Whilst out and about searching for, but failing to find some leopards to film for Tanda Tula’s world of virtual “Sofa Safaris”, it got me thinking about the fact that there are so many different leopards making use of our area (and trust me, I have been seeing their tracks everywhere), how long is it possible to actually drive around without simply bumping into one?
At the start of this year, during a quiet period (on the guest-front) in the Timbavati,I was bumping into leopards on an almost daily basis – and that was in the middle of summer when game is supposed to be more difficult to find. As we keep on with our search you may hear us talking about the different individuals that we are on the lookout for in whichever part of the reserve we may be driving in and you may be none-the-wiser as to who-is- who in the leopard family tree. Some may be new to the wildlife of the Timbavati, or simply just love learning about the big cats, so we thought that we would do a quick blog post outlining some of the key players in the leopard population of the central Timbavati. One point to make though, is that just because these animals have names, it in no way makes them any less wild – remember that the animals themselves have no idea what names we have given them (some would probably be embarrassed of them if they did!).
As leopards are territorial animals, and each uniquely spotted, they become one of the simpler species to identify and follow over the course of their lifetimes. Naming them doesn’t mean that we see them daily, and we can go for weeks between sightings of certain leopards – some are seen regularly, and others we see nothing more than tracks and signs of their presence in the area – these ones don’t even have names.
The leopards listed in this blog are by no means a complete account of all the leopards that we see in the area; I have seen and photographed more than 25 individuals over the past two years alone. Tanda Tula Safari Camplies deep within the unfenced Greater KrugerPark, and as a result of this open system, there is regular movement of leopards into, and out of our concession with new faces showing up with some degree of regularity. But true to their solitary and territorial ways, these are presently some of the leopards that are most likely to fill your viewfinders when out on safari with us – be it virtually or in person!
We will begin with the female leopards of the area – the petite, powerful princesses of the thickets. As female leopards have much smaller, gender-exclusive territorial cores than the males, there are typically always going to be more females in an area than males. “Smaller” doesn’t mean small, and most of our females have territorial ranges of 20-25km2 (around 5,000 acres), with their central core being around half of that area. Although their territorial margins overlap with their neighbours, they will not tolerate female leopards within the core of that range. It is typically in this core area that the female leopards will be raising their young, and they do spend much of their adult lives with at least one dependant youngster reliant on mother for food. Once the “cub” is old enough to fend for itself, the bond breaks, the leopardess comes into estrus and if all goes well, three and a half months later, she will have another litter of cubs to raise.
Nthombi, meaning “little girl” is affectionately referred to as our granny leopard of the central Timbavati, and at the ripe old age of 15, it is quite remarkable that she presently has a litter of two seven-week old cubs in hiding within our concession. She is the most habituated and relaxed leopard in the reserve, and this demeanour invariably passes on to her offspring. She has successfully raised six young males to independence, and we are hoping like mad that she can raise at least one daughter to replace her as the curtain must surely be falling on her tenure as one of the dominant leopardesses of the area.
Meaning “star”, Nyeleti is a young mother leopard of a long lineage of famous leopards at Tanda Tula. Only turning six years old this year, Nyeleti has already successfully raised one daughter and is presently doing a good job with a four-month-old cub at the moment. Although she hasn’t got the pale eyes of her mother (Rockfig Jnr) or grandmother (Rockfig), it is her eyes that allow us to easily identify her – as a youngster, she got a severe injury on her head (it looked like a bit mark), and it is suspected that when it healed, it caused her to gain an unmistakable droopy right eyelid.
Nyeleti’s first daughter, N’weti (“moon”) has ended up inheriting a portion of Nyeleti’s old territory in the north-eastern corner of our concession. This has pushed Nyeleti into a more central region. Approaching an age of two-and-a-half, N’weti has still not reached sexual maturity, and will only have cubs in a couple of years’ time. Unlike her mom, she has got the pale eyes so synonymous with her family line.
The stunning blue-eyed girl that melts the heart of anyone who gets to look into her eyes. Named after the “hide” that she used to sit in as a youngster, she now lives up to her name by staying out of view for weeks at a time in the eastern parts of our concession. She is as habituated as any other leopard in the area but resides in one of the least traversed areas of the reserve, which is characterised by large blocks of land and the dense banks of the Machaton Riverbed that flow through the core of her range. She has been a good mother in her 11 years, but sadly all of her youngsters, including her last relaxed daughter, Nkaya, have moved out of the area. We do suspect that she may have another litter of cubs, and hence her absence from our prying eyes over the past several weeks.
Only time will tell if this 18-month old little girl will stay in the area to fill the rather large shoes that her mother left. Orphaned at only ten months old, both Marula Jnr and her brother defied the odds and survived the most trying period of their young lives and pulled through. She is not quite as relaxed as her mother, but she has become considerably more confident in the past couple of months and signs are that if she stays around, she will become a leopard that we will get to enjoy for many years to come.
