cases.
Spending time with these two leopard cubs, a male and a female, was an absolute dream come true! They were beyond beautiful and soon relaxed with us around. In fact, they grew rather curious of us and would often walk up to the vehicles and even at time, disappear underneath! It was incredible, they were so accepting of us!
By spending so much time with a particular animal you get to know them on another kind of level. Our guests would come and go and get to meet them once or twice during their stay, but for us who would spend time with them daily on safari, there was so much more to learn and understand.
Soon we would learn that the young boy was very bold and boisterous. He was a real boy, and would take on just about anything that moved.
I once remember sitting with them underneath a large prominent fig tree. All of a sudden some lions arrived on the scene, sending the leopard scattering in all directions, each one to their own tree. The lions stole the remains of their kill and as soon as they started feeding I noticed the young male leopard sneaking down the trunk of the tree he escaped to. He was quiet, making sure to not draw any attention to his presence. He was fascinated by these other large cats and could not resist the urge to get a little closer. The two lionesses were oblivious to the young 4 month old leopard cub. He snuck to within ten meters of the feeding lionesses before deciding the tree he was in before would make a far better viewing point. Wisely so!
His sister, who my story will focus on, was far more delicate and dainty.
She was such a lady and always seemed to have her wits about her. She seemed to copy her elegant mother in many ways. When her brother was off following zebras or chasing an agama, she would be with her mother, making sure to watch her every move. She was also a far better hunter than her brother, likely from time with mom. Her brother had the attention span of a 2 year old and I was always a little concerned as t0o how he would survive on his own one day!
They grew so fast!
Leopard cubs will typically spend about 14 to 16 months in the company of their mother. The time just seemed to fly!
I wanted as much time as possible with them! Getting to know a leopard in this way is so special, but in the back of your mind you know that the time will come when you have to say goodbye. The young male would eventually have to move far from his natal area in order to find a territory for himself, whilst his sister would likely inherit a portion of her mother’s territory, ensuring she would have success and stay in her natal area.
Pictured above, even at only a few months of age, one can already see the size difference between brother and sister. The brother in the back already had a large head than his little sister.
Male leopard will eventually weigh almost twice that of a female, and this as can be seen above, is noticeable early on.
Tracking these cubs was always a fun experience. After a few months we knew exactly where they loved to walk, and found it relatively easy to track them down. The fun would start once you found them, as leaving them behind was not always an easy task. Believe it or not, but they would often start following you once you left them. This may seem cute but let me tell you, it can be rather unnerving!
On a few occasions I would arrive back at my Land Rover with two leopards not too far behind me. My guests thought my tracker and I were amazing!! Can you imagine that sight?
One of our best trackers, Exon Ndlovu, once was tasked with tracking these two troublemakers. After hours of arduous tracking he came up empty handed, no luck at all. The sun had just set and dusk was upon him. His ranger finally arrived to collect him as the light started fading. Just as Exon was about to jump back on to the tracker’s seat, one of the guests loudly announced that there were two leopards on the other side of the road, just sitting and watching!
It turned out the leopards had been with Exon all the time, and Exon was none the wiser!
On another occasion, Collen and Solly searched for the siblings. After a morning of tracking Solly gave up and asked Collen to meet him at a certain junction. Collen arrived and in the distance saw Solly approaching, baked by the African sun and frustrated from not finding any leopards for his guests. To the amusement of Collen and the guests, they could see both the leopard cubs not 20 meters behind Solly, right out in the open and enjoying a lovely mid-morning stroll behind Solly! Such fond memories indeed.
The two cubs had a very strong bond between them. They loved to play and always kept one another busy.
Pictured above, the young male flew in to the air with his sister below him. He would always play rather rough and his sister would tolerate it for only so long before her annoyance becomes obvious, a sign for him to either back off or risk a few sharp claws to his sensitive muzzle.
It is hard work for a mother leopard to successfully raise young cubs within this area of Kruger National Park. The area is well known for its high lion density, and this is often a problem for other large predators. She not only needs to keep them out of harms way, but also needs to keep their bellies full.
