For the last 5 years I have had the privilege of viewing leopards that defy logic. To be able to sit with a leopard for an indefinite amount of time with this majestic and regal cat not so much as looking up at you is something I cannot explain. From a young age I used to go on safari 3 to 4 times a year with my family and it wasn’t until I was 18 that I got my first glimpse of a leopard; yet here at Sabi Sabi we see them on a daily basis. The shy, secretive leopard allows you into a world that few ever get to see, we follow them, understand their behaviour, know who they have mated with and the number of cubs they have had and which of those have made it to adulthood. We know their territories, their favourite paths and even their favourite hunting areas and we can identify each leopard individually. So how is it possible to have an animal as secretive as a leopard allowing us to follow it around? It can only be described in one word… RESPECT!
I have realised that if you respect an animal they will show you the most amazing things, allow you into the most intimate of places and get a glimpse of rare behaviour. And so it is with respect that we have let the leopards around Sabi Sabi know that we are only here to view them and not to chase them, not steal their food or try and kill them and they have responded by completely ignoring our presence in their world. The most important part of this respect happens at the point when they are cubs. We are conscious of how impressionable a cub is and limit the sightings to ensure that the cub never feels overwhelmed by these green animals (safari vehicles) entering into their world. We only view the cubs when their mother is with them and we keep vehicle movement to a minimum.
The other day Nottins female made a kill, hoisted it into a tree and went to fetch her cub and brought it to its first kill. The cub is estimated to be about 11 weeks old now and when Steve found the kill, the cub and Nottins, we put all processes in place to ensure that the guests would get to see this amazing sighting while having the least impact on Nottins and most importantly, her cub. I had no guests at the time and went to be what we would call a guardian vehicle for the sighting. I would be the first vehicle in and the last one out and would control the sighting and direct vehicles in and out. This is an honour like no other as over the next day I would get to spend over 5 hours with mother and cub see their interactions and playfulness. Once I was in I would call in one vehicle at a time, giving the guests 10 minutes of an amazing sighting before they moved out and the next moved in.
As I sat there and called one of the rangers in and told him where to position his vehicle for the best view and Nottins and her cub sat on a termite mound warming themselves with the first rays of the morning sun. He parked about 20 metres from her and the guests were blown away at this amazing sight, but Nottins seemed unpleased by the distance and moved toward them and lay 5 metres from the vehicle and started to call the cub. It almost seemed as though she was saying to the little one that these loud, green animals meant no harm. The cub sat staring at her calling, unsure if it should approach or hide. Eventually it plucked up the courage and came down to mom. Then spent a few minutes there and then retreated back to the termite mound. Was this her way of comforting the cub? Was it just a coincidence? Am I reading too much into it? Who knows, I am not a leopard so I can’t tell you but I can tell you that it was amazing to witness. Over the two drives I watched the mom and cub interact, play, sleep, suckle and eat…
Probably the best part was watching the cub wrestling the half eaten carcass in the tree, while Nottins watched carefully as the carcass looked more and more like falling…the carcass hung from the jaws of the 11 week old cub as it showed incredible strength to lift it, but it was only a matter of time before the weight of the carcass became too much and she dropped it from its perch and mom quickly came to retrieve it before hyenas came in and stole it. This would be the end of the sighting as Nottins and her cub moved into thick bush to finish the remainder of the kill. The sighting was then closed because going through the bush, breaking trees to get to her would have undone all the great work that we had accomplished over the 2 days and as the cub gets older he will become more and more relaxed with our presence allowing us a glimpse into a new leopards daily life.