The striking yet slender heiress to Londolozi once again leaves us in suspense as we await her next step; will it be a progressive one forward or a painfully slow few backward?
The nine year old Tutlwa female, born to the rapidly ageing Camp Pan male and the late Vomba female, evidently has a proud and strong heritage and went ‘by the books’ in establishing and maintaining her own territory many years ago a good distance away form both Camp Pan’s and Vomba’s. Following in their successful footsteps she also managed to claim an area hugging the Sand River, some of the most sought-after leopard territory in the Sabi Sands due to its permanent water, tall trees, thick reeds and hidden rocks. However, the last few years have seen the Tutlwa female have some serious ups and downs, earning her a bit of reputation – one which is clouded in mystery (even more so than other elusive leopards)!
Partaking in several ‘disappearing acts’, Tutlwa would go completely unseen for more than a month at a time prompting us to consider either her failure to hold on to the prime real estate on the northern river bank or her untimely demise. On all of these occasions she would suddenly reappear, unhurt and unhindered, as if she had never been gone. In all probability, she was never gone, and had just made the decision to remain completely hidden. Perhaps she remains out of sight like this when looking to start mating, to scout out the most secretive den sites or even to give birth. We will never know.
Following the most recent successful raising of a cub, the now territorial Nhlanguleni female, Tutlwa has had only one of these disappearing acts; again for unconfirmed reasons. More recently, though, we knew that she was pregnant and hoped for the best. As expected, she was off the map for a short while establishing a suitable den, maybe putting all of that previous reconnaissance work into play. More than a month later, James tells his harrowing ‘freebie’ story about how he and Mike stumbled upon this active den while tracking in the Manyalethi during early March. Despite this incident confirming that she in fact had cubs, we knew that the next few months would be touch and go for their survival, as is true for all cubs in nature.
Through observing Tutlwa in the past three weeks, we have now made the decision to presume her litter dead as she no longer has any suckle marks or seems to be lactating any more. This sad occurrence is only natural and it is said to happen to all predators more frequently than we know of, or observe. Generally speaking, almost half of all leopards cubs will be found and killed by male leopards who had not mated with the mother, in a practice termed ‘infanticide’, and as Tutlwa’s territory encompasses the river banks, there have been many males in that area during the slow dissipation of the Marthly male’s reign. Two big contenders here have been the Gowrie male and the newer arrival, the 4:4 male, with the plausible added pressure from the Anderson male in the north or another male west of our boundary. As Gowrie male is suspected as the father to her late cubs, it could have been any one of the three non-paternal males in that unstable area to have killed the helpless youngsters.
Being the strong and successful leopard she is, Tutlwa seems to have hung on to her territory and may even have chased off the younger 4:4 male with her aggression; a good move for her if she is already surrounded by mature and dominant males. Moreover, we recently witnessed Tutlwa mating with Gowrie male, further suggesting that her cubs have been killed and she is looking to reproduce as soon as possible.
Competition north of the Sand River is as tough as ever, and now with her neighbouring dominant female, Nanga, having a cub of her own, tension between the two territorial leopards will heighten; particularly if Tutlwa has conceived again. She must also keep a eye out for the as-aggressive Ximpalapala female north of her who also dabbled in a mating bout with the Gowrie male during the same time.
The past week has seen hardly any evidence of Tutlwa moving around her territory, yet again. Could she be scouting out another hidden den site for three month’s time, possibly in the drier Sand River this time around? Or is she simply feeling defeated by both unstable males and competitive females surrounding her? This stage of her mysterious adult life keeps us glued to the ground in search of her next track. I suspect, however, that she will, as true as before, reemerge in prestige, revealing only her secretive lifestyle. But, maybe I will be pleasantly proved wrong and a newer den site will be discovered in the coming months. Until then, we can only ponder.
Written and Photographed by Sean Cresswell, Londolozi Ranger.