I have always believed that a male tiger or male leopard plays no role in the raising of the cubs.
Two rare sightings have caused me to rethink this idea.
At Londolozi Game Reserve, Camp Pan male, a magnificent male leopard and father of Vomba Female's cub, approaches her den where a single cub is hidden in the rocks.
Camp Pan announces his presence with a chuffing sound. Vomba responds and greets Camp Pan with cuffing, rolling and plenty of chuffing.
She turns towards the den and in a soft chuffing call, calls the cub from the rocks to meet his father.
Briefly three leopards are trapped in the frame of my camera as Camp Pan meets and greets his offspring.
After the greetings, Camp Pan remains in the vicinity of the den and several times gives the rasping territorial call. Then he circle the den site, marking strenuously prominent rocks trees and bushes.
Camp Pan Male marks on top of several termite mounds, presumably to let the scent of the marking fluid drift across on the wind.
He is extremely thorough in his task and stops several times to pull a Flehmen Face as he processes chemical messages left by other leopards.
It becomes obvious to me as he continues to give his territorial call, that he is staking out the den site, making it out of bounds, zoning it off to other male leopards, so to speak.
At Tiger Canyons, Ron a 10 years old male tiger approaches Tigress Shadow's den site.
In the dense thicket Tigress Shadow has 3 cubs hidden away. They are just 6 weeks old.
Ron is the father of the 3 cubs and he is meeting his cubs for the first time.
Shadow is initially aggressive as he approaches the den site and then she "chuffs" him in a friendly fashion. Ron returns the compliment and moves forward to greet the cubs.
In the dense bush I am unable to see the greeting but I can hear it. The soft chuffing sound of the cubs and the deeper sound of the male tiger's chuff intermingle. Shadow remains outside the den waiting anxiously.
After 15 minutes Ron comes our of the den and immediately gives his territorial call.
In an identical display of behavior to Camp Pan male, Ron circles the den site calling and marking his territory strenuously.
Circling around the den site several times, Ron proclaims the area out of bounds to all male tigers. Nearby he aggressively threatens the male tiger Saetao, warning him to keep out of the area.
Recently at Londolozi, we had a spate of leopard cubs killed by nomadic male leopards and male leopards who were not the fathers of the cubs.
I believe for leopard and tigers cubs to be successful, it is essential that the male territories are stable.
It seems obvious to me that male tigers and male leopards take the task of securing the area and especially the area around the den very, very seriously.
The male check in from time to time to see how the females are coping with the raising of the cubs.
Male tigers and male leopards in their prime are at the strongest times of their lives. They can secure the best area and protect the area making it safe for cubs to have the best chance of survival.
The areas are secured vocally, chemically and by their physical presence.
Although male leopards can defend an area against male leopards, they cannot guarantee safety against lions. Lions remains the biggest killers of leopard cubs.
A few years ago at Londolozi I had filmed the "Mother Leopard" return to her den to find one of her two cubs had been killed by lions. One cub remained alive.
"Mother Leopard" carried the cub a short distance and began to lick the cub. Then she took the dead cub up into the branches of a large ebony tree and began to eat the cub. Her body language suggested she was grieving over her dead cub.
"Mother Leopard" took pieces of the body down into the dry river bed and buried them in the sand. She was most meticulous about burying the parts of the body deep in the sand so hyenas couldn't get them.
It was a solemn, touching ceremony as I and her surviving cub watched her bury the body parts.
As I moved my jeep closer to film the scene, she charged aggressively.
Later I believed my action was totally insensitive to the grieving mother.
The Tigress Shadow at Tiger Canyons recently gave birth to four healthy cubs and after 4 days moved them to a small secluded den in a dense thicket.
On the 5th day while she was away from the den I crept into the den and discovered that she had unknowingly sat on one of the male cubs. Its crumpled lifeless body lay motionless in the den.
An hour later she returned to the den and picked up the cub in her mouth and moved it a short distance and began to lick the dead cub.
She showed great distress over the dead cub and was aggressive to my presence at the den. Later she ate the cub.
In the Masai Mara, I filmed a cheetah mother eat her cub when a tourist vehicle has inadvertedly run over the cub in the grass. Even though she had eaten the cub, she spent several hours calling for the cub. It was a distressful scene.
At Londolozi I had observed a python penetrate a rocky den and swallow a leopard cub. When "Manana" returned to the den, she immediately attacked the python which disgorged the leopard cub.
Satisfied now she had the body of her dead cub, she spent sometime licking it and then ate it. All the signs were of a mother grieving over the loss of her cub and then she returned to the den and called for her dead cub for several hours. It was obvious to me that her distress was enormous.
It is fascinating to compare the behavior of Mother leopard, Tigress Shadow, Manana and the Cheetah Mother. All had showed great distress at finding their dead cubs. All the mothers had spent some time licking the dead cubs and then a desire to get rid of the body by eating it.
In the case of "Mother Leopard" she not only ate the cub, but buried it as well, so strong was her desire to remove all trace of the body.
All the mothers showed a desire to be left alone and the leopard and tiger mothers were aggressive to me when I approached closer.
It was obviously a distressing private moment which they were unwilling to share.
Ironically when a cub dies, it increase the chances of survival for the remaining cubs that are left alive, because competition for milk and later meat is less.
All the big cats, lion, leopard, cheetah and tiger have self regulating systems which maintain the delicate balance between predator and prey.
Rarely seen are the range of emotions when a death occurs in the litter and I feel very privileged to have had a glimpse into these private ceremonies.
Tread lightly on the Earth
Tread lightly on the Earth