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ELECTRA – A FIRST TIME MOTHER

 leopard electra namibia cubsleopard electra namibia cubs

In August last year Electra, a female leopard, was found on more kills than usual. Even with a full belly she would still hunt. Was she perhaps feeding cubs?

Electra was collared in the 20 000ha 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 got a chance to see her. It was only in January 2013, since found mating with TJ and Nkosi, that Electra started to relax at 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 January and February, which means that leopard litters typically arrive between April and May. The gestation period is between 90 and 112 days.

 

Electra gives birth to two cubs.

In April and May 2013, Elektra was again seen again 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 2013. They were lying in a gully covered with thick bush, just south of the Okonjima Villa, our luxury, 'home away from home' and the only camp in the eastern section of the 20 000ha Nature Reserve. The cub was so small, that its eyes were still closed. Leopard cubs are born blind weighing only 0.45Kg (one pound), and open their eyes at around 10 days. Newborn leopards are extremely vulnerable and rely entirely on their mother for nourishment and protection.

electra cubs riverbedelectra cubs riverbed

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. They were playing together on a pile of wood, while Electra was sitting beside them, keeping a watchful eye over both the cubs and us. From then on, Electra started showing off her beautiful cubs regularly and she became very popular with both the guides and our guests. It was truly amazing to see and experience this powerful killer being so gentle. It also provided an amazing opportunity for Team AfriCat to follow the month old leopards and obtain some valuable insights into the number of dens Electra was going to have; where they would be, and when Electra would start walking with her cubs.

We know of three permanent 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 dens were. She started walking with them after two months.

mum leopard cubs walkingmum leopard cubs walkingmum leopard cubs walking

 

Cub disappears for the first time.

It was when the cubs were approximately three months old that trouble started. In the weeks that followed, Electra was seen hunting and walking with one cub – 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%a,b. This is suspected to be due to dense lion and hyaena (brown and spotted) populations in the area, and in Okonjima Nature Reserve, also a dense leopard population.

starving cub 18 nov

Starving cub found 18th Nov 2013.

starving cub 18 nov

Starving cub found 18th Nov 2013.

electra reunites with lost cub

Electra reunites with her lost cub.


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, and Team AfriCat decided to become involved and monitor the outcome by providing the starving cub with meat and water. Electra had been seen in the area with her other cub several times, and our hopes were that she would soon return to the abandoned one.

The next day, Electra was found reunited with her lost cub. It was smaller, thinner and lacking in muscle, compared to its sibling.

The question was whether Electra was abandoning her cub, and if so, why? Our first concern was that the cub might be ill. When consulting with our experienced associate veterinarian Adrian Tordiffe, he doubted that parasites were a major issue, as they were unlikely to cause problems in only one of the siblings. One possibility was that the cub had picked up an infection (diarrhea etc.), 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 weaker and unable to keep up. His recommendation was to continue with supplementary feeding and see if the cub managed to get stronger.

To give the weaker cub a chance to recover, Team AfriCat tied bait in a tree, which couldn’t be dragged away. This way, Electra also didn’t have to leave the cubs to hunt, and the family was kept together.

 

During the daily observations of Electra, we had a rare and amazing sighting. Electra was found 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 decided to move away.

Electra the protector:

electra black mamba snakeelectra black mamba snake

Electra the provider:

electra huntingelectra hunting 

 

Cub disappears the second time.

On 27 November, Electra was again seen alone with the stronger cub. Later in the same week we found the lost cub on its own at the old bait, not as weak as the previous time, but still underweight. New bait and a camera-trap were placed in a tree, high enough for the hyaenas not to steal it.

motion camera lost leopard cub motion camera lost leopard cubmotion camera lost leopard cub

The cub was unfortunately too young to collar so that we could keep track of it. As it was also too young to hunt and survive on its own, we discussed the possibility of catching 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 subsidising 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.

leopard cub alone at villa

Cub found at The Villa alone.

leopard cub alone at villa

Cub found at The Villa alone.

thin leopard cub on its own

Thin cub on its own 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 whom. 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.

leopard mother and cubsleopard mother and cubsleopard mother and cubs 

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.

 

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 malesc.

electra cub nkosi1electra cub nkosi

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 finally had had enough and walked over to the nearby riverbank to lie down in a more peaceful place. When the cub turned its 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.

