Written, and photographs, by Malini Pittet
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 for 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 mothers have to hunt, protect and raise their cubs alone.
It was the end of November by the time we reached the Okavango Delta in Botswana and the days were not as hot as in the Kalahari where our group of six had spent two weeks. Our first drive was through the typical grassy landscape punctuated with small tree clusters. We had heard that there was a leopard which had just begun bringing her young cub into the open and our guide Hobbs suggested we look for them. Thanks to Hobbs’ exceptional spotting skills and our friends’ beginner’s luck, we were not disappointed.
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 jackal berry tree where her mother had 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 newcomers.
Her mother, meanwhile, was less than 500 metres from her, strolling in the marshes along the water. As she headed back towards the jackal berry tree, she made an unusual low call, specifically for her cub to know that she was being called. This call, difficult to describe, sounded like “yioi”.
As she approached the jackal berry tree, the little cub struggled out of the fork and started looking for a way down. Her first attempt ended at the tip of a branch five metres above the ground. Not a good branch! 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 initial head-first attempt proved impossible. So backwards 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 profusion of affection from her mother were 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.
It was quite a privilege to share these defining moments in the lives of these magnificent wild animals.