The day starts early in South Africa’s Sabi Sabi Game Reserve, and by six in the morning, we set out onto the bushveld in the golden light of sunrise. Our tracker spots a telltale paw-print in the sand and signals our ranger, Gus, to bear left. We pass a thicket of trees and there she is, walking right in front of us: a gorgeous female leopard, returning home after a nighttime hunt. But she’s been wounded—a bloody gash is visible on her chest near her right front leg. She stops briefly, looks back at us, and then continues on her way.
“Likely looking for her daughter,” says Gus. “Eight months old and just starting to be left on her own for a few days at a time.”
We follow slowly behind. No need to rush. We have the whole morning ahead of us.
We’re passing another thicket of trees when the daughter spots her mother and comes bounding toward her. Now, there are two of them for us to follow.
They lead us through brush, over trees downed by elephants, and into the back yard of the now-abandoned park manager’s home. Clearly this is a favorite spot for mother and daughter to engage in some mutual grooming and bonding. Rough tongues clean ears, whisk away brambles, and tend to that troublesome gouge in Mom’s chest.
The daughter wants more attention, but Mom responds to her young one’s attempts to cuddle with a ferocious growl. “The mother’s trying to push her away,” says Gus. “The daughter’s old enough to start spending time alone. But this daughter isn’t keen on having Mom leave.”
The mother walks to a nearby tree, looks back at her daughter, and waits. Ever hopeful, the daughter races to her, clearly ready to follow her mother anywhere. But the mother isn’t swayed. She growls again. The message is clear: You’ve got to stay here. On your own. She turns to leave, takes a step, and the daughter mews.
This time, the daughter gets the message and stays put, leaning against the tree, watching her mother walk away, not knowing when she’ll be back. If she’ll be back.
Off on another hunt? No, as soon as the mother rounds the bend in the road and is out of her daughter’s sight, she heaves herself to the sandy ground and returns to grooming—in need of a little “me” time.
-Photos and text by 8-time WT adventurer Jeannée Sacken, South Africa, Victoria Falls, and Botswana Private Journey