Former Londolozi Head Ranger Oliver Sinclair was recently visiting with his family. Ollie is renowned for his knack of discovering new leopard litters, and although there were no females with secluded dens on the property at the time of his visit, he was nevertheless witness to some unusual behaviour in and around a waterhole in the north of the property.
I’ll let him take you through the rest:
It all began just north east of Nanga Pan. The Nanga female leopard had been found with an impala kill hoisted in a Marula Tree. She spent her time lying at the base of the tree. Every now and then she would glance up, presumably at her kill in the tree but we soon noticed some vultures dropping down out of the sky and landing in trees a few hundred meters to our east.
The Nanga female was born to the Nyelethi 4:4 female in 2009 as part of a litter of three.
There weren’t enough vultures coming down to garner our interest but another ranger decided to investigate. On closer inspection he found an area where an elephant had given birth and it was the afterbirth which the vultures were interested in.
4 days later we decided to have a coffee break on our morning drive at Mahlahla Dam. At first we didn’t notice the elephant calf as it looked like a mound of sand but we soon realised the mound was that of a very young elephant calf, possibly the one born 4 days earlier only a few hundred meters to the north west. It was a sad scene as you could see how the mud had been churned up around the dead calf by the rest of its herd as they had tried in vain to rescue the calf from its muddy grave. We set up a camera trap on a fallen tree nearby to see what animals investigated the carcass.
We returned every day to see if any predators had found the carcass but there was never a sign of a predator. Everyday, however, we saw the same herd of elephant within a few hundred meters of the dam. They were easily identified as one of the females had a crooked tusk. Her left tusk was bent behind her trunk (Tyler, my son, says she bent her tusk trying to get her calf out of the mud).
Everyday we continued to check the dam for any sign of predators having fed on the elephant. Everday there were fresh tracks in the mud around the carcass of elephant but we never saw any elephant at the dam or near the carcass. They were always a few hundred meters from the dam feeding. We did also notice how the carcass had moved a little everyday and one day it even looked like something had tried to pick it up (like an elephant had scooped it up on a tusk).
On the morning of the 6th day, the two Tsalala lioness left the Southern Cross Koppies with their two older cubs and headed north along the Mahlahla drainage line towards the dam where the elephant carcass was. We thought they were heading to the carcass but about half way there the cubs got nervous and lay down while the adults continued for a further 100m but turned around when they encountered a herd of elephant. They were the herd we saw daily close to the dam as we recognised the elephant cow with the crooked tusk. The lions returned to the koppies with their cubs. When we returned to the koppies in the afternoon the lions were still there but they were staring north intently.
While we were sitting quietly at the dam on the third morning we heard the distinct growling of a pair of leopards mating. We assumed it would be the Nanga female leopard as we had seen her at the dam the day before we found the elephant calf in the dam. She was looking exhausted and was lying uncomfortably in the hard mud so we knew she was around.
We called on the radio telling the rangers about the noise from the leopards and 2 trackers went into the area west of the Dam where I had heard the noise coming from. It wasn’t long and they found the Anderson male leopard moving south along a drainage line. There was no sign of a female leopard but he did have a fresh cut on his left ear and there was blood around the cut on his face and neck.
The following morning we decided to wake up early and head straight to the dam. On the way there we saw the distinct tracks of lion. Our hearts began racing at the thought of what lay ahead. We arrived at the dam and the elephant carcass was gone. I thought to myself there was no way the lions could have finished it already. We saw where it had been dragged out of the mud and soon found 2 lioness with the two 4-month old cubs feeding on the carcass in the drainage line at the head of the dam. They had pulled the carcass under a fallen over tree. While we were watching them we heard what sounded like a bark. One of the rangers who was in a vehicle close to where the sound came from said that it was an alarm call of an antelope but I couldn’t quite place the sound. I didn’t recognise it as an alarm call so I was left wondering what antelope it could have been?
We left the sighting to allow other vehicles to come and view the lions. We continued our drive and watched a beautiful saddle-billed stork hunting frogs in Nanga Pan.
When all the vehicles had left the sighting we returned to have another look. The lions were all quite playful on our return but soon settled down, the two lioness lying together as they often do.
One cub lay down in the shade and the other wandered up the drainage line to relieve itself. We again heard the bark-like sound. The lionesses pricked up their ears and the lion cub came scurrying back to the safety of its mother
I thought about the noise and what had just happened and I realised what it was. I told Mish and Tyler, “there is a leopard here, it was a leopard that made that sound and that is why the lion cub came scurrying back.”
Just as I finished my explanation and the lions had all settled the silence was shattered. There was growling, snarling and scratching and with that, 2 leopards shot up into a tree about 30m from where we were parked.
The male leopard was half way up and the female was as high as she could go in the tree. They were growling and snarling at each other. After about 10 minutes he snuck out of the tree. She waited a while to make sure he was gone before she descended constantly sniffing the branches where he had been. She soon slunk out of the tree and moved off in the opposite direction to him.
He spotted her come down out of the tree and he shadowed her for a while, moving while she moved and resting while she rested. On one of the occasions while they rested James Tyrrell identified him as the rather shy Kunyuma male. A younger male leopard from the north, possibly trying to find a territory for himself. He was possibly trying to mate with the Nanga female and she wasn’t interested in him due to his youth and lack of dominance.
You could see she was uncomfortable with his presence and just as she tried once again to sneak of there was once again an explosion of sound and a blur of leopards racing through the bush. (In the photograph you can see her urinating as she sprints for cover).
This time she escaped the top of a Marula Tree and she stayed there for what seemed like a long time as she watched him disappear further south. This time she waited for him to go further before she descended and ran off to the north escaping him.
We found her that evening and she was relaxed and there was no sign of the male anywhere…
Once we had taken down the camera trap and reviewed the images we saw that elephant had been to the dead calf every day. Although no-one ever saw elephant down at the dam you can clearly see in the images how the herd of elephant had milled around the dead calf. The elephant weren’t the only ones to visit the area. Buffalo, hippo and vervet monkeys had also been in the cameras view before the final evening when a clan of hyena discovered the carcass. They never got to feed on it before they were chased off by the lions.
All in a week at Mahlahla Dam…
Written by Oliver Sinclair, Londolozi Ex-Head Ranger.
Photographed by Oliver Sinclair and Michelle Sinclair.