On Saturday, 12 April 2014, mum and cub were fine and playing together - as were they 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 14 April, Electra was led away with some 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 till morning, but became weaker as the Tuesday progressed and died before the end of the day. The body was taken to Otjiwarongo for the vet to make a proper diagnosis and full postmortem. The cub was skinned to look for snakebite and blood was taken. By the next day the results came back. They had tested positive for rabies.

Knowing this, we realised that no matter what we had tried – nothing would have helped.

Electra has been vaccinated against rabies three times since we realised her cub had been infected with the virus. On the day after we got the results back from the laboratory, fearing she could have also been exposed to the virus, then again on days three, seven and 14, as recommended by the veterinarians.

This article was posted on the 3rd June  and Electra seems to have pulled through – rabies free.

Shortly after losing her second cub, Electra was spotted spending more time with Nkosi!

 

a Nowell, K. and Jackson, P. (eds). (1996). Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan Wild Cats. IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group. IUCN. Gland, Switzerland
b Friedmann, Y. and Traylor-Holzer, K. (2008). Leopard (Panthera pardus) Case Study. WG 5 – Mammals, Case Study 4 Panthera pardus. Country – SOUTH AFRICA. NDF Workshop Case Studies, Mexico.
c Mortality in a protected leopard population, Phinda Game Reserve, South Africa: A population in decline? Balme & Hunter 2004

 

MORE ABOUT THE RABIES VIRUS:

Rabies is a viral disease that causes fatal inflammation of the brain in a wide range of mammalian species, including humans. The virus is transmitted through the saliva of infected animals, commonly through a bite or a scratch, or if saliva comes into contact with mucous membranes in the mouth or nose. The virus then travels from the infection site to the brain via the peripheral nerves.

Symptoms normally only become obvious once the virus reaches the brain and vary in different species. Humans frequently develop a tingling sensation at the site of exposure. This is followed by uncontrolled violent movements and excitement, fear of water, paranoia, confusion and finally coma and death (normally 2 – 10 days after the symptoms start).

The incubation period following exposure is typically between two and 12 weeks, but may be up to six years and largely depends on the distance between the site of exposure and the brain. There are fewer than 10 people in the world that have survived a rabies infection after the onset of clinical symptoms, and they did so thanks to a medically induced coma known as the Milwaukee protocol.

Treatment for rabies immediately following exposure is however frequently successful in preventing the development of symptoms. The treatment usually involves some or all of the following, depending on whether or not the person has been vaccinated against rabies prior to exposure and the category of contact (minor scratch to deep bite wound):

  • Washing the bite or scratch wound thoroughly with soap and water for 5 to 10 minutes, then applying a disinfectant if availabl.
  • Vaccination – Four doses are normally given to unvaccinated individuals (on the day of exposure then on days three, seven and fourteen)
  • Anti-rabies immunoglobin is administered, usually injected in and around the bite wound to neutralise the virus.

Rabies vaccines stimulate the immune system of the human or animal that is vaccinated and result in the production of rabies specific antibodies. These antibodies are able to kill the virus before it enters the brain. However, it takes some time for the immune system to produce enough antibodies to efficiently kill the virus.

In animals or humans that are treated post exposure, it is a race between the virus trying to get to the brain and the body trying to produce sufficient antibodies. Good quality rabies vaccines, however, have proved to be highly effective in preventing the disease. In fact, there is no recorded case of rabies symptoms developing in a human if that person has received even a single dose of vaccine prior to exposure. People that regularly handle and work with both domestic and wild animals should be vaccinated.

The rabies virus does not survive for very long outside its host (less than a few minutes) and is very susceptible to sunlight and desiccation.

The rabies virus could however survive for a couple of days in a dead carcass and care should be taken if handling an animal that is suspected of having died of rabies.

The rabies virus is present in mammals in almost every country around the world, but is most prevalent in Africa and Asia. The primary host is the domestic dog (responsible for 99% of the transmission of rabies to humans). An estimated 20 000 to 30 000 people die from rabies in India every year due to the large stray dog population in that country (most of which are not vaccinated) and the fact that few people seek proper medical attention after being bitten.

