August 2021

A Tale of two males


A Tale of two males

How often after watching a wildlife documentary, have you stopped to think about how many months or even years it may have taken to put together a storyline? To catch every moment and bring to life the ongoing tale of what has been observed?

In guiding, we may not be filming a documentary, however hours spent in the bush allow us to observe an array of different species and piece together their life story as it transpires, helping to give us a deeper understanding of the animal and allowing us to form our own connections. 

Having guided in different parts of the Sabi Sand game reserve over the past seven years and having had an innate love for those of the Panthera species (lions and leopards), this has given me the opportunity to follow the lives of a few individuals of whom I have grown very fond - namely the Thamba male leopard and Hosana male leopard.

Let’s start with the Hosana male leopard. He was born in the last litter to a female named Karula who was very well known for being an extremely successful mother, bringing almost every one of her litters up to adulthood during her lifespan. I began viewing Hosana when
he was a few months old, still under the care of his mother, being raised alongside his littermate and sister Xongile female. The two of them were unfortunately left to fend for themselves around the age of a year and a half when their mother Karula unexpectedly disappeared, which became an interesting time in terms of the leopard dynamics in the northern Sabi Sand. 

Hosana male being the confident and outgoing male that he is had no trouble in looking after himself, however the same could not be said for his sister who, not long after, also disappeared and was never seen again. I was very glad to have spent a few hours with her in the days before her disappearance.

Around a similar time, a few months after Hosana male was born, so too was the Thamba male who was the son of a female named Thandi, the first daughter of Karula (Hosana’s mother) - and I am hoping I haven’t lost you with the family tree confusion here!

Having the opportunity to view leopard cubs is probably one of the most special things one can ever experience and I will never forget the first time I viewed Thamba male and his littermate - they were tiny! Thandi female had caught three impalas during a storm the previous night with two kills hoisted and one on the ground, she brought her two little cubs to feed for the first time and it was magical.

In the wild it is very difficult to raise cubs until adulthood and unfortunately leopards have a very high mortality rate. This was the case for Thamba male’s littermate who was found to be killed by the Styx Pride who, at the time, were feeding on a waterbuck. We assume Thandi and the cubs moved in to investigate the smell and were caught unaware of the lions. Thankfully Thandi and Thamba both got away, although at a huge loss of one family member.

As the months went on, Thandi began moving into Karula’s territory, a space left open by her late mother which sparked the interactions between Hosana male and Thamba male as youngsters. More frequently we would find Thandi on a kill with both Thamba and Hosana and it almost seemed as if Thandi began to adopt Hosana male as her own (who technically was her little brother).

The two males grew bigger and bigger and were forming quite distinctive characteristics. Hosana male was always more confident, the naughty one who never took any nonsense. Thamba male on the other hand, had more of a passive nature about him, often feeling the upper paw dealt by his slightly older half-brother. 

Before moving to Singita, the time I spent with these two males was often confrontational and I began to notice Thamba male moving further and further away from his mother and away from the constant hassle given by Hosana male. Being a guide, and I guess being human, you tend to naturally form an emotional connection with these animals (as wild as they may be), and it’s one of those sad things knowing that a young male will always move away from his natal territory, often never to be seen by you again.

This was until I became a guide at Singita, to the west of the area I previously worked and viewed these two males. I had been guiding for a few months already when I heard on the radio that one of the other guides had found a new leopard, north of the Sand River. If we aren’t familiar with a leopard, guides often share images to try and identify the individual - this helps us to be able to log the correct information in our ongoing Panthera research. I looked at the image and knew straight away, it was Thamba male! I couldn’t contain my excitement and all the thoughts began to come to mind, “Will he become territorial here?” “Will he end up mating with the Schotia female?” “What if he gets killed by the Nyeleti male?” “Yay! A leopard I know!” ... the thoughts went on and on.

Three years later and after coming into contact with a number of other male leopards as well as mating with a few females, Thamba has successfully taken over a large portion of Singita, south of the Sand River and continues to get bigger and stronger than ever before, even chasing the Nyeleti male away from a carcass. One of my fondest memories of Thamba male growing up here on Singita was listening to him vocalise for the first time as a territorial male. I couldn’t help feeling proud of this young male who I had seen on so many occasions as the “weaker” male against Hosana, he was the underdog who was now coming out on top!

Young Thamba male (image by Chene Wales-Baillie)
Thamba male as an adult (image by Ross Couper)

My luck in seeing these two males again wasn’t over, when Hosana male too began moving west from his natal area and onto the northern parts of Singita, now encompassing the entirety of the property north of the Sand River as his territory.

Hosana male too has mated with a number of different females over the past few years and we also believe him to be the father of a cub given birth to by the Nkangala female.

In writing this journal, I ended up going through a number of old photos and videos bringing up many memories of my time spent with these two incredible male leopards. I find it amazing to be able to compare images of them as young males to them now being fully grown, territorial males who only grow from strength to strength each day. As I say, it’s hard not to form an emotional attachment to these wild animals, however having the opportunity to observe them grow and live out the lives of a once scarcely viewed animal and to be able to understand where their lives have taken them over the last number of years has been truly invigorating and something, I have formed a great passion for.

Both males are now coming into their prime years as dominant male leopards and as they do, I only hope to continue watching the storyline of their lives ,and being able to share this ongoing and magnificent real life ‘documentary’ whilst viewing them with my guests.