We’ve written before about how a leopard’s star can rise and fall, and certain individuals are sought after at certain times more than others.
In 2013 we published a piece on the Dudley Riverbank female and her cub. The DRB female was not often viewed, but after the birth of that cub, she was the most sought after leopard on the property, with that period falling after a year or two in which very few leopard cubs were being raised and viewed. Ironically, the same thing has happened to that cub itself; she grew up to be renamed the Ndzanzeni female, and now since she has had a litter of her own, has been looked for more and more by the ranger and tracker team. Since the birth of the Nanga female’s cubs in the north and the rise in viewing of the Xidulu female and her cubs in our eastern areas however, the Ndzanzeni female is once more not being sought after as actively.
A few days ago she was found with her single remaining cub (the second one disappeared a month or two ago), a young male, on the carcass of a young kudu kill in the south of the property.
I hadn’t seen her for over a month, so we decided to head down and see if she was still there in the afternoon. There apparently hadn’t been too much meat left on the carcass in the morning, but even if the kill was finished, full bellies probably meant the leopards wouldn’t have gone far.
Thankfully Sandros Sihlangu found the two leopards there as the afternoon moved towards evening, and we arrived on the scene just as the Ndzanzeni female led the cub to a nearby pan to drink, allowing for some great photographic opportunities in the golden light.
Having slaked their thirst, the two began walking back towards where the kill was hoisted in a large Tamboti tree. We opted to move around ahead of them in order to get some photos as they approached, but moving parallel to them behind a thicket, we suddenly saw another leopard in front of us. Initially confused, as there was no way the female could have moved quickly enough to get there ahead of us, we soon realised it was a much bigger individual, and moving closer we recognized the Inyathini male.
Being pretty sure he is the father of the cub, we weren’t unduly worried about any kind of conflict, but there is always bound to be a certain degree of uncertainty when two adult leopards catch sight of each other, which was indeed the case here.
Ranger Callum Gowar, also in the sighting with us, signalled me to grab my radio. He told us that just before we had bumped into the Inyathini male, their vehicle was sure they had seen the tail of a fourth leopard disappearing into the bushes, very close to where the Ndzanzeni female and cub were now walking. Things were starting to make sense, as the Ndzanzeni female had been scent marking heavily, sniffing a number of bushes and performing the flehmen grimace (flaring of the lips to expose the Jacobson’s organ, which is used to analyse pheromones in the scent markings of other individuals of the same species). Having observed all this, we had already suspected that there was another leopard in the area, and most likely a female. Already in the process of raising a cub, the Ndzanzeni female was unlikely to be spraying scent to attract a male to mate with, but rather putting up territorial markers to ward off a rival female. Then hearing Callum’s update about the tail disappearing into the bushes, we thought the Inyathini male may be in the area to follow the scent of whichever female it was. Having a fair idea of which leopards inhabit which territories, the Tamboti female was the prime suspect.
Just as I was relating Callum’s update to my guests, the unmistakeable rasping call of the unidentified fourth leopard carried clearly to us from the nearby Tugwaan drainage line. When leopards of the same sex come into contact and a confrontation develops, there are clear signs of aggression, one of them being heavy salivating. Since the Inyathini male was not showing any of these signs, we could conclude that whichever leopard it was was almost certainly a female. The fact that the Inyathini male was found mating with the Tamboti female only a couple of days later pretty much confirmed our suspicions.
The male slunk off towards where the fourth leopard had been calling, leaving the Ndzanzeni female and her cub to return to the kill. Fortunately for them the Inyathini male had either not smelt the kill or was more interested in pursuing an amorous liaison with the unknown female, otherwise he may well have claimed it for himself.
A hyena arrived just as the sun went down, to sniff around the base of the tree that the kill was hoisted in, but after some angry snarls from the Ndzanzeni female, and with no evidence of any scraps on the ground, it moved off into the dusk, as did we.