When I arrived at Londolozi in late 2010, things were pretty chaotic within the leopard population. The Camp Pan male was being assailed on all sides by potential usurpers, there was a different mating pair almost every other week, and there were no small cubs around owing primarily to the instability of the male population.
Probably the biggest headline at the time was the ongoing battle between the Camp Pan male and the Dudley Riverbank 5:5 young male.
Back and forth over the months the two protagonists scent-marked, called and moved in circles around each other, regularly coming to blows, and it was hotly debated amongst the ranging and tracking team which leopard was going to emerge victorious. I have to say I was backing the Dudley Riverbank 5:5 young male (known these days simply as the 5:5 male) for awhile, and to be honest I think I may have been backing a winner.
He was seen regularly around camp, deep in the heart of the Camp Pan male’s territory, showing all the confidence of a dominant male. The true mark of success in a male leopard is reproductive success, and indeed it was the 5:5 male that was getting first choice when it came to the females. The younger and likely more fertile females (Tamboti, Maxabene and Vomba females) were mated with by 5:5, whereas the Camp Pan male was only seen mating with the older Nottens female, who was too old to conceive. The Camp pan male was also seen to change his habits and patrol routes, generally adopting a low profile and not being seen out in the open as often.
For awhile, it certainly seemed like the King had been dethroned…
And then the Camp Pan male got thrown a lifeline.
North-East of Londolozi and drifting occasionally onto our property lived an enormous male leopard called the Emsagwen male. A 6:4 spot pattern helped us ID him, but his sheer size made him hard to mistake for any other individual. He was not often seen on our side, but he gave us some incredibly impressive sightings when he was encountered.
In mid-to-late 2011, just about the time the 5:5 male was firmly establishing himself in central Sparta, the Emsagwen male disappeared. The reasons for his disappearance are unknown so I won’t speculate further, but what it meant was that a large territory was now up for grabs.
Male leopards – and leopards in general – try and avoid physical conflict if possible. Solitary animals by nature, any serious injury could impact their hunting abilities and put their lives at risk.
In simple terms, what we think happened upon the disappearance of the Emsagwen male was this: On patrols in the eastern sections of the areas he was now favouring, the 5:5 male realised that no male was scent-marking or establishing territory in that direction anymore. Further conflict with the Camp Pan male (who although older was still a very large leopard and not to be underestimated) could have resulted in serious injury to the 5:5 male, and the easier and safer option was simply to shift his territorial sights eastwards to the now vacant area previously patrolled by the Emsagwen male.
In a nutshell, this is what we think happened, and as a result, the 5:5 male is not often encountered on our property anymore. He still regularly patrols our eastern boundary along the northern sections of the property, but tracks in the dust are usually the only sign of his passing.
His territorial call is sometimes heard filtering through the dawn air, and reminds us that he is still out there. It most likely also reminds the Camp Pan male of what essentially was a stay in execution for him.
Written and photographed by James Tyrrell