When a leopardess sets out to hunt, she will do so without her cubs. She will leave them somewhere safe and set off on her own. Leopards are secretive by nature, and having energetic cubs along for a quiet hunt would almost certainly spoil her chances of success.
Leaving the cubs alone at first is challenging. The chance of the cubs encountering another predator is pretty good, and they will have to reply on their sharp instinct to survive. Fortunately these instinct are extremely well developed from a young age, and their mother can rely on this to ensure their well being when she is not with them.
After having successfully killed, she will return to where she left them, and lead them to where she stashed the carcass. Often this will be within a dense thicket, or up a tree and out of reach of most other predators.
Pictured above, the two cubs had waited for mom’s return at the base of the Lebombo Mountains. They knew this area well and could escape the attention of another predator with relative ease.
If the kill is large enough they will all 3 feed for 2 to 3 days. If not, she will let them feed their fill, as any good mother would. The young male was clearly dominant by nature, often taking the opportunity to feed first, with his little sister patiently waiting for him to finish.
The little female cub had a special place in her heart for trees! She absolutely loved climbing!
Now this may seem like a strange statement! Surely all leopards love to climb trees? Yes, they do, but some just love climbing more than other, and without any apparent reason!
When following the family out and about, she simply could not resist a good-looking tree.
I remember one time very well. We had been out in the open plains with them for most of the afternoon. She had attempted to hunt impala but with no luck. They then moved towards a waterhole and en route ambled passed this beautiful dead Leadwood. I simply knew she would climb and moved ahead and waited for her. Sure as can be she walked straight up to the based of the tree and with no effort sailed to the top of it. It was a stunning moment and made for such a beautiful photograph, pictured below.
I found it very difficult to convey the feeling of knowing a leopard this well. I loved both cubs but the young female undoubtedly stole my heart! As guides we worked for 6 solid weeks before getting two weeks off work to go home and see family.
I hated the two weeks off as I felt I was missing out on the leopard cubs, and would hate for something to happen to them whilst I was away! I would come back to great stories from the other guide’s of the leopards at play, or just getting up to no good.
Whenever I was off duty or had no guests, I would venture out on my own and spend as much time possible in the company of the leopard family.
Finding the words to describe what these encounters were like is an impossible task.
As the months passed I knew the time would come when they would leave their mother, when they would become more independent of her care, and would find their own journey in life. As excited as I was for this day to come, I also knew that our times together would likely come to an end as well.
This was heart breaking! The thought of never seeing these two again, or only catching a glimpse of them every so often was very traumatic at the time. They become like a part of the family to us as guides. You get to see them daily and get so involved in their lives, and in a way they in yours.
That day eventually came around when the cubs were roughly 14 months of age.
She and her brother started spending less and less time with their mother. They were still right within their mothers territory, but less dependent on daily interaction with her.
The little female had made several successful kills on her own, a sure sign of her exceptional hunting ability. All the hours spent with her mother was paying off, she was able to put to practice the skills she had acquired as a cub.
I remember seeing her with a vervet monkey kill on one particular afternoon. These monkeys are extremely vigilant and have the ability to escape to the high branches, usually out of reach of heavier bodied leopards. The fact that she could kill an adult monkey on her own was again a sign of her hunting abilities.
She still spent a fair amount of her time with her brother. I think this was more due to him not wanting to hunt for himself. He would almost always feed from kills that his sister had made. I watched him stalk everything from small lizards to zebras and elephants! It was rather amusing but all a little worrying! Would he ever success in looking after himself?
After about 3 or 4 months the two siblings spent less and less time together. She stuck to the area she was born in, generally hunting around the open plains to the west of the dense sticky thorn thickets she had called home during her first months as a leopard cub. We did not give the animals we followed human-like names, instead naming them after the area they would inhabit most.
This beautiful female I had come to love so much, was aptly named the Sticky Thorn female.
