The first two years of a Leopard’s life
Seeing a wild leopard in its natural habitat in Southern Africa must be on top of anyone’s safari bucket list! Their magical look and elegant movements are enough to send chills down your spine. Have you ever stopped and thought about how that particular leopard you are viewing, came to be so strong, resilient, magical and elegant?
A leopard (Panthera pardus) that lives past the age of two years, is considered lucky, as the first two years of a leopard’s life can be quite challenging. During this time, they are at their most vulnerable to other predators, having to learn certain hunting, survival and social skills.
Tiyani and her cub grooming
Photo by Kayleigh Humphries
Let’s take a look at the mating process, where it all starts. A male leopard will locate a female in oestrus, by the scent left in her urine, as well as her contact calling to lure a potential mate. Once the male has located the female, they will begin a courtship that could last anywhere between two to five days! Once the mating ritual is finished, the male would leave and never really play a role in the life of the potential cubs.
Once the female leopard falls pregnant, she will carry her young for a gestation period of anywhere between 90-105 days. Just before giving birth, she will find a safe den site. This is normally situated somewhere safely hidden away, for example in thick, bushy areas, or on top of a safe, rocky outcrop. Here she would be able to safely hide the cubs, away from any potential danger. It is here where she will give birth to two, or sometimes even three, cubs.
The first 12 weeks
Once a female leopard has found the perfect den site, she will give birth to beautiful, but still very much helpless and under-developed cubs. They are born with their eyes closed (altricial) and only weigh roughly around 1kg! When they are born, they are not born with the perfect spot pattern we see in adults, but with a fluffy, dull grey coat, with barely visible spots. These are called rosettes and will grow more prominent, as the cubs mature. Specific rosette patterns of mature leopards are also used in identifying the different leopards we find in our traversing area. At ten days old, the young cubs start opening their eyes, having their first look at the world around them. These brand-new eyes are stunningly blue and slowly change colour, to a more golden-green shade between the ages of eight and twelve weeks. The exact colour change may vary in different leopards.
When feeding, they would start off by getting all the necessary proteins from their mother’s milk and continue to suckle for up to 12 weeks. Mom could however, start introducing the littles ones to small scraps of meat, from as early as the age of around eight weeks. At the age of 12 weeks (3 months), they will start moving around with mom, exploring the limited area of protection close to their den site. Sometimes even while mom goes out hunting.
For up to six weeks, while the cubs are growing and during their suckling stage, they are well hidden in the safe den site that mom had found. They would remain at one den site for anything between two and five days before mom picks them up and moves them around to another safe spot. This is done in order to avoid any conflict with other predators, which at this stage of a leopard’s life, is their biggest threat. Leopard cubs sadly have a high mortality rate and often lose their life to Spotted Hyena (Crocuta Crocuta), Lions (Panthera Leo) and sadly enough, even other Leopards. This instinct to kill other leopard cubs is in order to eliminate any possible future competition.
Playtime is very important for young leopards and starts at a very early age in their lives. Playtime consists of stalking, pouncing, biting or tugging on mom’s tail. Siblings will often play together, as well as start exploring away from the den when mom is out hunting. Play is a very important activity in a cub’s life because it teaches them the necessary skills they would need, in order to survive later on. It also improves their stalking agility and hunting skills, as well as aids in muscle building. During playtime, various small objects seem to amuse leopard cubs. They would utilise various natural toys that the bush provides for them, such as rocks, sticks and leaves. You might even sometimes see a young cub pouncing around in an attempt to catch a grasshopper!
Having been able to view a particular leopard cub from birth to the age of one year, is a truly magnificent moment in any guide’s life! The cub has thus done a full lap around the sun, seen the seasons come and go and experienced different seasons while settling nicely into “leopard-hood”. The cub would by now also have seen the beauty, as well as the harshness of life. They would have mastered pretty much most of the skills needed, in order to become a strong, independent leopard.
It is stated by some sources that leopard cubs start joining mom on hunting trips, from the age of three months. In my personal opinion, from what I have seen out in the bush, I do not agree. The earliest I ever saw cubs going out on a hunting trip, was just before the age of one.
The hunting practice starts off with smaller prey, such as medium sized birds, squirrels or scrub hares. All the practice during playtime now comes into use and it is time to start getting down to business…
On one occasion, I viewed a cub stalking a Helmeted Guineafowl (Numida meleagris). Mom took cover behind a tall patch of grass and sat very still, watching while the cub crouched down and slowly crawled from one patch of long grass to another. This took some time, as the cub did it quietly and slowly, in order to avoid being detected by the Guineafowl and any other bird species in the area, that may give her presence away. The cub made it up to a tree just a few meters away from the Guineafowl. Sadly, a Blacksmith lapwing picked up on either the mom, or the cub’s presence and started alarm calling, thereby chasing away any birds in the area. After an unsuccessful hunt like this, mom would leave her young for a few days at a time, to go and hunt and supply food for the necessary energy for the cubs to try and hunt once again. During this time, you will find the cubs in the same area where mom had left them. The cubs might start exploring further and further away from the area, thereby exposing themselves to other predators. Luckily the cubs have magnificent hearing abilities and more often that not, mom and the cubs would reunite, before danger got the better of the situation.
This is both an exciting and sad time for guests and guides alike. Once cubs have mastered their own hunting skills, they would be ready to leave mom’s side.
Time to move on
At the age of around two, the time had come for the cubs to move on and to find their own territory, whilst living a solitary life. The cubs would by now have learned and mastered all the necessary skills in order to start their independent lives. Mom and cubs would not necessarily re-unite with one another, but might be seen greeting on occasions and even sharing overlapping parts of their territory, although not for long periods of time. Once the cub has left the mother, the cub will live life as a solitary cat, only having another leopard around during mating.
Keep an eye out for our new weekly blog posts. We have insightful and interesting topics to keep you busy, while planning your next safari adventure! Hope to see you out on game drive soon!