Despite the terrible name, Cleo is a wonderful cat, and one that we all wish we saw more frequently. This leopard primarily resides within the neighbouring Klaserie. She ventures only into the western portions of our concession, and as of last week, she did so with her young son – a sub-adult of a little less than a year old. It has been surprising that she hasn’t taken more advantage of Marula’s death to incorporate more of the area around the Zebenine Riverbed into her own territory.
The above leopards make up the bulk of our leopard viewing in the central regions, but there are a couple of other females that are seen from time to time; Sunset female is a stunning cat who resides in the far south-west, and beyond her, Savannah female and her cubs occupy a territory at the extreme western edge of our concession. In addition, a couple of other unnamed, shy and seldom seen females are found occasionally within the central part of our concession.
When it comes to the male leopards it seems that more frequently, the shier leopards that move into the area tend to be young males, they arrive from the surrounding wilderness areas of the Kruger or southern Timbavati. When young males start approaching sexual maturity (at 3-4 years old), their fathers usually put pressure on them to leave the area, and they adopt a nomadic lifestyle, avoiding the myriad of established territorial males and staying out of harm’s way until such time as they are big enough to eventually challenge such a male for his territory. These territories vary in size from 35-80km2 (8,000-20,000 acres), and most extend beyond the borders of Tanda Tula’s concession so getting a better estimate of their sizes is difficult. It is not just their territories that are twice the size of the females, but it is also their actual body size – male leopards are almost double the weight of the females and laying eyes on a big mature male is a sight not easily forgotten. Due to the fact that most males originate from outside of the area, it does mean that they seldom grew up in the presence of vehicles, and as a result, are not nearly as habituated as the females of the area.
The unseen king of the northern part of our concession. We see this impressive male only occasionally, but the presence of his tracks tells us that he frequents the area far more than we realise. Although he was quite shy when he started moving around the area, he is now a very viewable leopard and has fathered both Marula and Nthombi’s cubs.
Unmistakable with his skew lower canine (hence his name), this large male is a bit of an unknown entity of late. After months of no sign of him (and new males moving into his old territory), he suddenly pitched up again in the heart of his territory a couple of months back before disappearing again. Despite being born in another area, he has grown exceptionally confident around the vehicles and is as relaxed in our presence as any of our females.
One of the males that moved into Madzinyo’s territory was a male that arrived from over 50km away; from a concession further south in the Kruger Park. He was so comfortable with vehicles when he arrived that we knew he had come from an area with vehicle activity, and a little bit of investigating not only got us our answer, but also his name and history. Named after a termite mound (he had a habit of sleeping on them), Xidulu is a male still coming into his prime, and despite only turning five years old at the end of this year, he had seemed to have established himself as a dominant male in a prime area of the Timbavati until Madzinyo’s return. Time will tell if he continues to roam within our concession, but with another larger skittish male seemingly vying for the same chunk of land, it might not be so easy for Xidulu to hang on here.
Named after the properties over which he dominates, this massive-but-shy male is a hit and miss kind of leopard. He is unmistakable with his torn upper lip which exposes his upper incisors, but his levels of confidence seem to come and go depending upon how often he is seen; as it tends to be less often than we would like, we see more of his backside than we do of his face. Still, he has definitely gotten more relaxed over the past two years.
For now, Marula’s son, Xisiwana (“orphan”) is still making his home around Tanda Tula Safari Camp, and at only 18 months old, it will be some time before he is pressured out of the area. He is fortunately a relatively relaxed young leopard and just like his sister, surprised us all by surviving following the death of his mother. He would hunt smaller mammals (hares and squirrels), but as he grew in experience, so too did his diet. Within the next couple of years, we can expect that he will move off in search of his own territory and take some of his mother’s legacy with him.
As Nthombi’s last successfully raised offspring, Hlangana (“come together”, a reference to the riverbed confluence where he was born in June 2018) faces a very similar fate as Xisiwana. Doing well as an independent young leopard within his mother’s territory, he will spend as much time within the area he is familiar with as possible before his father, the Tamboti male chases him out. One thing he has picked up since becoming independent is a little bit of an attitude, but this is not uncommon with newly independent male leopards – just like humans!
Speaking of legacies, Ntsongwaan male (simply meaning “boy”) is Nthombi’s second son and has established himself as the male with the largest territory within (and well beyond) our concession. Just like his mother, this young male is completely unphased by vehicles, an expert hunter, and a complete package as far as leopards go. At just over eight years old, he is also just reaching his prime, and if all cards fall in his favour, he could continue to rule the south-western sections of our concession for at least another two or three years.
As with the female leopards, we have a couple of other unnamed and unknown young males that sometimes only get seen once; others stay for a couple of months, but as is their nature, as quickly as they arrive, they can disappear. Yet that is once again the beauty of the fact that we work and operate within an open system, and you just never know what – or who – you are going to see!
So be sure to keep a lookout on our various social media channels to see just which of these cats above are going to be the ones to break our Sofa Safari leopard drought this week!
Until next time