Habituating wild leopard cubs: a unique experience
The Waterberg, South Africa, is not famous for leopard sightings. Sightings are generally few and even then are generally just a blur of yellow and spots. Before working in the Marekele National Park I worked for two and a half years on another reserve in the Waterberg. During that time I saw two leopards dashing across the road. We are very lucky in the Marakele to have a handful of leopards that are relaxed around the vehicles.
About three months ago a tiny leopard cub was spotted on an evening game drive. At first glance, and in the dark, the ranger mistook it for an African wildcat, but as it dashed for thick cover he saw the tell tale spots. A leopard cub! For the next few days a guide sat quietly in a car waiting, watching and listening for any alarm calls. Nothing. After a week we reopened the area; the mother had obviously moved her cub.
About two weeks later a game drive came down the same road and there stood a leopardess with two little cubs!
The cubs slinked off at the sight of the vehicle. After game drive all of the guides jumped in a cruiser and went to where the brief sighting had been.
We found a big bull elephant happily feeding on the top of a drainage line close to where the leopards had been spotted. When we stopped to look at him there was a slight movement in the drainage line – there was the leopardess! Once again she slinked off. We waited a few minutes before turning the car around and then waited patiently. 10 minutes later she gingerly poked her head out from behind a bush. She then crossed the road with two cubs in tow!
The first leopard cubs I had ever seen. The shutter on my camera sounded like a machine gun! As I pulled the camera away from my face a third cub hopped out from the bush! It was much smaller than the others and struggled a bit to walk across the road. It froze when it saw us
Mum picked it up and they all disappeared into the bush.
I was so excited I could feel my heart beating! I had seen my first leopard cubs and discovered a third one!
Everyday for the next few weeks we returned to this area between drives. We would sit for hours on end chatting and moving the car every now and then. The majority of the time we did not see the leopards but we knew that they were not far away. Animals would alarm call around us on a regular basis and we knew we were being watched and heard.
This was my first experience attempting to habituate leopard cubs but common sense dictates that any interaction with the cubs must be a positive one. Negative interactions at this time would affect how they would perceive vehicles and humans in the future.
This was a learning curve for all of the guides and I won’t pretend the female leopard was always happy with our presence. On one occasion she was found on an impala carcass with the cubs feeding. You can see from her reaction below that she did not want to be disturbed:
This photograph was taken after she charged the vehicle. As soon as she returned to the carcass the vehicle left the sighting. From then on, if she was feeding we left her alone.
Over time the cubs became more relaxed and inquisitive about the vehicle. On a number of occasions we were lucky enough to see them suckling from their mother. This is the ultimate sign of relaxation so when they suckled we continuously turned the vehicle on and off and moved the vehicle a couple of metres at a time. By doing this they became accustomed to the noise and movement of the vehicle and learnt not to fear it. In the end they simply ignored the start of the ignition. If the mother left the cubs we also left as we did not want the cubs to become distracted by us; a mistake that could cost them their lives. If the cubs moved we never followed them off road as we did not want them to feel chased.
There appeared to be a bit of a cycle with the areas that the leopardess used. I can only assume that she had other den sites that we have not found, only tracks. Using different den sites would prevent one area smelling strongly and attracting any predators. Even baboons are a danger to leopard cubs.
I have learnt a lot over the last few months and had my patience tested on a daily basis. I have sat baking in the midday heat hoping to just catch just a glimpse of a leopard or cub. I have listened to francolins, monkeys, impala, and squirrels alarm calling in anticipation that any second now a leopard would appear out of the bush. I have raced around getting things ready for my afternoon game drive because I spent too long sitting in the bush in between drives. I have been exhausted. But most importantly I have loved every minute of it! It is very satisfying to sit quietly now and watch these bundles of fluff playing and know that my friends and I have had something to do with how these leopards will behave around vehicles as they grow up.