September 2023

Young male leopard dynamics of Singita Kruger National Park

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Young male leopard dynamics of Singita Kruger National Park

Over the past few months there has been a shift in the male leopard population dynamics here at Singita Lebombo and Sweni Lodges in the Kruger National Park. The main changes that have happened revolve around the “disappearance” of the two Dumbana young male leopards from the concession.

This development prompted me to try, as best I can, to write and explain this natural migration of young male leopards from their maternal ranges when they reach a certain age and adopt a nomadic life for a few years before settling down in an area as a territorial male once they reach maturity.

The Dumbana female leopard birthed a litter of three cubs near the end of January 2021. As is the norm with most large wild cats, it is rare that all cubs born will reach adulthood. Leopard cubs only have a 37% survival rate in the wild. Considering the above statistic, Dumbana did well to only lose one of her youngsters to nature, a female, who vanished pretty soon after she started moving her cubs between kills. The remaining two cubs were both males, and mom did a stellar job of raising them to independence.

On the 28th October 2022 Dumbana female leopard came into season, and over the next few days she mated with both the Lebombo male and the Monzo male leopards, who have overlapping areas in their respective territories that are constantly being disputed.

Mature and skilled female leopards will often instinctively mate with multiple males, to try and increase the survival rates of their litters. It is done to try and convince all males that have covered the female, into believing her offspring are their own, and subsequently will continue their own genetic lineage. The mating process that is adopted will, believing the cubs are their own, prevent the males that find the cubs from killing them, which will usually be done to eliminate a competitor’s gene pool, and also to force the female back into oestrous.

Currently we have at least five large territorial male leopards that utilize the concession here at Singita: Lebombo male in the south, Monzo male in the south and central west, Pelajambu male in the central and north-western areas, Mbiri Mbiri from the far north-east, and a large nervous male that we are recently seeing more of in the north western regions of the concession. This meant that there was hardly a minute that the young males were not running the gauntlet, trying to avoid confrontations with much larger streetwise males, by staying as submissive and inconspicuous as possible.

In July 2023 this pressure became too much for the male we had called Dumbana 1:1 young male. ( 1:1 refers to his unique spot pattern above the upper whisker line and is a method we use in the safari industry to identify individual leopards.) He left the concession early in the month.

From November 2022 the Dumbana female left her two sons to fend for themselves while she prepared for a new litter to be born. No longer was she leading them to kills, and no longer did she tolerate their presence when she encountered them while patrolling her territory.

Both males initially remained in their maternal territory, before starting to venture further away from their core activity areas that they were accustomed to over the first two years of their lives with mom. The brothers would, on occasion, be seen feeding together on kills, and provided us guides and guests with hundreds of hours of sightings over the course of the next few months.

As the youngsters continued growing, their testosterone levels would have slowly increased, and this would have been detected by the territorial mature males through who’s territories they passed whilst eking out their respective independent survival in the wild.

After an absence of about a month from Singita, I received word from my safari network that a leopard had been spotted and photographed by an acquaintance in a private reserve neighbouring the Kruger National Park. The photograph was sent to me to identify, and it took all of a second to recognise that it was the same animal that had started his nomadic journey a month earlier. A straight line distance measurement of 59km between the last sighting we had of him here, and where he was photographed again, showing just how far these young males venture while nomads. Subsequent to this, Dumbana 1:1 again seemed to vanish, but, on the 28th of September I got sent his photograph by a different guide, this time a further 30km further north-west of his previous confirmed position.

Dumbana 3:3 male stayed on the concession for a few more months and we made the most of spending as much time with him out on safari, aware that he too would soon need to leave his mother’s territory. On the 13th of September he was seen for the last time, moving west in the central areas of the concession. The relentless pressure of running away from the big males became too much, and he seemed to take the same route as his brother had, months before.

Out of the blue, on the 23rd of September, a friend sent me a photograph that he wanted confirmation on, and, lo and behold, it was Dumbana 3:3 male, that had almost mirrored his brothers journey from months back. (We can only assume that they both followed the N’wanetsi straight west for the first 20 km of their journey before reaching the Timbavati River and continuing further west from there). He was photographed 65km from his last position at Singita, and he seemed to already be starting to display territorial tendencies by actively scent marking and following the trail of another male leopard seen by the guide earlier on his safari.

Although a temporary loss to the guides at Singita Kruger National park who watched these two young males growing up, their dispersal is essential to maintain leopard genetic diversity in the wild, by ensuring they do not mate with any female relatives that may have set up territories closer to their birthing home. We can only hope they get to spread their genes in about a year or twos time, when they will reach full sexual maturity and start challenging for a territory of their own to defend.

In the interim, we wait with baited breath for both the Dumbana female and Nhlanguleni female leopards to give birth within the next few months, as both were seen to be mating over the past two months. The cycle, should male cubs be born, will then get repeated the same way it has since time began.

Rudi Hulshof
By Rudi Hulshof
Field Guide