Her brother was all over the place, and seeing as male leopards tend to only settle on a territory at a much older age, we decided to name him Mhangene. This is a Shangaan word and means Guinea Fowl. He had a liking for these spotted birds and it only felt right!
Soon after she started spending more time on her own, we found tracks of her on the edge of the dense sticky thorn thicket. Collen was ahead of me and soon the tracks lead him to the base of a tree. As his vehicle came to a half below the tree, so did his ideas of where she could be. The tracks simply vanished! His tracker Solly was just about to jump off to get an idea of where she was going when they heard a loud “thump” on the hood of the Land Rover.
A piece of fresh, bloodied meat had fallen from the tree above. Almost at once everyone looked up, only to see Sticky Thorn feeding on the remains of her kill! After much laughter and a quick repositioning of their vehicle, everyone enjoyed a great time with her. She soon descended from the tree, showing off her very able tree-climbing skills to all around.
Sticky Thorn was an absolute pleasure to follow. She was completely at easy in our presence, and would take us on countless amazing adventures. We would follow her out on the hunt at night, exploring her territory by day and mostly keeping her company whilst she lazed about in the high branches of a shady Leadwood Tree. Her presence was captivating!
I knew that my time with her was running out. I had been working within this area for 4 years and the time for me to move on was approaching.
She was on the cusp of adulthood and would soon start moving around more as she started setting up her own territory.
We were both experiencing change, forces of nature and life drawing us apart.
There were so many question in my mind! After two years of seeing her almost daily, saying goodbye grieved me deeply.
Would she survive the next few difficult years?
Will she have cubs and raise them successfully?
Will our path’s ever cross again?
I had never spent so much time with a wild leopard before this, the thought of never following her on the hunt again painfully aching in my heart.
A few weeks before I left this stunning piece of Kruger to move further south to the Sabi Sand Wildtuin, I captured one of my favourite images of her.
She had killed an impala in the open savanna and hoisted her prize high up into a Leadwood. I had no guests in camp and as per usual I headed out on my own with intentions of spending the morning with my favourite leopard.
She was relaxing at the bottom of the tree, and I knew she would have to go and feed at some stage. It was also getting hotter and the cool breeze flitting through higher up in the tree would be a sure temptation for her. I decided to put my longer lenses down, and to capture the scene as a whole.
This image means so much to me. When I look at it I am always fondly reminded of the absolutely breathtakingly beautiful Singita Lebombo concession, the open plains and stunted Knob-thorn savanna, the dramatic clouds and the large Leadwood’s so characteristic of the area.
Most of all though, this image reminds me of all the hours I spent in the company of this beautiful cat.
The last time I saw her was the 6th day of May, 2012. She lay peacefully high up in the arms of a Leadwood, as she so often did. When our path’s would cross again I did not know, but I was so grateful for this Leopard allowing me and so many of my guests the opportunity to spend time with one of Africa’s most elusive creatures, allowing us a glimpse into her life.
In the month of September the following year I found myself driving through Kruger on my own. It was a tough time for me as my dad had passed away two days earlier. My dad worked in Kruger and surrounds for so many years, and called Kruger his home. His passion for Kruger and its wildlife had no doubt imprinted on me and there was no place I would have rather been at the time, than driving the roads my dad did for so many years before.
Then out of nowhere I saw her. On the 2nd day of September, there she was, my favourite leopardess. I could hardly believe my eyes!! I had not seen her for over a year and best of all, she was now a mother!
From behind her two tiny cubs appeared, making sure to stay close to their mother, just as she would do when she was a cub. They were crossing the Nwanetsi River, a river I saw her spend so much time in when she was a cub herself!
The story had come full circle! She had taken all she learnt as a cub and survived, and almost as if by fate our paths had crossed again during my troubled time, and even better was that I got to see her little ones.
It was perfect, a dream come true.
I never saw her again after this day. I am sure she is doing just fine!
She is a wild leopard, free to roam as she wishes. She will raise her cubs in one of the most beautiful places in Africa, and who knows, perhaps one day our path’s will cross again.
I look forward to the day.
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