To say that the last few years have been tough for the Nanga female would be an understatement.
Losing three litters and having constant turnover of the males in your area does not make the path straight and narrow for a small female leopard. Lately the Nanga female has been sighted far out of her normal territory, we are convinced in an effort to track down and mate with the 4:4 male, who has also been turning up in places we never expected. This male is a bit of an enigma. Still not 100% comfortable around vehicles, he chooses patrol routes through deep drainage lines and is not often viewed during the day. Spending much time in the Sand River where the Marthly male once patrolled, not very much is known about his habits, and a prolonged sighting of him is rare. He has, however, been spending time covering a lot of ground between the Maxabene and Manyalethi riverbeds, and we are convinced that it is him that has been drawing Nanga female into foreign areas.
It has been well documented that female leopards will leave their territories to seek out neighbouring resident males and mate with them, in an attempt to confuse the paternity of the offspring. Males will kill cubs that aren’t theirs (up to 40% of cub mortality is due to unrelated males), so if the female has mated with all the dominant males in the area, and the males themselves aren’t 100% sure who the father is, the cubs stand a much better chance of survival.
Although mating with the 4:4 male – who’s territory seems ever-expanding – may be the right thing to do, it may not be enough. As a result of the disappearance of the Gowrie Male, both the Anderson and Dudley Riverbank 5:5 males have been seen in the territory of the Nanga female, and it seems certain that things will stay convoluted for some time.
Added to this is the threat of the Tutlwa female, who is believed to be responsible for the death of a cub from each of the Nanga female’s last two litters. Female infanticide is not a well-documented phenomenon, so it seems the Tutlwa female is the exception rather than the rule, yet the fact that the two leopardesses share a territorial boundary that runs right through prime denning area around the Southern Cross and Marthly Pools Koppies would be cause for concern should the Nanga female give birth in this area again.
Also, venturing too far from familiar territory is a dangerous move. The Maxabene female disappeared in 2012 immediately after venturing across the Sand River to mate with the Marthly male. I can’t guarantee that her wanderings were connected with her death, but the evidence supports this theory. For the Nanga female, a small leopard, moving through the territories of the much larger Mashaba and Tutlwa females, at least one of whom is raising a cub (the Tutlwa female we suspect may also be hiding a cub somewhere) is a risky endeavour, and one we hope she doesn’t repeat too often.
Speculation is rife at the moment when it comes to both lion and leopard territories, but that is what makes the bush such a fascinating environment in which to live and work. I’m sure the animals don’t see it that way. They just have to get on with the business at hand; survival.
Written and Photographed by James Tyrrell