It is always special to see leopards mating and Londolozi is one of the very few places where this is seen fairly frequently. When I started guiding, it was always a goal of mine to witness this rare phenomenon and I have been lucky enough to discover a mating pair a couple of times during the past 2 years. From my experience, mating leopards tend to stick to areas where there is a lot of cover and hence thick vegetation along river beds is a favourite area. Usually their presence is given away by the growling, snarling and other vocalisations that accompany the mating ritual. For this reason I have found that it is often difficult to get good photographs of these animals mating, however we were recently afforded an amazing opportunity to watch the Camp Pan male and Maxabene female mating in a clearing.
With leopards being solitary animals, this is one of the very few times that we have the opportunity of seeing two leopards interacting.
When the female leopard comes into oestrus she will actively start seeking out a male. The urge to find a mate is so strong, that this is the only time she may leave her territory, an action that could have dire consequences if she comes into contact with a rival female. Males have much larger territories than females and the territory of a single male will encompass that of a few females, so as to give him a better opportunity to proliferate his genes. Once a male detects the scent of an oestrus female, he too will start pursuing her.
Once the leopards track each other down, there is often a fair amount of hostility. This comes about largely due to the fact that leopards are naturally solitary animals. There is therefore a conflict between their desire to be solitary and the need to mate. Initially there is a lot of snarling and growling, but this seems to settle down after a couple of days, only to surface again towards the end of the mating period.
Mating is initiated by the female, who performs what is known as lordosis. During this seductive ritual, she will walk and sway from side to side in front of the male, presenting her rear end and often brushing the male’s face with her tail. She will then lie down in front of the male, inviting him to mount her. As the male mounts the female, he bites onto the loose skin behind her head. It has been suggested that, as this is the way a mother carries her cubs, it induces submission in the female and enables the male to secure her. As the male dismounts, he will often jump away in an effort to avoid the female who often responds with a retaliatory swipe of the paw.
This retaliation by the female is likely brought about by a resentment at being mounted as well as the fact that the male has a barbed penis which, when withdrawn, is painful to the female. This feature is important to the reproductive behaviour in leopards, as ovulation in the female is stimulated by continuous mating and, in particular, the pain caused by the male’s withdrawal. A female will mate with any willing male and, as such, may not only mate with the dominant male who would likely have the best genes. The mating induced ovulation gives the strongest male, with the best genes, time to find and displace any subordinate male before fertilisation takes place in the female.
During the early stages, mating will take place very frequently, with the animals lying side by side for most of the day and night. Over time this tapers off and eventually the male becomes hostile towards the female’s advances after which the animals invariably separate.
A previous coupling of these two leopards resulted in the 3:3 and 3:2 Maxabene youngsters being born in October 2008. As discussed in previous posts, these two males are in fantastic condition and look to be in the process of establishing territories. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if the Maxabene female was able to raise one more litter? At 14 years old, she may be a bit old to raise one last litter to independence, but it certainly isn’t out of the question. Our concern is more with the Camp Pan male, as he has been seen mating with quite a few females in recent times, none of which seem to have fallen pregnant, so we suspect that he may be infertile. Time will tell and we will be holding thumbs.
This small female leopard was found around the dry river bed in the heart of Londolozi known as the Maxabene.
The King of Londolozi in his day; an enormous male whose offspring still inhabit the reserve.
Written and photographed by James Crookes