Peeking from behind the grooved flesh of the tree, two tiny blue eyes caught the sun. A speckled paw the size of a half-dollar with needle-sharp claws, latched on to the bark as it leaned against the base of a large branch. I could see the gentle curve of his plump, fuzzy tummy and I had to close my eyes against the cuteness overload that flooded through me.
His little head was straining upward, drawing my eye to a carcass his mother had skillfully wedged between two limbs five feet above it. His mother, a stunner of a leopard I’ll call Alice, was higher still, perched above us and looking at the four jeeps around her with minimal interest, the way we might look at passersby beneath a balcony.
The tail of a sibling flashed by the head of the first cub and just as quickly disappeared. The evening before, my guide, Ping from Mara Plains Camp where I was an invited guest, told me that she had two cubs, but it was always a crap shoot whether you’d see them from one day to the next. Cubs are the most vulnerable in their first year. They’re small and fragile and beloved by any number of predators. Thankfully, from the look of it, they’d made it another day.
We were privy to an important lesson; the cubs were being schooled. The mother was teaching her young ones to climb and to eat in a tree, but the cubs were struggling. They couldn’t navigate the branches successfully, and whether they climbed above or below, remained inches away from the carcass. The climbed about the limbs, anxious and hungry.
Seeing her cubs distressed, Alice decided on a new strategy. Bridging herself between two limbs, she grabbed the neck of half eaten wildebeest in her mouth and with a powerful tug lifted it from its place and gently lowered it three feet and wedged it into another V of the tree. She did it with such precision and grace you’d swear her mouth had opposable thumbs. Then she climbed down the tree, landing at its base and sat beneath the kill. The cubs scurried down, taking refuge under some bushes at her feet.
Rising up on her haunches, she grabbed the wildebeest once again and pulled it down, unceremoniously allowing the remains—a head, torso and some straggling entrails—to fall to the ground in a heap. She then began to drag it, her neck bulging with the effort, down a small incline, through an opening between two jeeps, up a hill and into the woods behind us. The cubs were besides themselves, excited to see the corpse within reach but intimidated by the metal gauntlet our vehicles posed. Together they huddled in a small open space of a gully. One cub gathered its courage and galloped forward, scampering after his mother and leaving the other alone somewhat bewildered. Before the first cub could gain too much ground, the second rushed forward, low to the grown in a submissive posture, his little butt wiggling as he went.
Ping backed up the car, having a sense of where Alice was headed. We moved to a small clearing near the base of the woods and wouldn’t you know it, Alice appeared to our right dropping the kill. The cubs pounced on it in an instant but she was only resting. Moments later, she began dragging it again, this time into the trees where we could not follow, all the while the cubs nipping at the wildebeest as they disappeared from sight.