Baby leopards in den at Zarafa camp

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A rare sighting of 3-week-old leopards and their mother, carefully secluded in a den under a fallen tree in the Selinda region of northern Botswana.

During our recent visit to Zarafa Camp in northern Botswana’s Selinda Concession, Nicky and I enjoyed superb game viewing, both on game drive and from the boat.  This area is so lovely during Botswana’s summer months, with the green landscapes, the abundant baby animals and the dramatic skies that it makes one pause at the grandeur.

Our favorite sighting at Zarafa was that of two 3-week-old leopard cubs and their mother, hidden in a den under a fallen tree.  It is not often that one has a chance to see leopard cubs in the wild and this was our first chance to see kittens this young.

The female leopard - Copyright © James Weis

The female leopard – Copyright © James Weis — (Nikon D3; Nikon 600mmf4; 1/200sec at f5.6; ISO2000)

As we approached the den site, we were very quiet and saw the two young cubs in the shadows at the back of the den.  However, we could not see the female leopard anywhere and so we decided to leave the area, as we did not wish to attract any attention to the unprotected cubs.  But just as we were turning the vehicle around to leave, we noticed some movement in the bush to the side of our vehicle…

Female leopard returns to the den - Copyright © James Weis

Female leopard returns to the den – Copyright © James Weis — (Nikon D3; Nikon 200-400mmf4 at 240mm; 1/250sec at f10; ISO400)

Female leopard above the den - Copyright © James Weis

Female leopard above the den – Copyright © James Weis — (Nikon D3; Nikon 200-400mmf4 at 200mm; 1/250sec at f10; ISO400)

Moments later, a gorgeous female leopard emerged from the fever-berry bushes and silently moved toward the den.  It was the mother of the cubs, returning from an absence that may have been a day or more in duration.  Female leopards spend only 50-60 percent of their time with cubs at this age, as they must hunt to provide the cubs with milk.  The timing of her return was fortuitous for us, as we now could now stay a short while to take a few images and watch the cubs with their mother.

Female leopard enters the den - Copyright © James Weis

Female leopard enters the den – Copyright © James Weis — (Nikon D3; Nikon 200-400mmf4 at 200mm; 1/50sec at f13; ISO400)

Female leopard peering out from inside the den - Copyright © James Weis

Female leopard peering out from inside the den – Copyright © James Weis — (Nikon D3; Nikon 200-400mmf4 at 250mm; 1/40sec at f13; ISO800)

This female leopard is well known to the guides here and she is quite used to being around game drive vehicles and is very relaxed, so Foster (our guide) assured us that we were not causing her any stress by being at the den.  This was quite clear as she calmly passed within 2 meters of our vehicle en route to her cubs, whilst barely casting us a glance.

The female leopard nursing her cubs - Copyright © James Weis

The female leopard nursing her cubs – Copyright © James Weis — (Nikon D3; Nikon 200-400mmf4 at 300mm; 1/250sec at f5; ISO800)

One of the little cubs gives us a look - Copyright © James Weis

One of the little cubs gives us a look – Copyright © James Weis — (Nikon D3; Nikon 600mmf4 with 1.4TC; 1/320sec at f5.6; ISO1250)

What followed was a pleasure to watch, as the purring cubs were greeted with nuzzling and licking from their mom… but she lay down almost immediately so that the cubs could suckle and fill their tiny bellies with her milk.

One of the leopard cubs looks out from the den - Copyright © James Weis

One of the leopard cubs looks out from the den – Copyright © James Weis — Nikon D3; Nikon 600mmf4 with 1.4TC; 1/160sec at f5.6; ISO1250)

One of the leopard cubs - Copyright © James Weis

One of the leopard cubs – Copyright © James Weis — (Nikon D3; Nikon 600mmf4 with 1.4TC; 1/400sec at f5.6; ISO1250)

After feeding for perhaps 5 minutes, the little cubs were full and ready for more affection and they proceeded to clamber all about mom’s head and shoulders, looking for more grooming and nuzzling.  With fat tummies, they soon tired and fell asleep under their mother’s chin and all three were soon dozing peacefully. This is how we left them.  What a privilege to have witnessed this.

Mom and her two babies in the den - Copyright © James Weis

Mom and her two babies in the den – Copyright © James Weis — (Nikon D3; Nikon 600mmf4 with 1.4TC; 1/80sec at f10; ISO1600)

Mom and her two cubs - Copyright © James Weis

Mom and her two cubs – Copyright © James Weis — (Nikon D3; Nikon 600mmf4 with 1.4TC; 1/80sec at f9; ISO1600)

Life for a baby leopard is extremely tenuous at this age, as they are completely reliant on their mother for sustenance and protection. The cubs will only venture from hiding at about 6 weeks and then only to make short excursions with their mother, as they are still extremely vulnerable.  At this time they also start to eat meat.  Weaning occurs at around 3 months, but they will stay with their mother for over a year before they are ready to fend for themselves.

Mom and her little ones settling in for a nap - Copyright © James Weis

Mom and her little ones settling in for a nap – Copyright © James Weis — (Nikon D3; Nikon 600mmf4 with 1.4TC; 1/125sec at f9; ISO1600)

The female and her cub in the den - Copyright © James Weis

The female and her cub in the den – Copyright © James Weis — (Nikon D3; Nikon 600mmf4 with 1.4TC; 1/125sec at f7.1; ISO2000)

Leopards will often move their cubs to a new hiding place, especially at this early stage, and in fact all three were seen a week later in a new den site, this one a burrow dug into the side of a termite mound.  If all goes well, then perhaps future visitors to Zarafa will have a chance to see these leopards as they grow.  I hope so!

James Weis
January 2010

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