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Electra - A leopard's story so far

leopard electra okonjima nature reserveleopard electra and cub okonjima nature reserve

Electra was collared in the 20,000 ha Okonjima Nature Reserve on 7 May 2010, for tracking and research purposes. In the beginning she was skittish, shy of people and cars, and the guides hardly ever saw her. It was only in January 2013, since found mating with TJ and Nkosi, that Electra started to relax a bit. It could have been because both these males were so comfortable around vehicles.

Leopards don’t have a defined birthing season and litters can arrive at any point during the year, although mating is more likely to occur in the months of January and February, which means that leopard litters typically arrive between April and May, as their gestation period is between 90 and 112 days.


Electra becomes a first-time mother to two cubs

In April and May 2013, Electra was again seen mating with Nkosi, and in the first week of August she gave birth to two cubs. It was our lucky guide Gideon Lisara, who caught a first glimpse of Electra and one of the cubs on 13 August. They were lying in a gully covered with thick bush, just south of the Okonjima Villa. The cub was so small that its eyes were still closed. Leopard cubs are born blind weighing only 0.45 kg (one pound) and open their eyes at around 10 days. Newborn leopards are extremely vulnerable and rely entirely on their mothers for nourishment and protection.

After Electra’s first den in the gully, she continued to move her cubs regularly. A leopard mother usually carries her cubs to a new location every couple of days to ensure they are hidden from potential predators. When Gideon saw Electra for the second time, a month later, he saw two cubs! This is the usual number of cubs for a leopard litter, although litters can number up to six. The two cubs were observed playing together on a pile of wood, while Electra was sitting beside them, keeping a watchful eye over both cubs and keeping an eye out for the guest vehicle standing nearby.

A few months later, Electra was finally comfortable enough to show off her beautiful cubs, attracting quite a lot of attention from our guides on their daily leopard tracking activities, and the guests enjoyed every moment spent with the trio. It is always such an amazing experience to see these powerful killers showcase their motherly affections towards their little cubs. It also provided an amazing opportunity for Team AfriCat to follow the month-old leopards and obtain some valuable insights into the number and situation of Electra’s dens, and when she would start walking with her cubs.

We discovered three different dens south of the Villa, all of them in 'eroded gullies'. She kept the cubs in the first den for a week, then spent two weeks in the second den and another week in the third den. After that, we were not sure where the next dens were situated. Finally, after two months she started walking with them.

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Cub disappears for the first time.

It was when the cubs were approximately three months old that trouble started. Sometime in mid-October Electra was seen hunting and walking with only one cub, with no sign of her other cub. Had it been killed? Was it lost? Or had Electra left it behind for some reason? Statistics show that leopard cub mortality rates during the first year may be as high as 50 per cent. This is suspected to be due to dense lion and hyena (brown and spotted) populations in the area, and in Okonjima Nature Reserve, also a dense leopard population.

More than three weeks later, on 18 November, the lost cub was found on its own, hiding under an old Land Rover frame (left by the previous owner of the farm), south of the Okonjima African Villa. The cub was weak and malnourished. At this point, Team AfriCat decided to become involved by providing the starving cub with meat and water. Electra had been seen in the area several times with her other cub, and our hopes were high that she would soon return to the abandoned one.

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The next day, Electra was found reunited with her lost cub. Though it was much smaller, thinner and lacking in muscle compared to its sibling, we were all relieved that the three were reunited.

The question lingering in at the back of our minds was ‘did Electra purposefully abandon her cub, and if so, why? We were very concerned that the little cub might be ill, so we consulted our experienced associate veterinarian Dr. Adrian Tordiffe, for some advice. Dr. Tordiffe highly doubted that parasites were responsible for the cub’s bad condition, as they were unlikely to cause problems in only one of the siblings. One possibility was that the cub had picked up an infection, which might have weakened it. However, Dr. Tordiffe suspected that the cub had just been forgotten by the 'first-time' mother, left without food for an extended period and had become weak and unable to keep up.

He recommended that we continue with the supplementary feeding to see if the cub became stronger. To give the weaker cub a chance to recover, Team AfriCat tied the meat to a tree so that it couldn’t be dragged away by another carnivore, thus allowing Electra to remain with the cubs until the sick cub had recovered, instead of leaving them alone to hunt.

