It is a strange thing to look at a dominant male leopard and contemplate how significant his position is. On perception alone whilst looking at the animal it is difficult to imagine his strength to be anything less than brutal.
Words: Daniel Buys, Head Ranger at Londolozi Game Reserve
Pictures: Sarah McDermott, James Crookes, Mike Sutherland, Simon Smit, Ann Perry and Mary Strabel
Male leopards have an interesting life cycle. One that stands the test against all odds. Firstly, they are born into nature fairly helpless. Their eyes do not open for the first ten days and their movements are extremely limited. This Altricial nature allows the female (mother) to remain fairly active in her hunting ability up until a day or two after giving birth. Normally the average litter size would be two but we have had as many as three in the past at Londolozi.
The mother then has an exceptionally tough job keeping the little ones hidden during their vulnerable days. She has to constantly hunt successfully to keep herself nourished in order to be able to feed the young. It is only when they reach six weeks of age does the mother start taking these cubs to carcasses. Up until then she has been known to leave them alone for sometimes up to three days in order to successfully catch prey. It is during this time that they are vulnerable to other predators like an African rock python or a large bird of prey. Other dangers to them include competitive predators like hyena, lion, or even other leopards. So to consider that they survive this period is an incredible feat in itself.
Once they are approximately six weeks of age the mother will begin leading them to carcasses when and if she is successful. At this age they are more capable. They are able to sense danger, climb trees, and hide if necessary. Their curiosity and adventurous spirit grows by the day, practicing their hunting skills on anything that moves, provided it is small enough. Most hunting techniques are developed instinctively.
Approximately at the age of 18 months to two years the mother will stop feeding them and they are thrown unwillingly into the world of independence. This is where young leopards must remain discreet avoiding the larger territorial animals and still managing to hunt and defend prey. Females typically stay in the area, eventually taking a portion of or adjacent territory to their mother. Males however will hang around in the area for a year or two before venturing way out to find a territory elsewhere. During this period their movements are fairly nomadic.
They reach maturity at the approximate age of five or six. At this stage they are big enough to start challenging other males for territory. This is important as it disperses gene pools and limits incestuous breeding. This is when male leopards truly inspire a sense of awe. They are seemingly massive with muscles that bulge in every movement. I recall a night early in 2011 when we came across the Tugwaan male crouched and poised for an unsuspecting male impala that was walking directly towards him. When the impala was about to trip over his hidden form in the long grass he launched himself at its throat. It happened so quickly but he did not grip the jugular for very long at all leaving us with the assumption that he had broken its neck on impact. Raw power.
If a male is successful they will hold that territory for another six to eight years. At age 12 to 14 their muscles, tendons and joints weaken and they find their bodies just not as capable as they once were. It is at this point that younger males looking to gain territory will either kill them or chase them out. Making what was once a seemingly unchallengeable leopard disappear into the unknown. Either they are killed in the fight or they will adopt a nomadic behaviour making it difficult to track their movements until one day we just stop seeing them.
Brutal and against the odds is a male leopards life – but the impact it has is vast. It is important for them to effectively hold territory during their reign in order to insure the success of their offspring.
I brought the leopards life cycle to attention in order to discuss a specific territory held over the years along the Sand River at Londolozi. It is an ideal territory with the perfect riverine habitat and an abundance of females situated along its banks.
When I arrived at Londolozi in 2010 it was held by the mighty Camp Pan male! He was born in late 2000 quite close to Singita camp to the west. By 2007 he had matured into a magnificent animal and moved east towards Londolozi where he started to patrol north and south of the Sand River for a stretch of about five kilometres. As he matured to his prime at nine years of age (2009) he held a gigantic territory on both sides of the river for a stretch of about eight kilometres.
During 2009 and 2010 the Marthly male, another impressive and well known leopard, started to drift south into the northern edges of the Camp Pan Male’s territory. The Marthly male was believed to be born during 2001 making him a year more spritely than the Camp Pan male at this point (2009).
With the Camp Pan male getting a little older and having such a large territory, the progression of the Marthly Male’s territory in 2011 drifted south towards the Sand River. The Camp Pan male seemingly subsided due to the large territory being difficult to hold as he got older. There was a stale mate with one male patrolling the northern bank (Marthly male) and the other on the southern bank (Camp Pan male).
As the Camp Pan male aged he seemed to consistently give a yard to the Marthly male where as his territory got smaller and smaller and also drifted a little south. In 2013 we ended up with The Marthly male on both sides of the River having seemed to have overthrown the Camp Pan male.
This was short lived what with the Marthly Male now being about 13 years old. He received intense pressure from the Gowrie male forcing him to stay out of the North. The Marthly Male now being about 14 years old (2015) was an old leopard. He has not been seen in a while and suspected dead as a result of the pressure for this territory between 4:4, Gowrie, and the Anderson Male.
The Gowrie male who had drifted in from the north seemed poised to be the next successor however about three months ago we noted his absence. We have no confirmation as to where this animal is. Likely scenarios are that this animal was chased off by a large male perhaps the Anderson Male or he may have been injured or killed in competition with any one of the competitive predators.
Since the Gowrie Male’s disappearance though the Robson’s 4:4 Male has seized the opportunity and has been sighted in what was once the Marthly Male’s territory. Both North and South of the Sand River. It is uncertain as to who will hold this territory from now on but it certainly has been an interesting succession.
Since 2010 this territory has been held by three different leopards and now potentially a fourth. This supports the theory that the Sand River is an ideal territory but the high turnover rate has lead to a bit of instability making it difficult for the females to successfully raise their litters. Hopefully a successful gene will come along soon to maintain the balance. However either which way it has certainly given me a new respect for the trials and tribulations of male leopard domination.
Original blog article re-published with special permission from Londolozi Game Reserve.