Leopards – and animals in general – don’t always do what the books say, and in such a dense population as Londolozi, we are bound to start seeing behaviours as yet unrecorded.
Father and son duos mating with the same female, different females vying simultaneously for attention from the same male, tolerance when there should be aggression, aggression when there should be tolerance… We’re kept guessing all the time.
The dynamics that are currently playing out between the two Nhlanguleni leopard sisters are remarkably resemblant of those between cheetah siblings.
When sub-adult cheetahs become independent – be they sisters, brothers or mixed – they generally stick together for a couple of months before going their separate ways. Brothers will usually remain permanently together in a coalition but females will split, being solitary and relatively nomadic. Leopards on the other hand separate pretty much immediately.
But the Nhlanguleni sisters, although it seems fairly evident they have finally been pushed firmly into independence by their mother, are still spending an inordinate amount of time together. They are repeatedly found sharing kills that one or the other has made, and invariably when one is tracked and found, the other won’t be far away.
To be fair, this is the first time I’ve properly witnessed an intact leopard litter make it to independence. The Nhlanguleni female herself was the last leopard to be successfully raised with her sibling, but she and her brother (who dispersed very quickly) were so skittish when they were young that we never really got to observe their behaviour. Maybe this sticking together thing is more common than I thought. For their early months as would-be solitary animals maybe it is the best way to ride out the hardships. One feeds off the other’s kill and vice versa. A certain level of tolerance makes perfect sense, when genetically it is in both of their interests that the other survives.
I imagine the territory they are in has a lot to do with it; both young leopards have been highly localised within the Sand River, upstream from camp, and with the proliferation of prey and ample cover that the area provides, they are more than simply surviving, they are thriving!
Three days ago they were found together on a fresh nyala kill (an adult ewe). They were sadly robbed by hyenas as the kill was probably too big for such small leopards to think about hoisting straight away, but within 36 hours they were again found together, this time on a bushbuck lamb, hoisted and safely out of reach from hyenas.
Most drives along the Sand River to the west of camp feature the bark of a bushbuck or nyala from the Phragmites thickets in the riverbed, and invariably it will be one or both of the cubs that has/have surprised the antelope or botched a hunting attempt. More often than not they are in areas unaccessible to the Land Rovers, but we seldom have to wait too long though before they are found once again.
Ultimately I think the rarity here is not their behaviour, but the fact that both these young leopards have survived. I haven’t gone over the exact numbers, but I’m willing to bet that somewhere in the order of 50 cubs have been born on Londolozi since the Nhlanguleni female left her mother, and her two daughters are the first since then not to lose a sibling.
Their relationship aside, the fact that they are both still here is what we should really be celebrating!