Cyberdiary – 27 March 2012

Cape Hunting Dog & Elephant, by Grant Roodt

Cape Hunting Dog & Elephant, by Grant Roodt

It’s practically ‘raining cats and dogs’ at MalaMala at the moment. This past week was good to us, treating us to some fantastic encounters with leopards, cheetah and Cape Hunting Dogs. The lions were a little quieter, but the elephants and buffalo came out in their numbers to balance the predators.

We observed the leopard dynamics with great interest again. Two young cubs enjoy a rite of passage with their first meaty meal  and another youngster shows signs of establishing his territory on MalaMala. And the revival of the flame between two of our more established ‘love cats’ could well lead to even more mini-spots in our space.

Aquavison – author of the exceptional ‘It’s All About the Wildlife” series – is currently at MalaMala in an effort to capture some of its animal magic on film. We wait with much excitement to see what they find.

For the number crunchers:

  • Number of lion sightings: 3
  • Number of leopard sightings: 18
  • Number of cheetah sightings: 3
  • Number of wild dog sightings: 2
  • Number of elephant sightings: 57
  • Number of buffalo sightings: 29

*Rhino sightings currently unavailable.

Don’t forget that you can always refer to the Wildlife Sightings Maps for a more detailed look at what was seen where.

Happy virtual safari folks!

Matshipiri Female Leopard and cubs

On the morning of the 18th we were treated to a sighting of the Matshipiri female leopard and her two beautiful cubs. Now close to five months old, the cubs are brimming with confidence and continue to charm us with their youthful exuberance. On the last occasion when we found this trio, the mother had stashed a duiker kill in the Hogvaal Donga, and we had an excellent sighting when some hyenas taunted the leopards and tried their best to steal some scraps of their hard-earned meal.

On this occasion we had an inkling that we would be in for another spectacle as The Matshiphiri Female had blood stains on her face. Our suspicions were confirmed shortly thereafter when she commenced a purposeful march, no doubt leading her cubs to a destination of great importance. One would think that this would be a simple enough task, but plenty of patience is required when the two dependent fur balls manage a slow pace at best, and need regular wrestle breaks!

After a long time, including a detour, we were certain that the final destination was upon us. We found ourselves at a large termite mound with a magnificent Brown Ivory Tree (berchemia discolour) growing from the mound. The Matshipiri Female scaled the tree immediately, and her cubs finaly discovered the duiker treat in store for them. This was to be their first taste of meat – a coming of age, if you will. They played with the carcass for a short while beginning to feed, taking advantage of the openings in the hide which their mother had made for them. We have now established that one of the cubs is a male and the other a female. The male cub, in particular, showed aggression toward the dead antelope, grabbing it by the throat in an instinctive killing action.

Matshipiri Female Leopard and Cub, by Gary Hill

Matshipiri Female Leopard and Cub, by Gary Hill

The leopard trio stayed with the kill for the next two days. It was so entertaining to watch as the cubs played around the termite mound, summiting its steep slopes and showing off their remarkable climbing skills in the overhanging tree. We wait in anticipation to see this family again. The experienced mother is looking after her cubs extremely well during this difficult and vulnerable phase of their lives. Statistically, only 50% of leopard cubs survive to adulthood. Their grandfather was none other than the mighty Rock Drift male leopard (otherwise known as Tjololo), and they are certainly doing him proud.

The Airstrip Male and Tamboti Female leopards

Over the course of the week we were to witness the re-ignited romance between this beautiful couple. On the 21st March, the unmistakable sound of mating leopards caught the attention of an alert ranger who was passing by (during the mating process, the male emits a resounding growl which is ritually repeated with every copulation). This audio is very useful in locating leopards, especially since they will mate every ten minutes during the seven day period that the female remains in estrus. On this occasion the sounds from The Airstrip Male enabled us to find the elusive cats in fairly dense thicket.

As evening approached, the leopards emerged onto the open plains of Piccadilly Triangle. The Tamboti Female was showing an interest in the impala nearby, and we got to watch her hunting – albeit unsuccessfully.

The real action began the following day! We relocated the pair at Stwise Koppies. They moved about this area for the duration of the morning, and came to rest in a picturesque gully system which is almost impossible to navigate.

The Tamboti Female had by now developed a considerable appetite, and was even willing to leave her mate when a chance to hunt impala presented itself. This time round she executed her skills to perfection as she brought down an adult female impala. As she began to feed we watched in anticipation as The Airstrip Male moved in. Male leopards will often steal a female’s kill, but thankfully this time there was more than enough to go round. They both fed happily until the male carried the carcass to safety into the branches of a tall tree. We enjoyed watching the leopards taking turns to feed in the tree until the meal was finished the following night.

Tamboti Female Leopard with Kill, by Gary Hill

Tamboti Female Leopard with Kill, by Gary Hill

Tamboti Female Leopard Descends, by Gary Hill

Tamboti Female Leopard Descends, by Gary Hill

Tamboti Female Leopard & Airstrip Male Leopard feed, by Gary Hill

Tamboti Female Leopard & Airstrip Male Leopard feed, by Gary Hill

Finding them the following day resulted in a total of 4 consecutive days of great leopard viewing. What a treat for all to witness this rare and special interaction.

