Tiyani turns one!

Watching a leopard cub grow up in the Sabi Sands.

Leopard Cub with Mother

As a photographic safari guide, I get to witness amazing things in the bush – lions and hyenas battling it out over a fresh buffalo kill, giraffes giving birth and elephants submerging themselves in rivers with only the tips of their trunks sticking out. But nothing comes close to watching a tiny leopard cub grow up…and I was fortunate enough to document just that while guiding for Tusk Photo at Elephant Plains Game Lodge in the Sabi Sands.

Salayexe is arguably the most relaxed and most photographed leopardess in the northern parts of the Sabi Sand Game Reserve. Elephant Plains Game Lodge is in the heart of her territory and we see her very frequently on drives. As a mother, her record is poor. Only two cubs from her first seven litters survived, so when she gave birth again on the 4th of May 2015, we waited with bated breath to see whether the little ones would make it. Sadly only one did…but she’s still alive today!

I saw Tiyani for the first time on the 21st of June 2015. She was just over seven weeks old then and still very shy of our game drive vehicle. Salayexe was her relaxed self, but kept a close eye on the little one, making sure she’s always close to a good hiding place, like a thorny thicket or hole under a fallen tree trunk.

Leopard with Cub in grass

By early August the little blue-eyed cub had shaken her fear of humans, walking right past the vehicles without batting an eyelid and even sneaking up on us to get a closer look at all the funny creatures with their long lenses clicking away every time they see her. Just like she had done with her previous litters, Salayexe kept Tiyani close to, and even inside, some of the lodges. Perhaps she felt that hyenas and lions were less likely to bother her and the cub there or maybe she was simply after all the shade, but either way, it helped the little one to grow even more accustomed to the sight and sound of people.

Leopard cub chewing on branch
Leopard cub at lodge
Leopard- cub walking past game drive vehicle

It was hard to label Salayexe as a bad mother, because everything I saw her do seemed  to be done by the book. She’d wait until midmorning, when lions and hyenas were resting, before she moved Tiyani from one den to the next, giving us exceptional viewing and photographic opportunities of the two leopards together. She would teach Tiyani to climb trees – often jumping in first until the cub followed, only to jump out again, forcing the little one to navigate the branches on her own.

Leopard and cub walking on a branch
Leopard walking with cub in Road

I didn’t see Tiyani between November and February, and by the time I caught up with her again in March 2016 she had more than doubled in size. She was no longer the cute little cubby I had fallen in love with ten months ago, but rather a cautious teenager – more aloof than before. Perhaps she’d come into contact with the many dangers that lurk around her every day a few times in the time I was away, forcing her to be more alert. Or perhaps it was because she was now spending most of her time alone as Salayexe patrolled further and for longer periods on her own. 

Leopard stretching
Leopard cub at lying on ground at night

In June, not long after her first birthday, Tiyani was finally Christened. The Sabi Sands leopards are usually only given names when they reach an age of twelve months, when their chances of survival look good. Tiyani means “strong one” in the local Shangaan tongue – a very apt name if you ask me.

When I last saw her, she and Salayexe drank side by side at waterhole named Rampan, but soon after Salayexe growled at Tiyani when she got playful – the first signs that mother’s getting ready to kick daughter out. The split happens gradually, but before long, Tiyani and Salayexe will be neighbours only, minding their own business and living predominantly solitary lives. And in a year or so from now, Tiyani will hopefully give birth to her first litter of little blue-eyed bundles…

Leopard playing with cub

Join us on safari at Elephant Plains Game Lodge for some of Africa’s best leopard photographic opportunities! Visit Tusk Photo for more information.

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