Published: April 2007

Raising a Leopard

Raising a Leopard

Lessons of the Hunt

Teaching a spirited cub to survive in the wilds of Botswana takes all the skill and patience a mother leopard can muster. Here's a rare look at how this solitary species raises its young.

By Dereck Joubert
Photograph by Beverly Joubert

She was eight days old when we spotted her. Her eyes were still milky gray, and she wobbled slightly. Emerging into the sunlight from her den, she seemed curious and bold, taking no notice of screeching squirrels. Her mother had lost five previous cubs to hyenas, baboons, and other predators. What would happen to this one?

Unlike lions or cheetahs, leopards are secretive, solitary cats. Without a family to depend on, they hunt alone, slinking through the shadows, surviving on stealth and intelligence. Finding any leopard is difficult, so when we discovered this mother and cub in the thick groves of ebony and acacia trees at Mombo, an area in Botswana's Okavango Delta, we decided to follow the little one as she grew up.

From her first days, Legadema, as we came to call her ("light from the sky" in the Setswana language), was under constant threat. Whether it was a troop of baboons that tried to drag both mother and daughter out of their den, or the lurking hyenas, death was never far away. Lions, a significant threat to young leopards, thrive in this part of the Moremi Game Reserve. But none of this kept Legadema from exploring the forest on her own when her mother left her alone for days at a time to bring back meat. Wherever Legadema went, vervet monkeys with darting eyes spotted her a mile off, and squirrels set up alarm calls. In time, these incidents only made her better at concealment and stealth.

Her mother, a patient teacher, instructed Legadema in the skills she would need to survive as a predator: how to pin down prey and where to clamp on their throats with her jaws to suffocate them. Only after mastering these and many other lessons would she grow into the solitary hunter that all leopards must one day become.

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