Late in the afternoon, after driving almost every road in the Nhlanguleni Female’s territory, Ranger Matt Rochford called me on the radio saying that he had found her. This was music to my ears until the excitement grew even more when he said he had not only found the Nhlanguleni Female but also the Senegal Bush Male. I felt like jumping out of the vehicle and running around overwhelmed with excitement! But I could not do that and waste time as they were both in a marula tree. The same tree!
Contrary to popular belief, leopards are not always in trees. Yes, you will see a leopard in a tree but more often than not they are on the ground. There are a few reasons that leopards climb trees, for example, to take their kill up in the tree out of reach of scavenging hyenas, to get away from danger, or maybe to just get a height advantage to scan for any potential prey or threats. So with that being said, to see one leopard up in the tree is special but to see two adult leopards in a tree interacting with each other is incredibly rare!
We were trying to figure out what scene was about to unfold? What were they doing together? Why are they both in a tree together? Was The Senegal Bush Male following her to see if she has a kill he can rob? All questions that were running through my mind at the time.
When we got there, the two leopards were on different branches of the tree, so did this mean that the Senegal Bush Male chased the Nhanguleni Female up there? Without there being a carcass in the tree and in our minds she has a cub so unlikely to be seeking out a mate, in theory, she should be of no interest to him. We could answer the first part of that with one hundred per cent certainty that she did not have a carcass, but the second part was a slight concern for us. Does she still have her cub or has she lost it and is now out seeking a mate again?
As time went by the Senegal Bush Male got up and jumped down to a lower branch closer to the Nhlanguleni Female which made her get up and start growling at him. She then climbed down and moved towards him, triggering a deep growl from the Senegal Bush Male. She then settled on another branch and we thought that would be the end of their interaction.
After a while of back and forth, the two leopards climbed down the tree and started to mate! The Senegal Bush Male was following her not to find a kill but because of her pheromones telling him that she is ready to mate? I put a question mark after that sentence because was she in estrus or was she just trying to distract him from her cub? Mother leopards are known to do this in an attempt to draw the attention of the male away from an area where the cub may be being kept. But with the Nhlanguleni Female and Senegal Bush Male having mated in the past and him being the likely father, this did not make sense. She would not need to convince him of being the father.
The cub was only seen for a short period and since then there have been no further signs, the last of which was a few weeks ago. It could be possible that she, unfortunately, lost her cub and is now in oestrus again. Following this initial sighting where we believe they met up and the mating began, they continued to mate for a further three days. So even if the cub was still alive, this would be strange behaviour from a mother to leave the cub for that long and would likely result in the cub not surviving anyway. We hope that this mating bout was successful and that she falls pregnant and she can have more luck with her next litter of cubs. So over the next little while we will keep a close eye out for the Nhalnguleni Female and see if there are any further signs and hopefully be able to give definitive answers to all these questions soon.
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