Sitting on the Varty Camp deck just a few mornings ago, with cups of coffee in hand, a few of us rangers looked over the Sand River to the northern bank and pondered how much things have changed in the last little while. In just two years, nine independent leopards have either been killed or died naturally on this northern section of Londolozi. This number is pretty startling. It begs the question, “why is this area proving to be so dangerous for leopards?”
And in some crazy way, could it possibly be a good thing for leopards going forward?
Before we get there though, let’s list the leopards that have disappeared from this area. These include the Ximpalapala female, Tutlwa female, Dudley Riverbank 5:5 male, Nanga Young Male, Nyelethi Female, Gowrie male, Tutlwa Young Male, Marthly Male and the Maliliwane female. Now onto how on earth this has happened…
Firstly, one of the reasons is because of a high predator density in the area and the resultant competition. In some cases, a few of these leopards were killed by other leopards and some by lions. About six months ago, the Tutlwa female was seen fighting off the Tsalala Pride in a thick section of the Sand River. Although no one actually saw the lions grab her, she was seen leaping away from them into some debris and judging by the sounds coming from the thicket, a fight definitely occurred. Since this time her territory remains eerily quite. The Tsalala pride was also responsible for the death of the Nyelethi Female and Dudley Riverbank 5:5 male, the latter of which we reported on in this blog last year.
As is the case with how predators interact in a natural system, there is also intra-species conflict, meaning that leopards attempt to oust other leopards in order to acquire their territory. They may also kill young that are not their own, thereby ridding the area of genes that are not theirs, forcing the female back into estrous and siring their own young. This was the case for the Tutlwa Young Male who was killed by the Gowrie male. This rather gory encounter was captured by National Geographic photographer, Sergey Gorshkov, in an unusual scene where the older leopard actually consumed the younger leopard. Although this sort of competition is fairly typical, eating the carcass of the other leopard is not well documented.
There were also a few freak accidents such as was the case with the Maliliwane female who we believe was bitten by a snake and deteriorated incredibly quickly. And other cases remain unsolved, such as the Gowrie male who was their one day and gone the next, never to be seen again.
A young female who was not often seen during her time on Londolozi, owing to her inhabiting a not-often traversed section of the property.
The Gowrie male first appeared in the Sabi Sands around 2011. Judging by his size, he is estimated to have been born around 2005/6.
Of course there are also situations where we believe the deaths to be natural and occurring from old age. These include the Marthly male and the Ximpalalpala female. Neither of their remains were found and so we cannot confirm our beliefs for sure but both were old leopards and were significantly weakened when they were last seen, meaning that they could easily have died naturally.
She was born to the Short Tailed female in 2002 in the same litter as the Tugwaan male.
My fear in telling this story was that it would be seen as morbid but in fact I think there’s another way we can look at it. It’s an honest portrayal of the natural flow of life and death in the bush and although we have been incredibly sad to see the demise of these various leopards and miss their presence here, what we now see is opportunities opening up for the current Leopards of Londolozi.
What it leaves them with now is a large area of superb leopard territory only really held by the Nanga female and the Anderson male.
And this is where we come to the aspects of possibility and opportunity.
In some ways the above circumstances could aid the Nanga female who lost previous litters to the Tutlwa female and the Marthly male. With one cub at the moment, she may now actually have greater success of raising this cub to independence because of the diminished competition.
New and young leopards now also have space to extend into. These include the Mashaba young female who has been seen in the north on a few occasions as well as the Flat Rock male, a newcomer to these parts. And in fact, the Mashaba young female is a niece of the Tutlwa female whose territory she is extending into and is therefore in some way, continuing the success of this lineage.
Having been viewed by vehicles from an early age, this leopard is supremely relaxed around Land Rovers.
One of the hard truths we’re all familiar with is that the only thing constant in life is change and it seems the ongoing saga of Londolozi’s Leopards is proving this yet again. Despite the sadness of leopards passed, we can at least be left to ponder what huge possibility is opening up and how this may be allowing the next young generation of leopards to flourish.