A young leopard’s “school days”

Sabi Sand | May 2016

The early days of an animal’s life is a time for learning. Watching such a learning process take place in front of us can be both interesting and entertaining; it is certainly always fascinating.

A relaxed young male leopard, the son of the Hlaba’nkunzi female, has recently given us some fine opportunities to watch him as he moves through the transition phase between being a cub and being an independent sub-adult leopard. Now approximately 15 months old, independence could be thrust upon him at any time in the next few months.

One fresh morning we had only driven for about five minutes after leaving the lodge, when we came upon a young leopard walking towards us in the road. He seemed in no hurry whatsoever, and soon lay down in front of the vehicle, watching the Land Rover and its occupants with mild curiosity. A few minutes later, a second Land Rover joined us at the sighting.

By now we had recognised the leopard as the Hlaba’nkunzi female’s son, a leopard that our guests had seen the previous evening. Virtually at the same time as we first came upon the leopard that morning, we also saw two large buffalo bulls, lying down in reasonably long green grass, close to a fallen marula tree, perhaps 20 metres to the east of the road. Now the young leopard also became aware of the two buffaloes… or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the leopard became aware that there was SOMETHING, some living creature, in the grass nearby.

Curious as ever, he began to move cautiously off the road and in the direction of the two buffalo bulls. It didn’t take long before the buffaloes became aware of the leopard, and they both stood up. By now the young leopard could very clearly see what the other life forms were, but he continued to move towards them, not making too much effort to conceal himself.

Fascinated, we watched as the leopard leapt up onto the limbs of the fallen marula tree, and moved confidently along them, until he was no more than a couple of feet above one of the buffalo bulls. It was obvious that the buffaloes knew that the leopard was a predator, but it was also equally apparent that they didn’t consider him to pose any real threat! In fact, I would describe the buffaloes as having appeared slightly amused by the presence of the young leopard so close to them. They began to graze peacefully just below the tree, every now and again looking up at the leopard. The leopard, meanwhile, had a very playful way about him, and walked along a roughly horizontal section of the tree, turning and reaching down with one paw on several occasions, towards the top of the back of the buffalo closest to him. He even extended his claws and touched the buffalo on the spine at least once! It was as if the leopard was toying with the idea of jumping down onto the buffalo to try to have him as a meal – of course such an attempt would have had no chance of succeeding, but the leopard certainly gave me the impression that he was “thinking big” or “dreaming big!”

The vegetation and other structures or obstacles, as well as the relative position of the sun, the buffaloes, the marula tree and the leopard, did not allow me to quite get to the position I would have chosen, and of course I was so caught up in the moment that I didn’t pay enough attention to camera settings. As a result, the pictures that I did manage to take were probably nowhere near as good as they might have been. The memory of the incident, however, will remain clear in my mind for a long time to come.

There have been a number of other sightings of this same young leopard showing great ambition, stalking other large mammals, such as a waterbuck bull, an adult male giraffe, and even rhino. At the other end of the scale, we have witnessed him stalking dwarf mongoose, small birds and even butterflies.

He is now larger than his mother, and has an appetite to match. He certainly is large enough and physically strong enough to look after himself, in terms of being able to subdue and kill prey of suitable size. His education process seems to be going well, and we believe that it is a case of an active enquiring mind that will benefit him, rather than a case of “curiosity killed the cat.” He has already provided us with much fine viewing, and I am optimistic that he will continue to do so as he approaches independence, as well as afterwards, when his mother produces her next litter.