Legadima, a Setswana word meaning “lightning,” is the name of a five-year-old adult female leopard that lives at Mombo in the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana. Guides and visitors have been watching her since she was a tiny little cub less than two weeks old. She is the subject of a documentary film and a photographic book called Eye of the Leopard, both of which document her life in intimate detail.
She recently successfully raised her first litter of cubs, two young females, now two-years-old, named Marung (“cloud”) and Pula (“rain”). With the independence of these cubs the guides at Mombo began to wonder when the next litter of cubs would be born. Every time Legadima was located the guides would study her carefully: Was she pregnant? Was she maybe moving towards a den site? Was she lactating?
There was great excitement towards the end of 2009 when she was discovered hunting one morning and the guides noticed immediately that she was lactating heavily. The matted wet fur around her teats even indicated that she had very recently nursed her cubs. A new litter had arrived!
I led an Eco-Expedition to Mombo during the Ultimate Botswana trip in October 2009 and there was great excitement on our first day there when, during the morning wake-up call, a leopard was discovered walking on the boardwalk in front of rooms 4 and 5! The leopard was calling regularly and was lactating. It was Legadima.
We quickly downed our early-morning refreshments and set off in the game drive vehicles to follow her, hoping that she would lead us to her cubs. We spent most of the morning following her as she walked around—scent-marking and calling regularly until we eventually lost her in thick bush. We lost track of her for a day, but on the third morning we found her again. Again she was scent-marking regularly and calling every few minutes. It was then that we began to realize that there may be something wrong. The fact that she was calling so often was unusual for a leopard who had little cubs hidden somewhere. During this time there are great dangers for the cubs and a female leopard with small cubs usually keeps a low profile, not making herself obvious to other potentially dangerous predators. We began to realize that she may have lost her cubs.
It is not unusual for leopards to lose their cubs. About 50% of all cubs that I watched growing up in South Africa over a 12-year period died before they became independent of their mothers. The main causes of death amongst the cubs are hyaenas and lions, both of which are common at Mombo. The guides confirmed that she had indeed lost her cubs a few weeks later when they saw that her milk had dried up.
Then in February this year, I returned to Mombo with the Back to Africa group and the guides informed me that they thought that Legadima was pregnant again. We didn’t see Legadima this time, but did get good views of Pula and Marung.
On my return to Mombo three weeks later with the second Back to Africa group, the guides were certain that Legadima had given birth as she was lactating heavily once again. We found her on our first morning outing and spent the morning following her as she hunted the woodland alongside the floodplains. There was great excitement when she stalked a female warthog resting in a burrow. She waited patiently next to the burrow until the warthog moved out followed by three little piglets! With the appearance of the piglets, Legadima sprang into action, rushing at high speed after the fleeing warthog family. She managed to get her claws onto one of the piglets, but in a flash the mother warthog was there, grunting aggressively and chasing Legadima off. When the hunt was over, Legadima began walking and scent-marking again, but did not call this time. We were certain that she was heading back to her cubs, but we lost her in dense bush!
That evening one of the guides happened upon Legadima walking along one of the bush tracks on his way back to camp just as the sun was setting. She turned off the track and headed into the bush to a large fallen dead tree where she had hidden cubs before. She leapt onto the tree and settled down to groom. Could this be where the cubs were hidden? We weren’t able to find out, because the sun was setting and we had to head back to camp.
Early the next morning we got everyone into the game drive vehicles and headed back to the fallen tree. Legadima was resting on top of the log. This HAD to be the den! We parked our vehicles carefully, got everyone to sit as quietly as possible and waited. The sun poked over the horizon and gradually lit up the environment: first the tops of the trees and then lower down until the golden light caught the golden color of the Legadima’s beautiful coat. All around us birds flitted through the trees and called.
Then, there was movement under the log. We eagerly looked through our binoculars and there, below the log and sticking its head up through the grass, was a tiny leopard cub, its eyes still blue and looking fairly wobbly on its feet! We watched in awe for a few minutes before it disappeared back beneath the log. We waited and watched. Every now and then we would get another glimpse of it and a second cub in gaps in the vegetation. Our patience and hard work had paid off: at last we had seen Legadima’s new cubs!