There are countless spectacular moments one will encounter while out on a game drive, but hearing tracker Richard Zitha Mthabine exclaim Leopard! Leopard! Leopard! is certainly a moment that recently got our hearts racing.
We had been taking in the lush scenery on the banks of the Manyelthi River in the northern section of Londolozi and were likely at this point ambling along deep in conversation solving the world’s mysteries. As we turned the corner, Rich gesticulated his hand in excitement as he spotted a large male leopard. It is safe to see that we got just as much joy in seeing Rich’s reaction as we did in finding the leopard.
Based on where we were, the most likely male leopard that we would see here is the Flat Rock Male. However, with more time in the saddle here we can soon differentiate between the leopards by a simple quick glance. So as I laid eyes on this male I could quickly tell by his size and features that it was not the Flat Rock Male. I then considered the possibility of a younger male leopard, likely in the nomadic phase of early adulthood, as they are frequently popping up across the reserve. I snapped away eagerly with my camera as he was only just a few feet away from the vehicle and I was mindful that he might vanish amongst the wild date palms before I could determine who he was.
With a very relaxed demeanour, we quickly came to the conclusion that he was not a young nomadic male moving through. He was a large and impressive male, so we soaked up his presence as he comfortably rolled and stretched, my excitement started to build once again. The realisation then hit me – this was the Tortoise Pan Male and his distinctive 4:3 spot pattern left no room for doubt.
This was the very first time I had ever seen this leopard, and after hearing a fair amount about him I had always wondered if I would ever see him. I could see the moment of pure nostalgia and recognition in Rich’s grin, as he had witnessed this leopard grow from a tiny cub into a young male that eventually dispersed, so to see him now as a fully mature dominant male was amazing.
Born in 2016, this male spent his early years in the south-east of Londolozi, but began moving further afield in late 2019.
So who is the Tortoise Pan Male?
Born in the winter of 2016, the Tortoise Pan Male claims his fame from currently being the only cub raised by the Ndzanzeni Female and is thus a direct descendant of the Mother Leopard lineage. While he spent his formative years around the iconic Python Rocks den site under the guidance of the Ndzanzeni Female.
This female is a success story all in herself, being born as a single cub to the Riverbank 3:3 female in early 2012.
Read James’s blog on an in-depth rundown of his entire journey, but during this time as a young patially independent young male leopard he was on numerous occasions seen in the company of his suspected father – the Inyathini Male. This led to what was considered as a longer than average time spent within his father’s territory, and in particular around Tortoise Pan – his namesake waterbody. It was only in late 2019, at almost three and a half years, that the Tortoise Pan Male moved into full independence and ventured further afield beyond the northern reaches of Londolozi.
Another leopard who originated in the Kruger National Park, he has established a large territory in the south eastern areas of Londolozi.
What might the future hold?
Now an impressive and established male leopard, the Tortoise Pan Male has subsequently been seen on three different occasions over the last month. During the first sighting, he set off on a territorial patrol, scent-marking along a few prominent game paths that were probably on the southern reaches of his territory. This area also overlaps with the territory of the Flat Rock Male. Could it be that now the Tortoise Pan Male is in his prime and is beginning to shift his territory south and applying pressure to the older Flat Rock Male?
Having such an impressive young leopard frequenting the northern parts of the reserve makes it an exhilarating excursion into the area as you don’t know what you are going to come across. How long will it be until the Flat Rock Male and Tortoise Pan Male have an altercation over this stretch of territory?
I was able to get a second chance to immerse myself in the presence of the Tortoise Pan Male about a week later. This time feeding on an impala he had hoisted up into a russet bushwillow tree. While he was still fairly close to the northern boundary of Londolozi, this time he was much further east from my first sighting, indicating the extent of his overlap with the Flat Rock Male. Interestingly this area is also occupied by the Xinzele Female and with the Xinzele Young Female nearing independence, we can only hope this will draw the Tortoise Pan Male and the direct Mother Leopard lineage further south back onto Londolozi.
While there are many exciting prospects for the Tortoise Pan Male, his lineage and legacy are a reminder of the privilege we have to be in the presence of any leopard. The legacy of the leopards of Londolozi and our surroundings continue to represent the very essence of the untamed wilderness, while at the same time growing the depth of our knowledge and experiences with these magnificent animals touches something primal within us and aids in broader conservation efforts. Here is to many more sightings of this incredible male leopard and what the future holds for him.