While driving along the banks of the dry Maxabene river bed recently, we happened across a leopard resting up in a pan. Tracker Shadrack Mkabela raised his hand swiftly to signal to me to stop the vehicle. None of us on the vehicle could see what Shadrack had spotted but given the beaming smile on his face as he turned to look back at us, I instantly knew what his next word would be; “Leopard!” he exclaimed, pointing up ahead.
As the rest of us excitedly perked our heads up to see the leopard ourselves, which was about 50m ahead, Shadrack called out again; “And another leopard!”. We couldn’t believe our luck but just 20 metres to the left of the first leopard was a second one sitting up in the long grass. As we edged closer and began enjoying the sighting we realised that one of the cats was the Mashaba female and the other the Ndzanzeni young male.
Immediately, this reminded me that just six weeks ago, the same young male was found to be the culprit in the death of the Mashaba female’s latest litter of three and ironically, that the den site in which the three cubs were found and killed, was a stone’s throw away from where we now found ourselves. Yet despite that fact, the two leopards seemed quite comfortable in each other’s company, so much so that the Mashaba Female was even showing signs of wanting to mate with the young male.
As humans, we sat there and typically put an emotional spin on things. We began to ask ourselves why the Mashaba Female would even tolerate the presence of this young male, let alone show that she would want to mate with such a villain – at least he would be a villain in a human context. The very individual that eradicated her latest progeny. If the same scene was witnessed between humans it would surely end with the female unleashing herself in a fit of rage over the young male, even after all this time. It wasn’t long though before I caught myself and realised that these wild animals operate on a completely different, much simpler and more natural thought process than ourselves and yet so often, we prescribe human qualities to them which are, at the end of the day, only applicable to us and only confuse the way we view the natural world.
If you take a moment to think about what was playing out in front us that morning, without the human element of emotion, it all made perfect sense. To begin with, the young male killing the cubs in the first place wasn’t a crime. It is the most natural behaviour of a male leopard to deny any cub other than his own the right to liven. By killing a female’s cubs, it shortly brings her back into oestrus which gives the male an opportunity to mate with her himself. Secondly, the Mashaba female, now tolerating the presence of the Ndzanzeni young male and wanting to mate with him is not a tale of forgiveness or fatal attraction. Through these events, she would have identified the young male as a potential dominant male in the area and would have instinctively wanted to mate with him so that her next set of cubs would then in fact be protected by and not killed by him. The ultimate objective of all these animals is just simply to pass their genes on by successfully reproducing, at whatever cost. Emotion plays no part in it.
The plot does thicken slightly though because the Ndzanzeni young male, at just over 2 years old, is not yet territorial and is unlikely to mate with any female until he is about 3 years old (at least this is what the textbooks will tell you), and at least while we were watching these animals, the young male paid little attention to the female’s subtle advances. In addition to this, the Inyathini male is still the reigning territorial male over that area and I doubt he would take it lightly that another male is mating with females on his turf, even considering that the Ndzanzeni young male is in fact his own offspring. However, that is besides the point.
The fact is that we have to be careful when interpreting these wild animals behaviours, because we can so easily view it through a filter of our own complicated emotions. This is what sometimes makes it difficult to understand why the animals do what they do, but I suppose that element of mystery is a large part of what draws us back into the wilderness time and time again.