During daily observations of Electra, we had a rare and amazing sighting. She was seen protecting her cubs from one of the deadliest snakes in the world – a 2.5-meter-long black mamba! She confronted the mamba and kept it away from her cubs until the snake finally decided to leave.

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Cub disappears the second time.

On 27 November 2013, Electra was again seen with only the stronger cub. Later that same week we found the lost cub on its own at the old bait, not as weak as previously, but still underweight. A new bait and a camera-trap were put up in a tree, high enough for the hyenas not to steal them.

The cub was unfortunately too young to be collared, as this would have been an easier way for us to keep track of it. As it was also too young to hunt and survive on its own, we discussed the possibility of capturing it, and placing it in an enclosure at the AfriCat Carnivore Care Centre. However, it was decided against this, as our belief is to keep wild animals free and wild. Also, by removing the cub from the wild, there would be little or no chance of us ever returning it to its mother. AfriCat kept on monitoring the cub as far as possible and also kept its strength up by subsidizing its diet, hoping that Electra would return to claim her youngster.

A few days later, Team AfriCat received a call from the staff at the Villa – the leopard cub was walking on the pool deck. Was it approaching humans for food? Perhaps, but the cub didn’t bother with the new bait we provided, instead it started catching insects on the lawn and disappeared into the bush again.

More than two weeks after the cub went missing for the second time, good news came from guide Daniel Augustus – the cub was back with Electra. She had killed a small jackal for the cubs, and together they dragged it up a tree. We still don’t know who found who. This is not common leopard behavior. We are still not sure why Electra gave up or lost or deserted the cub, and then took it back, showing affection one moment and then leaving it on its own for days. It was very strange.

Sadly, the cub disappeared for a third and final time in January 2014. We followed Electra and her remaining cub, put out baits and cameras where they had last been seen together and searched for the cub in the surrounding area, but it was nowhere to be found.

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Electra and Nkosi.

Since the disappearance of the weaker cub, Electra and her other cub were sighted a couple of times with the father Nkosi, one of the territorial males in the Okonjima Nature Reserve. Although male leopards provide no parental care, the presence of the father allows mothers to raise cubs with a reduced risk of them being killed by other males.

It was a truly amazing experience to see Electra and her cub, lying so close together and relaxed next to Nkosi. Electra’s cub was playing with 'mother', who had finally had enough and walked over to the nearby riverbank to lie down in a more peaceful place. When the cub turned her attention to Nkosi, he growled. Electra instantly walked up to Nkosi, growled back, and showed him who the boss really was! 'This is better than the National Geographic Channel!' guide Pieter said to his guests.

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On Saturday, 12 April 2014, mum and cub were fine and playing together – as they were on Sunday morning – but then two of the Okonjima guides found the cub late Sunday afternoon, shaking and in trouble. Electra would not leave its side and because it was getting dark, it was too risky to go in between mum and cub.

Early Monday morning, Electra was led away with a bait and team AfriCat drove right up to the cub and gave it an injection of very strong antibiotics and then two hours later one of cortisone – but by 17:00 that afternoon it seemed to take a turn for the worse. Electra was still at her side and all we could do was wait and see if she would make it through the night.

The cub did make it until morning but became weaker as the Tuesday progressed and died before the end of the day. The body was taken to Otjiwarongo, (the nearest town, north of Okonjima Nature Reserve) for the vet to make a proper diagnosis and conduct a full postmortem. The cub was skinned to look for snakebite and blood was taken. By the next day the results came back positive for rabies. Knowing this, we realized that no matter what we had tried – nothing would have helped.

Electra was vaccinated against rabies after we realized her cub had been infected with the virus – on the day after we received the results from the laboratory, then again on days three, seven and fourteen, as recommended by the veterinarians. Thankfully, she showed no subsequent signs of rabies.

Soon after the tragic loss of her litter, Electra was seen with Nkosi for about two weeks. In the middle of August 2014, she left her familiar territory and moved into the mountain range in the southern part of the Nature Reserve. Because of the inaccessible terrain we could only assume that she had given birth to her second litter and was seeking protection in the mountains.In the beginning of September, Electra was spotted again, roaming her usual home ranges but still regularly disappearing into the mountains.

