In the serene landscapes of Isimangaliso Wetland Park, a routine bird watching expedition transformed into an extraordinary wildlife encounter when Ian Ferreira, a St Lucia-based specialist bird guide, stumbled upon two African leopard cubs, an exceptionally rare sight.
"I was on a drive on the western shores of Isimangaliso Wetlands Park looking for birds. In the distance far ahead, on the road, I noticed two leopard cubs. One was so pale and tawny coloured that from a distance, it looked like a lion cub," shared Ferreira, reflecting on the remarkable moment.
As the group cautiously approached, the cubs gracefully retreated into the dense coastal forest.
However, Ferreira noted, "the pale 'strawberry' leopard remained peeping at us through the undergrowth".
Leopard cubs are usually left alone in thick bush or in secluded mountain hides while their mother is out on the hunt. The South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) sheds light on the diversity of African leopards, highlighting their size and colour variations influenced by location and habitat.
Ranging from pale yellow to deep gold or tawny, these majestic creatures boast black rosettes, while their heads, lower limbs, and bellies are adorned with solid black spots. The unique colour variations, described as black and strawberry, stem from autosomal recessive genes. Autosomal recessive traits, disorders, or diseases necessitate the presence of two abnormal gene copies for manifestation.
The disparity in size among African leopards is also location-dependent, with males in the Kruger National Park region weighing approximately 58kg, while their coastal counterparts are notably smaller at around 31kg. Diverse habitats and prey species contribute to this variance.
SANBI notes that roughly 20%, equivalent to 248,770 km2, of South Africa provides suitable leopard habitat, fragmented into four regions: the southeast coast, the interior of KwaZulu-Natal, the Kruger National Park, and the northern region along the Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park.