The Maxabene 3:2 and 3:3 young males were born to the Maxabene 2:2 female in October 2008. This means that in April they turned 3 ½ years old. Whilst both were quite late in reaching independence, both are now independent of their mother and one would expect that they would be in the process of establishing territories of their own to enable them to carry forward their genes.
This small female leopard was found around the dry river bed in the heart of Londolozi known as the Maxabene.
This week I witnessed something that I have never seen or heard of before, and this prompted me to think about the differing approaches of the two Maxabene young males. We found the Tamboti female and the Maxabene 3:2 young male together just south of the Londolozi airstrip. This in itself was not all that unusual, as we have seen these two cross paths before, as the Maxabene young male spends a fair amount of time in the Tamboti female’s territory. What was extremely unusual, however, was that the Tamboti female was clearly in oestrus and was trying to get the Maxabene young male to mate with her and he wasn’t at all interested. He was, in fact, acting extremely aggressively towards her and she had a couple of wounds on her back leg to show for her efforts.
She would approach him, performing lordosis, being a series of seductive moves including swaying to and fro before lying in front of him, inviting him to mount her. Each time she approached him, growling softly as is the norm, he would respond with an aggressive snarl. If she continued, he would lash out at her with claws extended.
How would you go about interpreting this behaviour? The Maxabene young male has never mated before as far as we know. I think that it is likely that a first mating, and even subsequent matings for that matter, must be quite a confusing time for leopards. These are solitary animals and are therefore not used to such close interactions with other leopards. I’m sure, however, that mating is instinctive and that whilst it may be slightly confusing to the animal at first, hormones and instinct will take over and the leopard wouldn’t refuse the advances of an oestrus female.
A couple of people have suggested that the Maxabene 3:2 young male is too young to mate and doesn’t know what to do, hence the resistance. I don’t believe this to be true at all. As stated above, mating should be purely instinctive and although he is still fairly young, he is sexually mature. I have heard of young male lions, in the absence of dominant males, mounting females that are in oestrus and trying to mate with them. I don’t see why it should be any different for leopards.
I think that there is only one reason that the Maxabene 3:2 young male is resisting the Tamboti female and that is the fact that he is still in the Camp Pan male’s territory. This whole incident took place in the middle of the Camp Pan male’s territory and, funnily enough, at the time he was feeding on an impala less than a kilometre away. The very next day, the Camp Pan male had tracked the Tamboti female down and was mating with her while the Maxabene 3:2 young male lay just a couple of metres away, seemingly unfazed.
I have never seen the Maxabene young male call or scent mark, both means by which leopards advertise their territory. He is clearly being completely submissive towards the Camp Pan male. If he were to now mate with a female in Camp Pan’s territory, it would be a clear claim of the area as his own, something that he has avoided doing up until now. The two main reasons a male leopard establishes and defends a territory are to gain access to females and food. Mating with a female in another male’s territory would therefore surely be the ultimate challenge.
So why is the Camp Pan male still tolerating the presence of the Maxabene 3:2 young male in his territory?
I think that it has little to do with their father and son link and rather it is because, at the moment, the Maxabene 3:2 young male poses little competition to the Camp Pan male. He isn’t advertising territory in the area (calling and scent marking) and he isn’t mating with oestrus females in the area. The only area where I think that the Maxabene young male is directly competing with Camp Pan is for food. Both leopards are hunting in the same area and access to food is one of the reasons for defending territory. Remember, however, that Camp Pan often scavenges carcasses from other leopards and I have no doubt that the Maxabene young male would again be completely submissive if the Camp Pan male were to challenge him over a kill.
What then is the strategy of the Maxabene 3:2 young male and how does he intend to eventually establish a territory?
I think that the Maxabene 3:2 young male knows that the Camp Pan male has the prime territory on Londolozi as he has areas with good cover for hunting as well as high numbers of prey species. He also has access to many females. I’m sure that he also realises that the Camp Pan male is essentially past his prime and it shouldn’t be too long before he starts losing condition. Perhaps he has decided to lie low and try to avoid the Camp Pan male for the time being and sacrifice mating opportunities now for the potential of a highly sought after territory in the future. Whilst the Maxabene 3:2 young male is by no means a small leopard at the moment, he will still be filling out and at the same time the Camp Pan male will slowly be losing muscle mass. Over time, things will likely move into the Maxabene young male’s favour and I think he will eventually challenge the Camp Pan male for his territory. The uncertainty, however, lies in how long this will take.
Surely the Camp Pan male can see this coming? Perhaps, but as there is no present challenge, he is unlikely to confront the Maxabene young male. Being solitary animals, leopards will usually avoid conflict at all costs. If they get injured and are unable to hunt, it will likely have fatal consequences. The Camp Pan male is in a catch 22.
I find it fascinating to contrast the strategies of the Maxabene 3:2 and the Maxabene 3:3 young male. The other option for the 3:2 young male would have been to move out of the area and look for an unoccupied territory or one that belongs to a lesser leopard. This is exactly what his brother, the 3:3 young male with the brown nose, seems to have done. The 3:3 young male is regularly seen in the south western part of Londolozi. This area is just to the west of the Tugwaan male’s territory and seems to be unoccupied. The catch is that it is an area covered with long grass and very few trees. Whilst this provides good cover for hunting, there are not many smaller antelope species in this area, species that are generally favoured by leopard. With fewer trees, there is also increased likelihood of having a kill robbed by hyena or lion. These factors, in turn, mean that there are also few female leopards with territories in the area. So, while the 3:3 young male seems to now have a territory, it seems a much less desirable territory than the one the 3:2 young male is waiting for.
So which is the most successful strategy? To claim a lesser territory at just over 3 years of age and hold it for longer, with the potential for expanding it later on, or to bide your time, sacrifice mating opportunities and hopefully take over arguably the most prime territory on Londolozi? Only time will tell.
What are your views on this behaviour? I am interested to hear everyone’s thoughts on this, I think it will be a great discussion.
Written and photographed by James Crookes