Towards the end of September, to our surprise, Electra was observed mating with Madiba. Madiba, a large, elusive leopard had been spotted before on many occasions, but we had never been able to catch him. He was finally collared on 25 September, after months of brief sightings and occasional appearances on trail cameras. That night Electra was blocking the entrance to the box trap that had caught him earlier in the evening, giving us no chance to get anywhere close to him or the trap. All efforts to lure her away failed. It was too dangerous to dart only Madiba when Electra was around and was obviously on heat. As Electra’s collar had been causing problems for the past few weeks and we planned to re-collar her anyway, the decision was made to put a new collar on her while we could and so we darted both cats. Madiba turned out to be the biggest cat that had ever been collared in the history of Okonjima (weight, 76 kg; body length, 1.2 m; shoulder height, 0.73 m; canine, upper:4.3 cm; lower, 3.4 cm).

It is always a challenge to free-dart a leopard, especially in the dark, since it’s difficult to judge the cat’s reaction and foresee the distance the cat might run off after being darted. However, from previous experiences we knew that Electra usually stayed relatively calm and didn’t move very far from the darting site. Luck was on our side and after being darted she moved about 10 m away from the trap before she lay down. Her collar was replaced and her general condition checked. Besides a weight loss of 6 kg since the last darting in April, she seemed to be a perfectly healthy cat. During our standard, visual examination that is required while a carnivore is anesthetized for any reason, it did not look as if any cubs were suckling from her. Teeth are also examined and any abnormalities recorded for subsequent scheduling of treatment by a veterinary dentist. Nothing unusual was recorded.

With the evidence that Electra was mating, we excluded the idea that she was nursing her second litter in the mountains as we initially assumed. However, contrary to everything we have ever seen, heard or read before, Electra was found in mid-October, accompanied by two cubs of approximately two months of age.

leopards mating namibialeopards mating namibialeopard electra first litter okonjima nature reserveleopard electra first litter okonjima nature reserve

Female promiscuity has been observed in several carnivore and primate species where females mate with several males during their active estrus cycle to increase paternity uncertainty among males and thus avoid infanticide (males might be less inclined to kill cubs that they may have sired) as well as increasing the level of genetic variation among their offspring. To our knowledge, no data is available that shows that leopards mate while accompanied by dependent cubs.

Infanticide is an adaptive strategy that provides reproductive benefits mainly for males. By killing cubs that are not their own, it increases their reproductive success by forcing the female back into estrous. They can then sire her next litter and accelerate the transmission of their own genes to the next generation. Even though domestic cats have been observed to have an estrus cycle about 6–8 weeks after giving birth (in rare cases even within a week after giving birth), we are unaware of any information on leopards or other large felids. A return into estrus is usually inhibited by lactation, which suppresses sexual activity until 2–8 weeks after weaning.

On 3 November, Electra was seen for the last time with both her cubs – a day later the Okonjima guides reported sightings of Electra accompanied by only one cub. No signs or clues of the whereabouts of the other little cub could be found. With the disappearance of Electra’s cub from her first litter in mind, we started to worry.

As if her strange behavior within the past weeks wasn’t enough, a few days after the first cub disappeared, Electra was spotted mating with Nkosi for three consecutive days. To sum up, Electra was not only mating with Madiba while nursing her second litter, she also mated with Nkosi, who was most likely the sire of her cubs.

On 19 November, five days after Electra was last seen with Nkosi, we witnessed Madiba killing Electra’s remaining cub. Post mortem analyses revealed that the death was due to hemorrhages of the lungs and liver lacerations, caused by violent shaking. Additionally, the cub appeared to be very skinny. It showed signs of degeneration of the liver which is rather unusual for a cub, suggesting starvation and malnutrition. All her cubs from the first as well as the second litter had appeared to be underweight, which raised the question of whether Electra was able to produce enough milk to nourish her cubs sufficiently within the first few weeks of their lives. The pathology report on the cub suggested that metabolic problems in the mother were the source of the malnutrition rather than abandonment or miss-mothering.

Her behavior was unusual. The fact that she returned to estrus in the early stages of lactation suggested that she was not producing the right combinations of hormones to maintain good milk production (these hormones would suppress any ovarian activity) or she had a structural problem with her mammary glands (not able to get the milk out – the pressure in the mammary glands would then cause the milk production to stop). The reduced milk production would also explain the poor condition of her cubs. Once her lactation hormones were reduced, she would lose interest in the cubs and start looking for mating opportunities.

AfriCat planned to try and dart her a few weeks after she gave birth to her next litter, this time focusing on whether she was producing milk or not. In the meantime, Dr Tordiffe and Dr Roberts investigated whether this kind of behavior had been reported in southern Africa before and if any other explanation could be given.

