C.S.I meets GVI Karongwe

By Rosie Miles - Base Manager 3 years ago
Categories Limpopo and KZN

It might have something to do with the fact that I have been watching a lot of Dexter recently, but when we came across the carcass of a leopard cub this week I became almost obsessed about gathering data and trying to determine what had happened (literally – I didn’t sleep for a whole night thinking about it!).


In the first instance we had to identify who the cub was. This was not too hard as we have a lot of photos of the two youngsters that are found in that locality, Treacle’s and Mangajani’s  cubs. In addition Treacle had been seen sitting by the carcass when it was first discovered. So within less than a minute we had successfully confirmed that it was in fact Treacle’s male cub, that was born in approximately December 2013.


Next we took a look at the carcass to see what, if any, injuries were obvious so that we could maybe determine a cause of death. There were not any dramatic looking external injuries, just 2 small puncture wounds on the lower abdomen, and two larger puncture wounds, one on the shoulder and one on the hip. There did not appear to be any wounds to the face or paws, nor was there any flesh or blood in the claws. On closer inspection we could see that the abdomen was heavily bruised and there was blood dripping from the mouth. We also noticed that the leopard was situated in thick bush high up on top of a termite mound. All of this evidence indicated to us that the leopard had been attacked by another predator, during the attack the cub had adopted the submissive and defensive pose of turning onto it’s back and it had not fought back significantly. We suspect that the cub had received at least one serious blow to the abdomen that was not instantly fatal but allowed the leopard to walk away from the fight, only to find a quiet spot on the termite mound where he later died from internal bleeding.


Now that we had got a rough idea of the course of events that had led to its death, we then wanted to work out who the perpetrator was (the ‘perp’ as they say on TV). We noticed that there was already quite an infestation of maggots exuding from the wounds. This indicated that the cub had been dead for at least a few days. We took maggot specimens in the hope that we might be able to determine what species of fly they came from, which in combination of knowing the ambient temperature over the past week (which I have to say has been excruciatingly hot!) we could use to determine an approximate time of death. The results of this we are still cultivating! We then had a look back through our data from the past week to see what other animals had been in the area. We noted that Tsavo and a young but large and badass female normally found in the northern part of the reserve, Marula, were there 7 days previously, the lions had been there 4 days previously, and we had had audio for Tsavo, territorial calling, in that area again 3 days previously.


Using our knowledge of predator interactions from previous experiences we proposed that a lion attack was improbable. Unless caught unawares, this stocky 10 month old leopard cub should be able to outrun a lion, and climb a tree to safety. If it had been ambushed by the lions, the wounds would more likely be concentrated on the back and neck as the leopard had been trying to flee. The lions would also more likely finish the job on the spot, rather than letting the leopard crawl away injured. The wounds on the belly indicate he turned onto his back in submission and defence, a scenario that is much more likely to come about from being attacked by another leopard.


Marula is an unlikely candidate, being a young female leopard. She has no reason to attack another leopard cub as she is not yet territorial nor has she any cubs of her own to protect. Entering into combat with another leopard would be a highly risky choice for her with nothing to gain from it. For the most part, female leopards keep to themselves, only entering into physical contact with other leopards in extreme circumstances.


Being a young male cub on a reserve with a large number of other male leopards, unfortunately meant that this little guy only had a very slim chance of survival since the day it was born. Infanticide in the leopard world is extremely common. For the most part this happens when male leopards kill the offspring of other males, in order to eliminate the genetics of a rival and induce the mother into oestrus so they can mate with her. Dominant males will also kill sub-adult male leopards in their area, before they become big enough to challenge them for dominance, and the territory and breeding rights that come with that. Therefore in that respect it was not surprising for us to discover that this male cub had been killed. What is puzzling though is which male leopard did the deed.


The cub is the offspring of our resident dominant male Tsavo. We have seen Tsavo interacting in a very non-threatening way with this cub for many months, sharing kills with the cub and being seemingly extremely relaxed in each other’s company (which is actually quite unusual behaviour). Therefore our initial thoughts were that Tsavo was unlikely to be the culprit. However, the carcass was found deep into Tsavo’s territory and the other two dominant males, Scar and Xipuku have not ventured down this far in the past year, in fact they were having a ‘call-off’ with each other over 10 kilometres away 3 nights before the carcass was found. It seems extremely unlikely that either of those were responsible. There is one other young adult male still on the property, Tanda, who could potentially be a suspect, however our last sighting of him was also much farther up north, and Tanda is still not big enough to challenge Tsavo for his territory, so for him to make this kind of dominance move also seem slightly unlikely, although not impossible.


Therefore by process of elimination, the most likely attacker seems to be the poor cub’s own father, which might explain the lack of evidence of the cub fighting back, as the attack surely came as a surprise to him also after all the pleasant interactions they have shared previously. It is hard to say what might have prompted Tsavo into attacking his cub, although we have not seen them together for a few months now, and in that time the cub has grown exponentially. It is possible that Tsavo either did not recognise the cub as being his own anymore, or he maybe just felt that the cub was getting too close to sub-adulthood and therefore he had to nip him in the bud now before he became sexually mature and a potential threat. The reality is we will never know, but it was incredibly interesting to work through all the evidence and try to piece together what might have happened. We also took the opportunity to collect some invaluable data on the size of various body parts of a male cub approximately 10 months of age.


We did return to the carcass the following day to try and obtain further evidence, but of course those cheeky hyena beat us to it and contaminated the scene. We had put up a camera trap up over night though and it was pretty sad to watch the mother Treacle returning to her cub’s body every 20 minutes for the following  17 hours, up until the point that the hyena stole it. Again, we will never know what was going through her head, but it was pretty obvious that she recognised it as her cub and was reluctant to leave the scene. This is reality of nature though, this is certainly not the first litter of cubs that Treacle has lost and it will not be the last. Leopards are incredibly efficient at controlling their own numbers and limiting the amount of inbreeding that occurs, requiring virtually no human management whatsoever, which is probably one of the reasons why leopards are one of the most successful predators in Africa and makes them extremely interesting to study.