I think that it is safe to say now, that after almost seven weeks without a single sign of our beloved Marula female leopard, that sadly, she is no more. For the past month and a half, there has been constant speculation as to her whereabouts, and what could possibly have caused her to seemingly abandon her two ten-month old cubs, but none of us wanted to utter the dreaded words that she may in fact no longer be with us. My initial thoughts after the first few days without any sightings of her were that she had simply been using the windy August conditions to hunt successfully, doing so deep in the large wild areas that exist in the Timbavati and hence we weren’t able to find any sign of her. However, after two weeks of no sign of her, I knew deep down that this was not good. Other guides thought that maybe she had come back into estrus and had headed off to the west in search of a male to mate with, but even such searches would only last several days at most. Could something have really happened to her? 

A couple of weeks back, some excitement grew within the guiding fraternity of the Timbavati when word came through from the neighbouring Klaserie that their guides had seen a very relaxed female leopard which they believed to be Marula. But upon receiving photographic evidence, it turned out to have been another of our resident leopardesses, Nthombi. This seemed to be the last bit of hope that got shattered and following on from this news, we all started to accept the fact that one of our starlets was indeed dead. 
Exactly what happened to her will forever remain a mystery, but it is a cat-eat-cat world out there, and my personal suspicions are that Marula likely met her end in the powerful jaws of the remaining Zebenine lioness. Both these mothers were well familiar with one another having spent years within overlapping territories, but after losing her sister, the Zebenine lioness set up camp around the Zebenine Riverbed to the west of Tanda Tula Safari Camp. This is the very same area that Marula had made her territorial core. It would have been impossible for these cats to have avoided one another during this time, and although far more attuned to her environment than we could ever imagine, I suspect that one day (or night), Marula accidentally stumbled upon these lions and the rest is history. Of course, there are a number of other potential scenarios involving snakes, hyenas, illness and injury, but as lions have a habit of killing any competition that they can sink their claws and teeth into, the odds are great that this was how things unfolded.

Marula female

Marula with a kill

With Marula gone, we now have a number of questions that need answering. Most importantly, what will happen to her two young offspring that have been tossed headfirst into the proverbial deep end? In this area, most young leopards are ready for independence from around 16 to 18 months old; the youngest leopard I have seen venture off on his own was Mondzweni – Nthombi’s third son – who was a little over 13 months old when his mom left him. He struggled to find his feet, but eventually managed to succeed. Marula’s son and daughter were only ten months old when she disappeared, and far from ready to face the big bad bush on their own. However, as they approach their first birthday within the next two or three weeks, both youngsters are still around, and based on the evidence of their general appearance, they are not merely making ends meet, but in actual fact, they were both looking in great condition when they were found. This first period was always going to be the most difficult for them as inexperienced hunters, but their natural instincts have been forced to be honed in on at a far more rapid pace than would normally be required, and both appear to have passed the test. They are far from making it out the woods, but these initial steps do suggest that both have what it takes to make it as young leopards. 

Marula cubs

The next question becomes one of figuring out what happens to this vacant piece of prime leopard territory? Nature has a way of quickly filling any voids that arise, and there is no doubt that within the next year the Nhlaralumi and Zebenine Riverbeds in the central Timbavati will have a new resident leopardess patrolling their banks. Who exactly it will be is far more difficult to answer. The chances of Marula’s daughter taking over are relatively low, as she is still at least two years away from being able to command a territory, and I am sure that there will be some other feline competition vying for this area. We may find that the territorial leopards surrounding Marula’s old territory might each take a piece of her territory by simply expanding their own ranges; Cleo may move in from the west, Nthombi from the north (we already saw her a few days ago walking much closer to Tanda Tula Safari Camp than she normally does), and possibly even Nyeleti from the east. Nyeleti’s daughter, N’weti, is also approaching an age where she will have to start seeking her own bit of land away from mom’s territory, and she could well move in to take over this land if her exploratory forays reveal a distinct lack of a dominant female presence. Maybe nature will surprise us, and a brand-new leopard could move into the area; we just do not know!

As always, this is the beauty of living in an open system - one just never knows what to expect, but what we can be sure of is that nature will make a plan in her own time. While we will miss Marula’s presence, and feel a slight hollowness driving around her old haunts knowing that we won’t fortuitously bump into her resting high up in the bows of her namesake, it is exciting to wait and see what surprises the future will bring for the leopards of this part of the Greater Kruger, especially those two special ones that bear Marula’s genetic traits.

Cleo leopard

N'weti leopard

Nyeleti leopard


Tanda Tula Tanda Tula Tanda Tula