About ten days ago two leopard cubs were brought to the Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre by members of the Parks Board.
These two cubs are tiny – they were only a few days old when their mother abandoned them. Their background story illustrates perfectly some big issues and debates in conservation, so we’d like to share the details.
It is rare for a leopard mother to abandon seemingly perfectly healthy cubs- especially when they are not born in captivity, where such behaviour is more frequently seen. These cubs were born in Sabie Sands, a private concession area in the Kruger National Park. However, the leopard mother gave birth to them in immediate proximity to guest accommodations at one of the lodges. Soon after the birth she displayed severe aggression towards the people in proximity – as is normal for a mother guarding her young. However, this represented a serious safety risk, as people were moving nearby on foot. Reserve staff therefore moved the cubs about 25 metres away from the cabins to a more secluded area, hoping that the mother would nurse her young without feeling threatened. Unfortunately the mother did not return to nursing them once they had been moved. Once it had become evident that she had abandoned them, the park staff took the cubs to Moholoholo where they are being hand-reared.
It’s a sad tale as it highlights a real dilemma: The cubs are in essence a casualty of human-wildlife conflict. The leopard was only acting aggressive because she was in too close a proximity to humans – and the very fact that she chose a spot so close to the lodge to give birth suggests how habituated she was to humans, due to the high level of safari traffic. And yet, it is this safari traffic that safeguards one of the largest tracts of habitat in South Africa being maintained for wildlife. Without the safari tourism and people paying entry prices for the national park, the Kruger and other reserves would not be sustainable and the loss of habitat would be detrimental to many wildlife populations.
The cubs are currently placed in the care of Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, where the more experienced staff members are looking after them. Since they are so young, they need a lot of care. You can view a short video showing the cubs being hand-reared and an interview with Moholoholo’s manager Brian Jones. As they are being cared for by humans almost from birth, these cubs will sadly never live in the wild.
This does raise the question whether they should be hand-reared at all – or whether it would be more natural not to interfere? Leopards are classed as “near threatened” by the IUCN, and South Africa considers its leopard population vulnerable enough to ban any hunting of leopards in the near future. These cubs are therefore precious, which makes a strong argument for ensuring their survival – which, given their age, can only be secured in captivity.
Leopards are also frequently persecuted by local communities and livestock farmers, who perceive them to be a threat to their own livelihoods. Animals in captivity can be used to educate the public and therefore mitigate some forms of human-willdife conflict. Moholoholo in particular have had remarkable achievements in “campaigning” on behalf of leopards. In the last few years the centre has saved on average 10-15 leopards a year, as farmers increasingly contact Moholoholo to alert them to the presence of a “problem” leopard on their farm. Contrary to the two cubs, wild “problem leopards” are not necessarily doomed to a life in captivity: The Moholoholo team usually manage to trap the leopard, quarantine it for a short amount fo time to assure that it is disease free, and then secure a safe release site.
If the cubs remain in the care of Moholoholo, they will therefore most likely be given a permanent sanctuary place and will be part of the community outreach and education programme, thereby hopefully helping to save other leopards. Ultimately, the decision is not Moholoholo’s though: Wildlife belongs to the land owners, by South African law. As these cubs were born in the Kruger, they remain the property and responsibility of South African parks board.