Towards the end of 2015, James Tyrrell asked the question “Do leopards have favourite trees?”. Since then, this has been hotly debated, with opinions varying between rangers, trackers and textbooks and no definitive answer emerging. If only we could politely ask animals such personal questions we might be able to generate a better understanding. Having said that I do believe (without sounding too philosophical) the unknown does only add to the fascination, intrigue and mystery of these creatures.
Leopards in the Sabi Sands do tend to spend a fair amount of time in trees, one reason being that the predator density in this area is high and they hoist their carcasses to avoid having them eaten by lions or hyenas. It does seem to me though that certain individuals seem to prefer a more arboreal lifestyle than others.
The idea for this blog stemmed from a sighting I had recently of the Nhlanguleni female resting high in the boughs of a Marula tree. Almost a month later to the day, Don Heyneke had exactly the same sighting. James Tyrrell, Garrett Fitzpatrick and Bednary Ndlovu have also seen her individually in this same tree before. That’s five separate sightings that we know of. Why did she end up in the same tree? Was it just a coincidence or is this one of her favourite spots? What we do know is that the Nhlanguleni female had recently lost one of her cubs and was seen, on that particular day without the other cub. Was she just in the area and simply looking for a vantage point central to her territory in the hopes of locating her missing cub, or once again, was it pure coincidence?
What was even crazier though was how the photographs I managed to capture are almost identical to Don’s in how she was lying, where she moved about on the tree, how she scent marked on it and where she chose to descend it. Have a look at the series below to see how absurdly similar the sightings were.
Initially skittish she spent a lot of time in the Sand River, now relaxed she makes up the majority of leopard viewing west of camp.
After much deliberation with the tracker I work with, Freddy Ngobeni, who has an incredible depth of knowledge about individual leopards in this area, proclaimed that this is personality thing. Freddy believes that there have been very few male leopards that have an inclination for resting in trees at Londolozi. However the Flat Rock male, a newcomer to this area, is one such leopard that seems to prefer the relative safety of the high branches of trees. Perhaps this is owing to his recent and somewhat subservient arrival onto the property or possibly it is inherent in his genetic disposition.
With the unfortunate recent departure of the 4:4 male, an area of land has been left vacant for which a new male leopard can stake his claim. With the vast territory already occupied by the Piva male east of camp, the unoccupied area just west of camp seems perfect for a new male to consolidate and assert dominance for himself, and that is what the Flat rock male has appeared to do. Following him as he moves through his relatively new ‘territory’, he adds an extra element of excitement due to the fact that he will quite regularly launch himself into trees, either to survey his surroundings, rest on the long limbs of the tree or, more recently, evade the persistent mating efforts of the Nhlanguleni female.
I believe this question will never truly be answered and we’ll continue to hypothesize and speculate about whether leopards have favourite trees or more broadly speaking, as to why some leopards prefer trees more than others. What I do know though is that every time I drive past this particular Marula tree in the future, I will be glancing into its crown to see if the Nhlanguleni female is resting