There’s a leopard that lived on Londolozi that has the most bizarre and beautiful story. It begins with him being adopted by his grandmother as a cub, later caring for her in her old age and sadly ends with him being killed by the Tsalala Pride. The books teach us that leopards are strictly solitary, only meeting to mate, fight or when they have cubs. This particular story is the complete antithesis of this though. He was a leopard that taught us that the secret lives of these cats are far more complex and intriguing than we had imagined possible and so in memory of him, I’d like to recount the details of his astonishing story.
The Dudley Riverbank 5:5 male is Londolozi royalty, a part of the Mother Leopard bloodline, the leopards that have made Londolozi what it is today. He was born in a litter of two to the Dudley Riverbank Female in 2006 and about three months later her mother, the 3:4 female had a litter of her own.
One day, these two females were on separate kills on a section of the Sand River, quite close to each other, when it seems they must have crossed paths, and something strange occurred…
Ranger Tom Imrie was returning back to camp one evening soon after and quite unexpectedly the form of a female leopard appeared in his spotlight. They identified her as the 3:4 female and as she crossed the road, they noticed her young cub tagging behind. Quite astonishingly, a few steps behind them trotted out another cub, only this one was three months older! The 3:4 female turned around and hissed at this young leopard but he continued to follow her and her biological cub, seemingly unperturbed. Two days later the trio was found together again, except this time the grandmother was grooming the new addition to her litter and from that day on these two leopards didn’t separate again for another three years.
As a youngster the 5:5 male was known for his antics and Helen Young, a Londolozi ranger at the time, remembers how on one occasion he stole a picnic blanket from under the nose of a rather confused chef who was sent into the bush to set up an alfresco lunch. Helen laughs, saying that “the blanket was sighted again… but in five pieces and up three different trees”. She remembers another time a tracker rather foolishly took off his jacket while following the Dudley Riverbank male’s tracks, and after a long and unsuccessful morning, returned to the tree in which he had hung it. “He was met by the leopard, capering around in the top-most branches of the self-same tree, very pleased with his new coat… It took four days before we could retrieve it”, said Helen.
Melvin Sambo, one of Londolozi’s most experienced rangers, says that one of his favourite sighings ever involved this young cub. It was a sighting in which they saw six leopards all together on one kill! The group included the 3:4 female, her daughter the Dudley Riverbank female, their two litters of cubs as well as the cub’s father, known as the Tugwaan male. Melvin says the Dudley Riverbank male was incredibly relaxed around vehicles as a cub and he gave much joy to Londolozi’s guests and staff during these early years of his life.
Upon independence he wandered only slightly north of his mother and grandmother’s territories, apparently not wanting to drift too far from home. This is rather strange behaviour for a young male leopard because it meant that he stayed right in the heart of his father’s territory and quite literally challenged this much older and stronger male to the right to the area. Despite his rather foolhardy attempts, he lost in an epic fight to the Tugwaan male and subsequently moved east over our boundary. In the space of one day, Londolozi rangers and guests went from spending countless hours with this particular male to not seeing him at all.
He did eventually come back though and went on to fight with the Camp Pan, Marthly and Emsagwen males. For a while it looked as though he was set to oust the Camp Pan male from central Londolozi, and indeed during the early and middle parts of 2011 it certainly looked as though this was inevitable. Then the Camp Pan male got granted a lifeline with the disappearance of the Emsagwen male in the east, as the DRB 5:5 male moved east to claim this vacant area. We didn’t see him much after this, only occasionally bumping into him as he skirted round the fringes of Londolozi, but his rasping call would regularly be heard east of our boundary.
One of the most incredible things he did as an adult leopard though was to share some of his carcasses with his ageing grandmother, the 3:4 female, who by that stage was struggling to hunt for herself. This is unheard of behaviour in the usually secretive world of these solitary cats. Although male and female leopards are sometimes found on kills together, it is usually because the males have bullied their way into the situation, and once they have appropriated the carcass it is very unusual to see them share. Here though the female could never have forced herself on this stronger male and it seems that the bond which formed between them during the male’s infancy and adolescence, remained throughout his life.
Although we only ever saw this male sporadically once he’d reached maturity, he is one that we respect greatly. Despite losing sight in one eye he survived and continued to fend for himself regardless, and carved himself a territory despite being surrounded by numerous very strong male leopards. Sadly the final chapter of this male’s life is a tragic one and about two weeks ago, he was killed by the Tsalala pride of lions. Although we found him already injured, the tracks showed that he was ambushed and severely mauled by the two adult lionesses that have been secreting cubs in the rocky outcrops along the Manyelethi Riverbed. Judging by his wounds it must have been an intense and prolonged battle. He was outnumbered and outsized and eventually succumbed to his wounds later that same day.
The Dudley Riverbank male’s story is one that epitomises the inherently tough, intriguing and complex life of these incredible cats. He gave countless people moments of great joy and most importantly proved that no matter how many hours you spend with leopards, you can never really be sure what these cats may do. For us, he showed that maybe the bonds between these solitary cats runs deeper than we previously imagined possible and we’re so fortunate to have caught glimpses of him at various stages of his journey. Although he spent much of his life away from Londolozi, his story began here and ended full circle here and he’ll go down in our books as a true Londolozi legend.