Let’s admit it, leopards frequently rank at the top of both guest and guide favourite animals in Africa. There is a certain grace that befalls this big cat, with instincts and physiology so well defined that many believe it is only seen when it chooses. As visitors past and present will testify, we are fortunate to see a lot of leopards at Chiawa. It is not uncommon for our guests to see several different individuals during their stay with total sightings rising into double figures.
Unsurprisingly therefore, the leopard cub, when found, is probably the most photographed infant animal that we come across. The combination of woolly close-set rosettes, broad round paws and bright brown eyes are irresistible…
For the first 6-10 days after just over three months in the womb, the 400-600g leopard cubs are born completely blind and are usually hidden in tree hollows, dense thickets and even termite mounds! Six weeks can pass before they venture from hiding, intermittently following their mother around her territory, honing those instinctive skills of climbing, crouching, stalking and pouncing. Weaning occurs at 3 months by which a firm appetite for meat has developed and bodyweight has soared to around 3kgs. Youngsters usually start participating in hunts after 5-6 months but mothers will still leave cubs for sustained periods; sometimes for a day or more whilst in search of food but never straying more than a couple of kilometres away. Vulnerability is without doubt increased during this time but, as leopard fathers do not participate in parenthood, someone has to be the bread (or meat) winner!
The maternal bond is kept between a mother and offspring for around two years when they split to form their own territories. Interestingly, we recently witnessed the coming together of one older adult female, her two 16 month old cubs and another adult female at a kill made by the mother. We can only assume that the younger adult was an elder offpsring and that still, after years of parting, she was still allowed to share food at the family table. Another admirable trait that makes the leopard an all the more worthy animal to spend time with.