Intimate photos of a leopard mother and her cubs

Leopard mothers with young cubs are notoriously elusive, but one female in a quiet corner of Botswana has allowed wildlife photographer Suzi Eszterhas a privileged view into family life. Leopards, it seems, can change their spots.

About the photographer

Suzi Eszterhas is an acclaimed photographer with several awards to her name, including both Environmental and Wildlife Photographer of the Year. Best known for documenting young animals and family life in the wild, her work has been featured in over 100 publications including National Geographic Kids, TIME and Smithsonian.

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Having lived in an African bush camp for three years, Eszterhas has had extraordinary experiences during her time in the wilderness; she’s swum with sloths, been chased by a green mamba and has had to fend off bears and hyenas. She has captured wildlife images on all seven continents, recording intimate moments of natural beauty.

Despite spending many years photographing big cats, Eszterhas had always been eluded by leopards. Then she met an individual known as Camp Female, at Tubu Tree in Botswana’s Jao Reserve. “The animals here live in a haven, protected from poachers, vehicle crowding and harassment,” she says.

View for more of Suzi Eszterhas’ images on her website.

To view the images as a slideshow, click on the arrows in the top right hand corner of the photos below.

"Camp Female grew up around safari vehicles behaving responsibly and, as a result, is the most relaxed leopard I have ever known." © Suzi Ezsterhas
“Camp Female grew up around safari vehicles behaving responsibly and, as a result, is the most relaxed leopard I have ever known.” © Suzi Eszterhas 
Camp Female gave birth to two female cubs in March 2018. This was her third litter, and Suzi started photographing the youngsters when they were just five weeks old. © Suzi Eszterhas
Camp Female gave birth to two female cubs in March 2018. This was her third litter, and Suzi started photographing the youngsters when they were just five weeks old. © Suzi Eszterhas
Leopard cubs are aggressive in play, and these siblings were no exception. If a skirmish was particularly intense, one of the pair would break off and return to its mother for a nuzzle before re-entering the fray. © Suzi Eszterhas
Leopard cubs are aggressive in play, and these siblings were no exception. If a skirmish was particularly intense, one of the pair would break off and return to its mother for a nuzzle before re-entering the fray. © Suzi Eszterhas
Ever watchful for predators such as baboons and lions, Camp Female scours the landscape from atop a dead tree. Leopards are thought of as nocturnal, but will hunt in the day if the opportunity arises. © Suzi Eszterhas
Ever watchful for predators such as baboons and lions, Camp Female scours the landscape from atop a dead tree. Leopards are thought of as nocturnal, but will hunt in the day if the opportunity arises. © Suzi Eszterhas
Though these youngsters played excessively together, that did not mean their mother was off the hook. "They seemed obsessed with jumping on her head, and took any opportunity they could for ambush, making it rather difficult for her to rest," says Suzi.
Though these youngsters played excessively together, that did not mean their mother was off the hook. “They seemed obsessed with jumping on her head, and took any opportunity they could for ambush, making it rather difficult for her to rest,” says Suzi. © Suzi Eszterhas 
From a young age, leopards are fascinated by their mother's tail. The youngsters would follow the movement of the tail, then pounce on it, seizing it in their mouths.
From a young age, leopards are fascinated by their mother’s tail. The youngsters would follow the movement of the tail, then pounce on it, seizing it in their mouths. © Suzi Eszterhas
Returning at sunrise from hunting, Camp female is greeted by one of her cubs. Mothers can leave youngsters for a day and a half when searching for prey, but this readies them for the feast-or-famine feeding style they'll endure as adults.
Returning at sunrise from hunting, Camp Female is greeted by one of her cubs. Mothers can leave youngsters for a day and a half when searching for prey, but this readies them for the feast-or-famine feeding style they’ll endure as adults. © Suzi Eszterhas
Females may summon cubs from their hiding place with a faint call, if the coast is clear. Here, at four months old, the cubs appear delighted to see their mother, greeting her with exuberant nuzzles.
Females may summon cubs from their hiding place with a faint call, if the coast is clear. Here, at four months old, the cubs appear delighted to see their mother, greeting her with exuberant nuzzles. © Suzi Eszterhas
Leopard cub mortality is high, with less than 50 per cent typically surviving to adulthood. Both of Camp Female's cubs thrived, however, and by the age of four months were noticeably bigger, stronger and more agile.
Leopard cub mortality is high, with less than 50 per cent typically surviving to adulthood. Both of Camp Female’s cubs thrived, however, and by the age of four months were noticeably bigger, stronger and more agile. © Suzi Eszterhas
Even at a year old, the cubs are still very attached to the female. Many cubs stay with their mothers for 12-16 months; some, as revealed in a recent study, even stick around for as long as 35 months.
Even at a year old, the cubs are still very attached to the female. Many cubs stay with their mothers for 12-16 months; some, as revealed in a recent study, even stick around for as long as 35 months. © Suzi Eszterhas
Here, Camp Female has cornered a kudu calf, but has intentionally not suffocated it, in order for her cubs to master the skill for themselves. On this occasion, they secured a meal, eventually.
Here, Camp Female has cornered a kudu calf, but has intentionally not suffocated it, in order for her cubs to master the skill for themselves. On this occasion, they secured a meal, eventually. © Suzi Eszterhas
Having become proficient climbers, the young leopards doze away the midday hours in the cool and safety of the trees. In a few months, the siblings will be on the cusp of independence.
Having become proficient climbers, the young leopards doze away the midday hours in the cool and safety of the trees. In a few months, the siblings will be on the cusp of independence.                        © Suzi Eszterhas
Of all the big cats, leopards are the most adept at climbing, with males famously able to drag carcasses three times their own weight up into the branches. Here, one of Camp Female's cubs chases her up a steep, sheer trunk.
Of all the big cats, leopards are the most adept at climbing, with males famously able to drag carcasses three times their own weight up into the branches. Here, one of Camp Female’s cubs chases her up a steep, sheer trunk. © Suzi Eszterhas

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This gallery originally appeared in BBC Wildlife Magazine. Take a look inside the current issue and find out how to subscribe.