Watching Salayexe’s cub grow…

On Sunday the 21st of June at exactly 16:22 my heart skipped a beat. We’ve been watching Salayexe, one of Sabi’s most relaxed leopardesses, waiting patiently for her six week-old cub to show itself. She called softly, and her fluffy little treasure appeared, staring out at us anxiously with eyes like shiny blue marbles.

Salayexe is famous in the northern section of the Sabi Sands for being one of the most relaxed leopard females in the whole reserve. She treats game viewers as if they are part of the vegetation, so photographing her on our ODP Safaris is usually a breeze. What she’s not famous for is raising cubs successfully. Over the years most of her offspring have succumbed to various natural forces, including predation and flash floods. But this year there’s hope. She seems to be taking extra special care of her latest cub…

Leopard lying in grass and with six week old cub standing in background
Female leopard cleaning her six week old cub

On that Sunday, they were resting on the bank of a small drainage line not far from the exposed roots of a massive tree that formed the perfect hiding place for a vulnerable little leopard cub. In the African bushveld, however, danger lurks around every corner. Spotted hyenas have a knack for sniffing out leopard hiding places and it wasn’t long after that these marauders found Salayexe’s drainage line den site, forcing her to move.

Five days later, we found them in the last spot I would have imagined – right next to a lodge. They were technically inside, since the lodge is unfenced. Salayexe lay a stone’s throw from the last room, its wooden deck overlooking the Manyeleti riverbed. Beneath this deck hid her cautious little cub, but only for a minute or two. Curiosity finally coaxed her out and into her mother’s gentle grasp for a good clean. Apparently this is an old trick of Salayexe’s – using camps as den sites for her young. It makes sense, because other predators like lions and hyenas generally avoid humans if they can.

Leopard cub playing in fallen tree
Leopard cub hiding below a room

On the morning of the 10th of August our luck changed – as did Salayexe’s den site. She had moved the cub during the night to a large termite mound very near to Elephant Plains Game Lodge. This time there were no irritating little branches in the way, no dappled light to make our spotted subjects disappear. Instead, we had one very curious bundle of energy running up and down a fallen log right beside us. While she chewed on protruding branches, fearlessly staring us down, her mother stood guard in the background, keeping an eye out for their age-old enemy – the hyenas. And whenever she felt it was safe, Salayexe would call the cub over for a cleaning session, some playtime, and if her cub was persistent enough, some milk (leopards start weaning their cubs at around 3 months).

Leopard sitting in grass with back towards camera
Female leopard and cub playing in tree

“In all the years that I’ve been working and photographing here, this is the most relaxed cub I’ve even seen in the Sabi Sands”, said Brendon Cremer, my co-host on the ODP Safaris at Elephant Plains that night at the dinner table. “Let’s just hope Salayexe manages to raise her to adulthood.”

If that’s the case, our already-incredible photographic opportunities of leopards are only going to get better in the future…!

Join us in 2016 by visiting Tuskphoto Safaris – Elephant Plains.

Leopard cub drinking from mother
Female leopard and her cub playing and rubbing against each other