The problem with reporting on stages of the lives of individual animals is that after a number of posts, it might start savoring of repetition. When lions reach a certain age, they tend to do one thing if female, another if male. The same with leopards. Although specific incidents and the day-to-day will differ greatly between animals, their lives will pretty much tend to follow similar trajectories.
It’s a different story however, when you find yourself becoming more emotionally invested in the well-being of an individual leopard than you are in others. Especially when you can’t really place your finger on why. Nick Kleer loves the Mashaba female, I know the Nkoveni female was Callum Gowar’s favourite, and for me it was always the 4:4 male who I felt the greatest desire to track and spend time viewing.
Each of us will have our reasons for our choices.
But now I find myself repeatedly draw to the far south-eastern corner of Londolozi to look for one particular leopard; the Ndzanzeni young male. He has featured on the blog a number of times over the past few months, mainly because of his mother’s serious injury. Thankfully she has made a full recovery, and in doing so, managed to get the young male through his last few months of dependance.
Textbooks will tell you how leopards tend to leave their mothers at between 18 and 24 months of age, but it has been recorded far earlier in some instances, and much later in others. The Nanga female has forced cubs out at 11 months before in order to birth a new litter, and some young leopards have been seen being taken to kills as old as three years! I would say that at Londolozi the age of independence tends to be younger than 18 months, but we can go into this another time.
The Ndzanzeni young male is about 17 months old now, and as has been written before, his independence is imminent. And for some reason, despite the need to not form an attachment to a wild animal, I find myself more worried for him than I should be. Yes, he is going to have to hunt for himself, same as every other leopard, and in a couple of years he will have to try and establish a territory, the same as any other leopard. But unlike others I have seen reach a similar age and then go on to (hopefully) mature successfully, this young male I find myself feeling a little bit sorry for. Now I know we try and avoid athropomorphising on this forum, but the fact of the matter is – and I have to be honest about this – this leopard comes across as a little bit goofy.
Going it alone, for a wild cat like a leopard, should happen at an age when he or she is able to fend for itself. Hunting, escaping danger, knowing what to do and when; the instinctive behavioural traits that will have been honed over a year and a half of playing with mother, chasing small mongooses and climbing every fallen tree in sight. These are non-negotiables for a newly-independent leopard. But with the Ndzanzeni young male – and I’m sure there is a biological reason for this, whether it be facial structure, spot pattern, way of movement – you kind of get the feeling that he doesn’t really know what’s going on. He looks at you with what look like questioning eyes, he sniffs around in random places as if he’s lost something, and literally for the past six weeks he’s been spending virtually all his time within a few hundred meters of one specific waterhole! Maybe he’s wandering off at night and returning in the day, but if you look at the sightings records for November and December, nine out of ten of the sightings of him will have been recorded at Mad Elephant Pan, and almost all of them without his mother.
This female is a success story all in herself, being born as a single cub to the Dudley Riverbank female in early 2012.
The natural transition to independence will occur as the young leopard gets left alone for longer and longer by its mother, until eventually she won’t come back for it and the cub realizes it needs to start finding its own food in order to survive. With the Ndzanzeni young male, he’s either having great success catching food around the Pan and doesn’t want to leave (his mother has been seen once or twice in the area with a kill, which they’ve shared), or he simply hasn’t realized that he has been left for good. If you follow a leopard, especially a territorial adult, it will generally seem to be moving with purpose, but with this young male, his movements generally lack direction, urgency, and often, seemingly, any real logic. Of course much of this will be due to youth and inexperience, and a persisting of certain adolescent traits, but you still can’t shake the feeling that this poor creature is just unprepared for what’s in front of him, and he’s thinking “Uhh.. what now?”.
Please understand that most of this is in my head, and certainly not scientifically accurate reporting. As I can’t say what’s going on in his young head, nor if he actually has been left for good by the Ndzanzeni female, these are all just my own interpretations of events, probably more for my own entertainment than anything else. It would be frowned upon in the scientific community to refer to a leopard as ‘goofy’, and sacrilege to pen that description in a published paper.
Thankfully we don’t have those kind of restrictions here, so I’m going to go ahead and continue to refer to him as goofy; I’m going to shake my head whenever I see him doing something which I perceive as being particularly silly, and I’m certainly going to keep making regular trips down to Mad Elephant Pan to keep monitoring his growth and progress.
I know though – or at least I hope – that in the coming months he’ll get bigger and bigger, he’ll start moving further and further afield, and then sadly, once he reaches a certain age and his father the Inyathini male starts trying to force him out of the territory, he’ll simply be gone.
I wish him luck. Seems like he’s going to need it.