A curious case of cat adoption

As humans, we often find ourselves anthropomorphising situations.  And yes, that is a very big word to start the morning off with, but it is a word that is floated around quite often when we begin attributing human characteristics or behaviours to animals.

Coming from a more scientific background, I have learnt to interpret animal behaviours with far less human emotion and analyse situations in relation to how any behaviour exhibited by animals will benefit the survival of themselves, their offspring, and extended families.  Yet, as the wilds of the Timbavaticontinuously show us, there are always going to be exceptions that pop up from time to time.

A few weeks ago, Luke and his guests enjoyed an interesting sighting of Nthombi leopardess arriving to fetch her son, Hlangana, from where he had been feeding on an impala kill on the banks of the Nhlaralumi riverbed.  The lead up to the sighting had been a bit odd, as Hlangana and Marula’s son were both feeding on the same kill, and it wasn’t exactly clear who had made the kill.  Although the likely owner was Hlangana, it didn’t make any sense that he would tolerate a smaller male leopard coming to share in his spoils.  On one day, the males did have a go at one another and Marula’s son got knocked out the tree housing the kill, but it wasn’t an overtly aggressive encounter; or at least not as aggressive as I would have thought it would be.

Following on from this, when Nthombi came to collect Hlangana, they didn’t leave alone.  Instead of parting company with the unrelated leopards, Marula’s son walked off with the duo and Luke’s comment was that although there was some growling and snarling from Nthombi, there was an equal amount of more friendly interactions between the boys.  I wasn’t at the sighting, and being naturally envious of the whole scene, I didn’t ask too many questions and wrote it off as a once off event.

But then, a couple of weeks back after a rainy couple of days, the ground eventually dried enough for us to be able to drive off road to go and see who was responsible for the impala kill hanging in the tree about a hundred metres off the road.  The first guide arriving saw two leopards; a female and a young male.  Nthombi was her instantly recognisable self, but the guide had to have a second glance to realise that the young male feeding on the kill up in the tree with her was not her son Hlangana, but rather Marula’s unrelated son!

I was making my way towards the sighting when the young male leopard foolishly dropped the kill to the delight of the patient hyenas waiting below, and the leopards descended the tree.  We arrived to find Nthombi lying down watching the hyena eating her kill, whilst Marula’s son sat about 30m away.  After a few minutes, he got up and walked over towards Nthombi and went and lay next to her.  She growled at him, but in no more an aggressive manner than she would growl at her own son who had just lost their kill.

Tanda Tula - Nthombi watching a hyena

When Nthombi got up to walk off, Marula’s son followed her and would go up and rub against her in the very same way that he would go and rub up against his mother.  Were I an unknowing observer, I would not have questioned that this relationship was clearly one of mother and son.  Fearing that they might disappear into an area that the other guides couldn’t follow (well, that and the fact that Forman had radioed to say that he had some wild dogs running around Tanda Tula Safari Camp,)I made space for them to come in and have a look, and a little while later, Hlangana male appeared on the scene, and all three leopards once more moved off together, eventually coming to settle on the banks of the Nhlaralumi as if this was the most normal thing possible.

Tanda Tula - Nthombi and Marula's son resting

Tanda Tula - Nthombi and Marula's son resting

In all of my years of guiding, I have never seen this sort of association between unrelated leopards, but upon asking around, was told that a similar set of behaviours was seen around Tanda Tula Safari Campin 2015/6 when another one of Marula’s male offspring started associating with Rockfig Jnr and a very young Nyeleti.  Yet in neither case do I have an answer for why this would happen.  Nthombi derives no benefit from having this unrelated leopard sharing her kills, and if anything, she and Hlangana are negatively affected by the fact that by sharing with him, both of them will be getting less food than they otherwise would.

It would not be a difficult task to chase this smaller male away, as I would imagine that even a small amount of serious aggression would cause him to move off.  On the risk-reward scale of things, he has far more to lose if he gets involved in a serious fight than he has to gain by getting a little bit of food (bearing in mind that he is now a relatively competent hunter).  Perhaps it is this risk-reward scale that could account for Nthombi’s acceptance of this young male.  Although he is a young leopard, he is still a leopard capable of defending himself if need be, and if he retaliates to her aggression, she could end up being hurt.  At the end of the day, she is only losing out on some food, and it’s a small price to pay to avoid a serious fight.

As solitary cats, encounters between rival leopards are rare, and they will do their best to avoid one another through scent-marking and sticking to their territories.  Where overlaps occur, neighbouring leopards tend to use these areas at different times (being able to smell if the neighbour is in that part of the territory or not), and thus limit encounters further.  If they do come across one other in such situations, there will be some truly aggressive behaviour, with a good deal of growling and vocalisations.  This kind of behaviour from one individual will trigger either an equally aggressive response, or if there is a chance of losing the fight, perhaps even a submissive reaction.  But in both instances, there is a reaction.  I can only imagine the circumstances surrounding Marula’s son’s first meeting with Nthombi, but suspect that due to his age and size, there was not much aggression about it, and perhaps his approach was a cautious and curious one.  I can only speculate that in so doing, he failed to trigger an aggressive reaction from Nthombi due to her recognition of the fact that he meant no harm.

However, that is pure speculation from a more emotion-free behaviouralist approach to interpreting the situation.  Perhaps I am wrong, and maybe there was some deeper understanding in Nthombi’s behaviour due to her hormones still being in the “mothering mode”, and that she still “felt” a responsibility to look after this young (younger than Hlangana at least) leopard?

The one situation that would confirm how seriously she takes these responsibilities would be whether or not she would ever make a dedicated trip to go and find Marula’s son to bring him back to a kill of hers.  Only time will tell if this ever happens again, or if indeed what we witnessed were isolated instances.  I’m sure that it won’t be long before the inhabitants of this part of the Greater Krugergive us another incredible surprise!

Until next time


Tanda Tula - Marula's son with Nthombi leopard

Tanda Tula - Nthombi and Marula's son on the move