Lessons in Leoparding
Mothers routinely put up with a lot from their offspring. Like most mammal babes, African leopard cubs (Panthera pardus) love to play—and their moms are often on the receiving end of their frolicking. When photographer Suzi Eszterhas came across this mother and her cubs in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, she was struck by the feline’s patience amidst her offspring’s onslaught.
“The cubs seemed absolutely obsessed with pouncing on their mother’s head,” Eszterhas said. “Taking any opportunity they could for an ambush, they made it rather difficult for her to get any rest.” Sometimes, she would gently retaliate, Eszterhas recalled. “She was always tender with them, but sometimes they were still taken aback.”
Like so many behaviors in nature, this rambunctiousness serves a critical role in development—practice for what lies ahead. By the time this cub is grown, it will need to take down prey—some, such as baboons, much larger than itself—with a well-placed bite to the neck. An adult leopard might stalk an animal for miles, but when it’s time to strike, precision is everything.
Cubs get their first taste of meat early on, when they’re just six or seven weeks old. Until then, the mother keeps them hidden, moving them around from place to place until they are ready to learn to hunt. At about three months, the cubs are fully weaned, but will continue to live and hunt with their mother until they’re about two years old.
Eszterhas considers herself lucky to have witnessed this scene between a leopard mom known as the “Camp Female” and her cubs in the 148,000-acre Jao Reserve. While leopards are common in Botswana, the cats tend to stay out of sight, especially when raising their young. Protected from poaching and harassment, the leopards of the Jao Reserve are unusually relaxed. “This Camp Female grew up around safari vehicles behaving responsibly,” Eszterhas said. “Without this history and trust, this leopard project would not have been possible.”
Jao Reserve, Botswana
Suzi Eszterhas is an award-winning wildlife photographer who is best known for her images of baby animals in the wild. Her photographs have been published in more than 100 magazine cover and feature stories in publications around the world. She has ten books in print and another four in progress. She is a dedicated conservationist and lends her images and expertise to help raise funds and awareness for several environmental organizations around the world. Her latest book, “Sloths: Life in the Slow Lane” takes readers on an immersive journey through the jungles of South America to discover the secret lives of these strange and elusive creatures.
April Reese is a freelance science writer and editor based in Portugal. Her reporting has appeared in Scientific American, Discover, bioGraphic, Science magazine, Aeon, and many other outlets. She holds a master's degree in Environmental Studies from the Yale School of the Environment.