Around the world, there are also a number of wildlife hosts:

  • North America – bats, raccoons, skunks and foxes
  • Europe – red fox
  • Southern Africa – black backed jackal, yellow mongoose and bat-eared fox
  • Namibia – black backed jackal, bat-eared fox and kudu.

The clinical symptoms in dogs and other carnivores vary tremendously, but usually include a change in temperament, attacking and biting anything, wandering aimlessly, drooling saliva, making choking sounds, uncoordinated actions progressing to paralysis, coma and death. Wild animals often lose their fear of humans.

 

In 1977 a rabies outbreak in kudu emerged in Namibia and since then several outbreaks have been observed in this species.

rabies in kudurabies in kudu

Kudus with rabies normally salivate profusely, may become paralysed, docile or tame and have often been reported to enter houses. Although it was initially thought that the kudu were being infected after being bitten by various carnivores, the geographical extent and numbers of animals affected seemed to indicate that the rabies cycle was being maintained within the kudu population. This is supported by a recent study (Scott et al. 2013), which examined the DNA sequences of the rabies viruses isolated from kudu in Namibia and compared them to rabies viruses from other species in this country.

The kudu rabies DNA was quite distinct from others, suggesting that kudus spread and maintain this virus among themselves. It is likely that the outbreaks in kudu follow the fluctuations in population density.

RABIES Compiled by:
GUIDE FOR THE MEDICAL, VETERINARY AND ALLIED PROFESSIONS G.C. Bishop, D.N. Durrheim, P.E. Kloeck, J.D. Godlonton, J. Bingham, R. Speare and the Rabies Advisory Group

rabies 2nd cub ill

Rabies - 2nd cub ill 14th April 2014.

rabies 2nd cub ill

Rabies - 2nd cub ill 14th April 2014.

rabies 15april electra with cub

Rabies - 15th April, Electra trying to assist her cub.

rabies 15april electra with cub

Rabies - 15th April, Electra trying to assist her cub.

rabies 15april electra with cub

Rabies - 15th April, Electra trying to assist her cub.

rabies cub under shade

Rabies - 16th April, The cub under shade.

electra being vacinated

Electra after her cub dies - being vacinated
against rabies.

electra in a tree

Electra after her cub dies - treated against rabies
18th April.

electra in a tree

Electra after her cub dies - treated against rabies
18th April.

 

ELECTRA DECEMBER 2014 UPDATE:

Soon after the tragic loss of her previous litter, Electra was seen with Nkosi for about two weeks. During 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 for the first time roaming her usual home ranges, but still regularly disappearing into the mountains.

At the end of September, to our surprise, Electra was observed mating with Madiba. Madiba, a large, elusive leopard had been spotted on many occasions before, 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, leaving us no chance to get anywhere close to him or the trap. All efforts and attempts to lure her away failed. It was too dangerous to dart only Madiba when Elektra 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.


Collaring Madiba:
madiba being collaredmadiba being collaredmadiba being collared

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 again and after being darted she moved about 10 meters 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 whilst a carnivore is anesthetised for any reason, it did not look like 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 )

15.4.14: 46 Kg
25.9.13: 38 Kg
Body Length: 0.92m | Shoulder Height: 0.63m | Canines, upper: 3.6 cm; lower: 2.7cm

 

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. 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.

Female promiscuity has been observed in several carnivore and primate species where females mate with several males during their active oestrus 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 oestrous. 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 oestrus 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 oestrus 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.

second litter 2014second litter 2014second litter 2014

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 already nursing her second litter, she also mated with Nkosi who most likely was the sire of her cubs.

electra noski leopards matingelectra noski leopards matingelectra noski leopards matingelectra noski leopards matingelectra noski leopards matingelectra noski leopards mating

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 haemorrhages 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 mis-mothering.

 

This behaviour is rather unusual. The fact that she returns to oestrus in the early stages of lactation suggests that she is not producing the right combinations of hormones to maintain good milk production (these hormones would suppress any ovarian activity) or she has 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 are reduced, she will lose interest in the cubs and start looking for mating opportunities.

AfriCat plans to try and dart her a few weeks after she gives birth to her next set of cubs, this time focusing on if she is producing milk or not?

In the mean time Dr Tordiffe and Dr Roberts will be asking other vets around southern Africa to find out if this kind of behaviour has been reported before and if any other explanation can be given . . .
We will keep u informed . . .

 

 

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