After hearing what sounded like two leopards mating in front of camp , a search party was deployed to find them. Switching the vehicle off periodically as we went was the best strategy to allow us to hear the relatively frequent mating bouts.
They were somewhere close, although being in the rocky section of river in front of camp made them a lot more difficult to find.
The riverine vegetation is a lot thicker than the rest of the reserve, with numerous places for leopards to hide. It would be impossible to search behind every bush and wild date palm thicket. Our best bet would be to listen out for them and use that to narrow the search.
Once hearing where they were though, another challenge was presented. ‘How do we get there?’
The difficulty of manoeuvring around the vegetation is one thing, navigating the river channels is another thing entirely. During our summer months we received a healthy amount of rain, the Sand River level rises and remains high for some time, changing a few of the water courses and carving out new gullies and channels. So just as we thought we knew how to get around in certain areas of the river, we were quickly forced to turn around and try another route.
Hearing the leopards mating over and over again, although unable to get to them was mildly torturous. The entire morning was dedicated to searching for them but to no avail. It was in preparing for the afternoon drive, we heard monkeys alarming calling from the Varty Camp Main deck. Chirstina Fox from the Healing House then spotted the leopards. A few minutes later after rushing down to the deck, we only got a glimpse as they moved just out of sight. We could hear them loud and clear and see the vegetation moving around them as they mated. Until this point we were uncertain as to which two leopards they were.
When leopards are mating it is often the female that will seek out the male. Males are dominant over a much larger territory that will encompass a number of female territories. However the females may overlap a territorial boundary between two or even three males. In having cubs she needs to do everything in her power to convince not only these males, but all males in the area that the cubs are likely his so that he is invested in the paternity.
Potentially risking her life, she crosses over into another female’s territory in the search of the males, sometimes ending up a few kilometres from her own. Mating leopards will mate on average every 20 minutes or so for four or five days. This eventually induces the female to ovulate towards the end of the mating bouts. In an evolutionary attempt to conserve energy, the needs to prove to her that he is a dominant male in the area and possesses strong genes. If he is able to last for the bout without being chased off by a more dominant male then he is successful. This is an attempt to prevent falling pregnant at the first chance of mating with any random male, and essentially wasting energy investment into the development of the cubs if their chances of survival are much lower asa result.
That afternoon we attempted the search again but were held up by an incredible elephant sighting and in the fading light were unable to get a view of the two of them. There is a very high possibility that one of them was the Flat Rock male, as camp is in the centre of his territory. The female is slightly more difficult to work out given the information above.
We presume it could have been any of a number of different females. The Mashaba female, who may have lost her cub. The Piccadilly female, maybe trying to distract the Flat Rock male and lead him away from her cub as an extra safety precaution. The Ximungwe female, as her son the Ximungwe young male, is now pretty much independent she will most likely look to mate soon and try raise another litter. Or the Nkoveni female. She had a cub that was last seen about two months ago; sadly we think the cub has been killed So coming back into oestrus she has now set out to fall pregnant again.
After much debate amongst us and the brief glimpse we settled on it being the Nkoveni female. That evening and the following morning we could no longer hear them mating. They had most likely moved off and continued on their ways.