The end of 2020 saw many a guiding team (ranger and tracker) and their guests viewing an unusually high number of mating pairs of leopards around Londolozi, which is very exciting for us all right now while we try and figure out exactly which one was successful (hint: quite. few of them).
But that is for another blog. For now I will focus on a single day wherein we were incredibly fortunate in getting to witness one of these special events.
But with a twist.
The day had been a quiet one – a sweltering 36° Celsius – but evening had fallen and the temperature with it and we were just settling in for a peaceful night-drive, thinking about the eventual loops back toward home. That is until we rounded a bend in the road just south of the Manyelethi river and our roving spotlight fell across a jaw-dropping sight: there just next to the road was not one, not two but three leopards! A large male – the Flat Rock male – and two females, the Xinzele and the Nhlanguleni female, all arranged in exceptionally close proximity around a termite mound.
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.
A dominant male leopard over the majority of the north. He originally took over the 4:4 Male's territory when he died.
And even as we puzzled over exactly what was going on, the big male rose and ambled over to the smaller Xinzele Female – we had obviously just missed her rubbing herself against him and presenting herself – and mounted her; the ensuing guttural snarling and neck biting was as thrilling as ever and we waited with bated breath for the swat at the end from the female as the male’s barbed penis was painfully removed. This time it was not to be but that took nothing away from the experience of witnessing such an incredible event.
The male, after diving away from the swat-that-never-came, then proceeded to settle himself directly between the two females and that’s when things really started to get interesting. The females, although tolerant of the other’s presence, hissed and spat at each other while at the same time vying for the attention of the male, presenting themselves continuously and rubbing their rumps and tails across the fortunate male’s muzzle. The male, for his part, sat between the two, alternating between hood-lidded ambivalence and ferocious snarls of protest at the two squabbling females, even going so far as to swat at each female in turn as they try to present themselves to him.
But despite his apparent protests he would always eventually relent, and we watched in fascination as he would mount one and shortly thereafter the other, time and time again; the shortest interval between the two was 190 seconds between mounting!
Now, this with one female is fairly standard procedure but with two? Did the Flat Rock male have the stamina for this marathon event? Three days like this would sap the strength of even the strongest territorial male. But given this particular leopard’s recent expansion of territory deep into the northern parts of the reserve, and with him currently holding the largest territory of any male on Londolozi (as far as we can tell), he might just have been in decent enough condition to carry it through to conception with both the Nhlanguleni female and the Xinzele female. And if so, now is the time that those two would be giving birth and denning their new cubs..
A small female often found in NW Marthly. Similar spot pattern to her mother the Ingrid Dam Female.
As far as I am aware, the two females did not have cubs at the time and so this was unlikely to be related to the male’s recent territorial expansion effort, whereby if he had come across any cubs that were not his then he would have killed them, in a single stroke removing genetic competition and inducing oestrus in the female, who he could then mate with to further his own line – this essentially being the goal of every animal out here.
Now as “unusual” as this appears it is not by any means a first for us here at Londolozi, as I was later to find out (I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed to hear this, as there I was at the sighting thinking I was witnessing history in the making…). But there was still something particularly curious about this interaction as the females weren’t related; previous sightings of this nature have often involved sisters or related females and as mentioned earlier, it’s all about the genes, so two related females would be more likely to tolerate each other’s presence more so than two genetically isolated individuals.
But theory and practice will always differ and that is the beauty of being out here. We’re constantly seeing and trying to interpret new situations and interactions and often times we just have to accept that there are some things that we’ll just not ever really know.
And that’s ok too. Sometimes the magic lies in the mystery.