The first time that this pair was seen mating was in April 2011, and they have been together a few times subsequently. The Tamboti Female is yet to have her first litter, although she did show signs of lactation for a brief period late last year. The Airstrip Male, too, is waiting to become a father in a bid to perpetuate his bloodline. Let’s hope that this particular occasion will present the winning formula, and that we can expect some new arrivals in 90-100 days time.

Young male leopards earning their spots

There were some interesting developments in the leopard dynamics on MalaMala this week.

It was late evening on the 20th when we heard the distant audio of a male leopard roaring. En-route to try and find the source, we could hear another leopard calling in the same area. After some intensive searching, we found a young male leopard opposite Rattray’s Camp. It was the same leopard that we have been seeing around West Street Bridge since April 2011.

We were only with this male for a short while before another young male arrived on the scene. This leopard is quite nervous, and is often found around the Tamboti Thickets. Keeping a safe distance apart, the youngsters sized each other up. The snarling, growling and hissing was intense. We were certain a showdown was imminent. In a final bid to intimidate his opponent, the first male leopard let off an almighty roar. This was enough to end the challenge and his enemy slinked off in the night. In a show of dominance he moved over to where his opponent had been, sniffed intently and scent marked before roaring again.

Young Male Leopard, by Roan Ravenhill

Young Male Leopard, by Roan Ravenhill

This has been the first time we have seen this male roaring and scent marking – a sure sign that he is taking the first steps to establishing his territory. It will not be long before he takes his place on the leopard tree of MalaMala, and earns himself a name. He is a beautiful young male whIch has all the signs of growing into an impressive specimen. For now though he will need to be careful to avoid confrontations with other larger males.

Over the following days we watched him moving about his new domain with more confidence. But he was soon to be on the receiving end, learning a valuable lesson about earning a territory. The large male leopard from Sparta was on the prowl, and we found him strutting around the airstrip. He is one of the biggest leopards we have seen. In an incredible encounter he stumbled upon this newcomer. The young male did not see the huge beast approaching as he was busy gazing towards a herd of impala. The massive cat moved stealthily toward the youngster – a fine example of the leopard’s stalking ability – and he was able to get within two metres of his target. It was only now that the young male turned his head to realise that he was in deep water without a paddle! The large male pounced onto him in a cacophony of growls and snarls. The conflict did not ensue for long, and the newbie was able to escape with minor scratches. When we found him later that day he seemed to be fine, and we hope he has learned an important lesson from this encounter.

Large Male Leopard from Londolozi Scent Marking, by Gary Hill

Large Male Leopard from Sparta Scent Marking, by Gary Hill

Cape Hunting Dogs

There were two sightings of these rare predators this week. There are fewer than 200 of these animals in the Kruger National Park and surrounds, and no more than 500 in South Africa.

This time it was the familiar pack of nine dogs that delighted us with another great interaction. They were first spotted around West Street Bridge on the afternoon of 19th March.  As is customary with their hunting style, they covered plenty of ground very quickly and took us all the way to Campbell Koppies, chasing impala at every turn. Luckily for the impala  they eluded the dogs this time round. The next morning we found them at the Tlebe Rocks Donga with very full bellies – they must have had a successful hunt shortly before we found them.

Cape Hunting Dogs, by Roan Ravenhill

Cape Hunting Dogs, by Roan Ravenhill

There was an instance where the alpha male had been separated from the pack. While we watched the pack we heard his calls from a distance. What a spectacle to watch as they reacted and bolted toward the summons, twittering in their bird-like fashion as they went. In these packs there is a leading pair of dogs – the alpha male and female – which will be the only ones to breed. They will also dictate the movements of the pack, with the alpha male leading the hunts and the alpha female selecting den sites. It is the duty of the other members to contribute to the rearing of the young dogs, born in litters of up to 18 pups. The babies are weaned from as early as five weeks old, and depend largely on regurgitated food from other pack members. Reproduction takes place year-round, with a birthing peak during or after the rainy season.

Hopefully this pack will choose a den site on MalaMala, as they have often done in the past.

Cheetah

The two male cheetahs were seen twice this week, both times around their familiar open plains at Clarendon Dam. We found them with a young wildebeest which they had just killed. We watched as they dragged their catch into the comfort of some shade where they rested for some time to catch their breath before they started feeding.

It was not long before a vulture spotted the action below, and swooped down with the aim of scoring a meal. Masses of vultures began descending. They overwhelmed the cheetah and chased them off their kill. Cheetahs rely heavily on their speed to hunt. They cannot afford to be injured in any way, as this would be detrimental to their survival. Although one would think a vulture an unlikely threat to a cheetah, the risk of being wounded is far greater than the importance of a meal. Feathered opportunists – 1 : Cheetah – 0.

Female Cheetah, by Gary Hill

Female Cheetah, by Gary Hill

We also found a female cheetah at Mlowathi Dam on the 23rd March. She rested on the dam wall for the morning, and gazed at the teaming herds of impala. She appeared well fed and did not show much interest in hunting. This was the same female which was mating with one of the cheetah brothers a few weeks ago. We will monitor her with keen interest to see if she shows signs of lactating!

Until next time,

The MalaMala Ranger Team.

* Scientific information adopted from:

Estes, R.D. (1999). The Safari Companion: A guide to watching African Mammals. South Africa, Russell Friedman Books CC.

Click here to download the CyberDiary in PDF format.

PLEASE NOTE: Animals on MalaMala are named after their territories. This means that a) only the predators have been given names and b) we only know the animals according to the names we have given them, as they are based on the territories within MalaMala’s boundaries.

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