The Life of a Leopard

Documentary filmmakers Beverly and Dereck Joubert started following the leopard cub when she was just eight days old. Odds were high that she would not live to be much older.

Predators had killed the previous cubs her mother had given birth to. Crossing their fingers, hoping for the best, the Jouberts began to film.

"She moves in a 10 square mile area," says Dereck Joubert. "I remember one time we tracked her one day for nine hours before we found her, and that was footprint by footprint."

The bush trackers named the young cat "Legadema" (pronounced LACH-Ah-DEE-Ma), which means "light from the sky." She got her name during a storm when she was about 6 months old. The Jouberts thought their young subject would associate the crashing lighting with them, but instead left alone while her mother was out hunting, the frightened leopard ran to the Joubert's truck and settled down next to it. Legadema. Lightning.

"We got very close to her a lot of the time," Dereck says. "Or rather the other way around -- she got close to us. Now it's turned into a bit of a ritual a greeting where she'll come up and go underneath the vehicle and maybe sleep underneath the vehicle for hours at a time."

The Jouberts followed Legadema for three perilous years. Lions travel in "prides" -- large family groups that live and hunt together -- but leopards are basically solitary animals. In the film, the Jouberts describe them as running a "gauntlet of death every day." By the standards of other big cats, leopards are small, so they are both hunter and prey. It did get to her, admits Beverly Joubert.

"It was like being surrogate parents," she says. "So I took on the role and whenever I saw potential danger coming I had to grab a homeopathic remedy that would calm me down, because I would start to shake and I couldn't take any photographs."

Still, there is a line the award-winning husband and wife team will not cross. They made a rule 25 years ago when they started filming African wildlife that they would not interfere with nature.

"There's only one time where we will intervene," Beverly says, "[only] if it's a manmade situation. If there's poachers, or if an animal has a bullet in it, or an animal is trapped in a manmade waterhole. But never when it's nature playing out it's game. Never, ever."

Adds Dereck, "It would have been very, very sad, obviously, if something had come in and killed this leopard cub who was going to be the focus of our story. But even then we would not interfere."

Three years with Legadema had branded her in Beverly and Dereck's hearts. After "Eye of the Leopard" aired, it was time to go back to the forest and find her. They started searching for her by going back to Botswana, the part of the Okavango Delta where they'd last seen her. They would have to track her, step by painstaking step.

"So we arrived in the area and we went out in the field and we just started looking down on the ground, looking at tracks, trying to recognize the tracks that we were there trying to find. And then once we get on a track we just stick with it. So it's hard work. You know the harder you work, the luckier you get," Dereck said.

The Jouberts were putting in 16-hour days with no guarantee of a favorable outcome, but their hard work resulted in good luck. It took weeks, but they found Legadema, sitting far up in a tree, all alone.

"You can see it in our faces in the film, there was this deep sense of relief almost, almost like a weight had been lifted off of our shoulders. It wasn't overwhelming joy, but just relief that she was still alive," Dereck said.

"She straight away ran down the tree and came toward us and acknowledged us, and that was remarkable. This is a truly wild animal," Beverly said. "And she acknowledged us with those beautiful amber eyes, just stared up into our eyes. And we could see that we were still accepted into her world, which I must tell you is an incredible privilege."

Legadema was 4½ years old, all grown up, healthy, and had taken over half of her mother's territory. She was strong and predatory, but was still trying to survive.

"She has to, on a daily basis, to do a fair amount of territorial patrolling and marking because she doesn't want anybody else into her area, including her mother, I must tell you. And she will be mated every three months until it takes, and of course she'll have cubs," Beverly said.

"Leopards are extremely vulnerable. She's small. She's a small-built cat even though she's an adult," Dereck said. "And lions, the minute they see a leopard they'll chase them up trees and try to pull them down and kill them. Hyenas are always stealing her food from her, but her biggest danger really is the baboons. The baboons, the minute they see a leopard in this area, will mob a leopard and try to rip it to pieces."

But if she's lucky, she'll live to raise cubs and die of old age when she's about 12.

The Jouberts plan to keep coming back to this place in Botswana, documenting other wildlife, but paying particular attention to this one big cat — and the violence and beauty that is the natural cycle of a leopard's life.

"Living With Big Cats" premieres Saturday on the National Geographic Channel.