It took seven long, hard years, but Cape leopard researcher Quinton Martins’s persistence paid off when he found and could photograph a pair of newborn Cape leopard cubs – believed to be a first for the Western Cape.
Martins, the founder and project manager of the Cape Leopard Trust that promotes and protects this leopard population, found the den, with the twin cubs, in a remote outcrop high in the Cederberg mountains.
The discovery was hugely significant, he explained, because it has allowed him and fellow researchers to document the maternal behaviour of these threatened leopards in the Cape fold mountains for the first time.
Insights from this work would hopefully lead to a more detailed understanding of the reproductive ecology and habits of these morphologically distinct leopards – on average, the ones here weigh just half of their counterparts in the bushveld and Botswana – in the Cederberg and would represent an exciting new chapter in the work of the trust, he added.
“This is an amazing discovery, but, man, it has taken hard work!” said Martins, who is in the final throes of a PhD on the leopards through the University of Bristol in Britain.
He explained that the movements of a female Cederberg female leopard, formally known as F10 but affectionately called “Spot”, had been monitored for 19 months via her high-tech GPS radio collar. By studying the data from the collar, he and his team had been able to determine her feeding habits, home range, movement and activity. And a retrospective analysis of the data showed that she had mated with a male leopard – M6, or “Max” – in September.
Assuming that Spot was pregnant, Martins, his wife, Elizabeth, and assistant, Willem Titus, went on high alert in January.
“We searched day and night, but there was simply no sign of her. Having a gut feel that she had given birth, I was desperate to find her. Eventually on the 12th of January I got a faint signal from her collar, which allowed me to get close enough for a download,” he said.
Analysis of the data suggested Spot had established a den site and that the cubs had been born five days earlier, on January 7. But it was important not to disturb the mother.
“I used the GPS radio collar to guide us in knowing when Spot moved from the den on a foray far from the area. While she was away, I took the opportunity to climb down to see if I could locate the site.”
After an intensive 20-minute search on his hands and knees in the “extremely rough” terrain, Martins eventually found the den in Cape reeds behind some large boulders.
“I could hardly believe it. There, lying cuddled together in a grassy ‘nest’, lay two tiny leopard cubs. Their eyes where still closed and they seemed so small and helpless. I took a few quick photos before making a hasty exit back to the others.”
Since then, the team have been monitoring the cubs’ development and their interactions with their mother from a distance. Last month, they found signs that at least one of them was still alive, and a week later managed to photograph it with Spot.
The Cape Leopard Trust works with statutory conservation authority CapeNature, and has research projects in the Cederberg, Gouritz Corridor, Namaqualand and Boland mountains. For information, see www.capeleopard.org.za