Electra came out tops during January–June 2015 as the most sighted leopard, with 69 sightings. After losing both of her cub’s in 2014 she kept going strong and holding her territory in the south-eastern part of the 200 km² Okonjima Nature Reserve. She was seen mating on a couple of occasions with Nkosi as well as with newly-collared Madiba in December. At the end of March 2015, she kept returning to the same place for several weeks – a hole in a termite mound. Was she having cubs again? On 10 April it was confirmed that Electra had given birth to two cubs when she was sighted moving den sites. But disaster struck again on 5 May, when one of her cubs was found dead outside the den. Post mortem results showed bruises on the body, a half bitten-off tail and severe lacerations of the tongue, which led to her inability to suckle and eventually to starvation. We are not entirely sure what caused the lacerated tongue or the bitten off tail – and can only assume it might have been a result of a jackal or honey badger attack when Electra was hunting away from the den.

leopard mother carrying cub africatleopard mother carrying cub africat

Due to the fact that her previous litter looked malnourished, Electra was darted by Dr. Ulf Tubbesing in May to test the production and composition of her milk. Results showed no abnormalities, and Electra and her remaining cub seemed to be doing fine.

At the beginning of March 2016, we received some photos from the guides showing that the stitching of her collar had come loose and the antenna was hanging out. It made the signal of the collar a lot stronger but we were concerned that it might fall off. We set a box trap in her territory but with no success. With the good rain that had fallen early in the year, the grass grew thick and long and the option to do a free dart on her was ruled out, as it was just too dangerous to try and find her on foot after darting.

At the beginning of April, the guides reported that they could no longer pick up any signal from her. We went tracking from all the high points in her territory but with no success. Luckily at that time Okonjima was busy capturing game in a boma with a helicopter. The pilot was very helpful and took us up to get us behind the southern mountain range to see if she had escaped again, but we could not pick up any signal. Was this the result of yet another failure of technology or had she decided to find a completely different territory somewhere else? The latter seemed highly unlikely. Motion cameras with baits were placed in the surrounds of her territory for the next week but again there was no sign of this elusive cat.

We then decided to give it another go from the sky and a pilot was brought in to take us up in the Okonjima Gyrocopter. The whole area was covered again, but there was still no signal from her. Where was she? We kept on baiting the area with the hope that she would pop up somewhere.

Then on Thursday 4 May 2016 we received some good news. Guests, who were on their way to the lodge, took photos of a collared leopard sitting in a tree. After viewing the photos, it was confirmed that it was indeed Electra. We could also now confirm that the collar was dead, which is an ongoing problem for us. Luck was on our side that day. Late Thursday afternoon one of the guides spotted her walking through an open area south-east of the Villa.

Team AfriCat and our vet Dr Rodenwoldt went out to go and have a look. We found her sitting very relaxed next to a road in a fairly open area. The decision was made to go for a free dart seeing that we might not get an opportunity like this again. All went well and she fell asleep not far from where she was darted. We could spot her from the vehicle, which made it less dangerous than to go after her on foot.

She weighed in at 42,3kg. After a thorough examination by Dr. Rodenwoldt it was also confirmed that she was about 8–10 weeks pregnant with one cub. New big boy Mawenzi was possibly the father, seeing that he was spotted mating with her a couple of months previously, before he was even collared. She was fitted with a new collar and released the next morning looking strong.

Electra’s home range is still located in the eastern and south-eastern part of the reserve where she seems to be the dominant female. As those ranges are characterized by a dominant mountain range, she often disappears and hides in them for a couple of days. As observed in the past, Electra regularly retreats into the mountain ranges for an extended period of time if she is preparing to give birth to a new litter of cubs.

When she was hiding in the mountains for a few weeks in July 2017, we had reason to believe she had given birth, and in August 2017, Electra presented her newly born male cub for the first time. This is her fourth litter. Sadly, only one of her previous offspring survived to adulthood, – Nandi, her female cub from her third litter. Unfortunately, she was killed by another leopard at the beginning of 2017.

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Electra, with her present cub, has provided 112 wonderful sightings for Okonjima guides and guests alike. The cub is now about six months old. Electra is often seen with Mawenzi, the resident male leopard in the area, suggesting that he is the sire of her offspring. We are crossing our fingers that this little one will survive the many dangers of the wild and will grow into a strong and beautiful male leopard.

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