The Nanga Young Male is probably the sulkiest leopard out there at the moment. Forced into independence far earlier than is usually seen in young male leopards, he has had to grow up in a hurry in order to stay alive!
Although the books will tell you that young male leopards typically attain independence between 18 and 24 months of age,the bush will always keep us guessing by doing things differently.
In this case, the Nanga young male, the survivor of the Nanga female’s first litter, was on his own from about 11 months. Skinny and wretched, he was seen around the Marthly pools area of the Manyelethi River for a few weeks before he disappeared for awhile. We were quite worried about him, as he looked to be deteriorating without his mother to hunt for him. She, meanwhile, had been seen mating once more and we suspected had a new litter on southern Cross Koppies. More on these just now.
Our fears were unfounded thankfully, as the young male has now begun to thrive, and has been seen numerous times well-fed and seemingly doing well to the area North of the Manyelethi. Although his father, the Gowrie male, has robbed him of his kills a couple of times, that is the price he has to pay if he is to be tolerated in the relative safety of his father’s territory.
Back to his mother and her new litter.
Originally discovered high on Southern Cross Koppies, a brief sighting of the two young cubs when only about two weeks old was not repeated for about a month, when they were again seen with their mother up in the rocks. After that, sightings were sporadic, with occasional glimpses of them on the granite boulders being all we had to go on.
What we were all looking forward to was the day on which their mother first started taking them to kills. From that day, they would be entering a far more dangerous world, one through which their little legs would have to carry them, away from the relative shelter of a stable den-site. Other predators would be on the prowl, and a young leopard cub not yet three months old, that can’t run fast and has yet to acquire its full set of tree-climbing skills would make an easy target. However, it would provide an opportunity for the rangers and trackers to gradually get the cubs used to the Land Rovers, and sightings were likely to become far more frequent.
It was on the 12th July when tracker Foster Masiye, working with ranger Simon Smit, followed tracks of the Nanga female to the Southern Cross Koppies, where to their delight they discovered the female on the rocks, nursing the cubs in the morning light. Their excitement grew when the female descended the koppies, but for the first time that we know of, she had the cubs in tow. She walked them along the road for about a kilometre before turning south towards the Manyelethi River, moving through a very rocky area. Convinced she was leading them to a kill for the first time, Simon and Foster’s hopes were dashed when a rock hidden in the grass damaged their vehicle’s steering rod and they were forced to return to camp. Tracker Mike Sithole entered the equation, and taking a direction from where Foster had last reported the leopard family moving, he began scouting the area for a likely spot for a kill. A large Schotia tree growing on a small rocky outcrop caught his attention, and his instincts were rewarded when a rustling in the grass revealed a leopard moving a kill through the undergrowth.
Mike returned to the vehicle, and after we had carefully moved into position, we discovered that the leopard was in fact the Gowrie male. In the time the Nanga female had moved off the kill to fetch her cubs, the Gowrie male had caught the scent of the carcass and moved in to steal it.
Fortunately, the female and her cubs were still nearby, and a small movement from atop a boulder revealed their presence. They stayed in the area for a further 48 hours, which provided a marvellous opportunity for them to gradually get used to the vehicles, as we limited it to a one-vehicle sighting, and rangers and guests alike would sit quietly for hours, watching the little cubs move around.
Since then they have spent more and more time away from their original Koppie den, and have become far more relaxed around the Land-Rovers. Recently found by Lucien Beaumont and Like Gumede on an impala kill near our northern boundary, the sighting further cemented their confidence while a Land Rover is nearby, and both cubs were visibly more relaxed than they had ever been before.
Their father the Gowrie male is firmly in control of the territory, which greatly increases their survival chances, but the Tutlwa female has been making frequent incursions north in order to mate with him, and should she discover the cubs on their own, they may be in trouble.
Let us hope that does not happen. Instead, for the moment, let us enjoy the sightings of the cubs, that, although infrequent, are an absolute delight to bear witness to.
The Nanga female was born to the Nyelethi 4:4 female in 2009 as part of a litter of three.
Written by James Tyrrell
Photographed by James Tyrrell and Gary Tankard