Cyberdiary – 15 May 2012

Airstrip Male and Daughter of Kikilezi Female Fight, by Guest Ruth Grau

Airstrip Male and Daughter of Kikilezi Female Fight, by Guest Ruth Grau

The last seven days have yielded numerous cat sightings, including spectacular leopard interactions. The Eyrefield lion pride gave us a good show and, not to be outdone, the Styx lion pride did not disappoint. The Manyelethi male lions were up to their usual habits, and the two cheetah brothers paid another visit to Clarendon Dam. Throw in a sighting of a relaxed serval and an African wild cat (in broad daylight) and you have yet another week of MalaMala Magic.

For those of you who ‘lurve’ the numbers, here’s a summary of the animals seen comprising ‘The MalaMala Seven’:

  • Number of lion sightings: 7
  • Number of leopard sightings: 23
  • Number of cheetah sightings: 2
  • Number of wild dog sightings: 0
  • Number of elephant sightings: 31
  • Number of buffalo sightings: 13

*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!

Cat Fights

On the 6th May, we were again interrupted during our early morning coffee on the deck at Main Camp. The cause of the ruckus turned out to be a leopard moving through the reeds. We rushed to the vehicles to get a closer look. The feline turned out to be none other than the Kikilezi female on a determined bout of territorial patrol, roaring at regular intervals. We would soon find out why.

We had hardly begun to follow her when she came upon the Airstrip male, resting on the river bank at The Causeway. The potential father of her mystery cubs hardly paid her any attention, but she did some friendly loops around him from a short distance before she had to attend to more pressing business. Enter female leopard number two in the river bed a little further downstream. She is a beautiful young female whose identity is not yet known. There were now three leopards within a hundred yards of one other! The Kikilezi female was determined to get rid of any impending threat from the intruder, and this was no doubt the reason for her frequent roaring. The young female kept her distance, and calmly climbed a fallen Acacia tree nearby. In the meantime, the Airstrip male had lost interest and was off on a mission of his own. We left him heading northwards, and found him again in the afternoon at Mlowathi Dam where he spent some time chasing a sounder of warthogs (anyone who has heard a squeeling pig will realise how apt this collecdtive noun is). He was un-successful in his attemps to catch one.

Unidentified Female Leopard Gazes Towards the Kikilezi Female, by Gary Hill

Unidentified Female Leopard Gazes Towards the Kikilezi Female, by Gary Hill

The two female leopards were soon to part ways. It is not clear why the young female leopard was in the vicinity in the first place. She looks to be about four years of age, mature enough to have an established territory of her own. Whether she was looking for an extension of her ‘real estate’ or was lured by the charm of the Airstrip male, we hope to see more of her in the future.

We were determined to keep up with the Kikilezi female in the hope that she would lead us to her den site. The grand reveal of her cubs has been hotly anticipated for a few weeks now. Sadly we remain in anticipation, as she led us to nothing more than an afternoon siesta at Piccadilly Triangle. This is where we left her. She was only seen once this week, but two of her older offspring were to be seen later on – her independent daughter, and her son from a 2008 litter. The latter had killed a duiker near Rattray’s Camp.

A few days after the leopard ‘showdown’ at The Causeway, we were drawn towards Campbell Koppies by the alarming sounds of leopards fighting. We raced to the scene to find two cats tearing into each other with fierce intent. The adversaries turned out to be the Airstrip male and the daughter of the Kikilezi female. After the row seemed to have settled, they lay apart by approximately twenty yards and continued to exchange snarls and hisses.  Both had come away with minor injuries, the young female sporting a few extra gashes and a slight limp. We are not sure which leopard sparked the conflict, but we anticipate that it was the Airstrip male as it is unlikely that a young female would initiate aggression against a much bigger and stronger adversary. The rationale for the conflict was to become clearer later on in the week, as when we found them three days later, they were still in much the same mood.

Airstrip Male and Daughter of Kikilezi Female Fight, by Guest Ruth Grau

Airstrip Male and Daughter of Kikilezi Female Fight, by Guest Ruth Grau

When these solitary animals come to blows it is usually over a territorial dispute. What made this interaction interesting is that it was between a male and a female – they do not compete directly for territories. Males will select a territory as large as they can which will engulf and overlap with the smaller territories of many females. In the Sabi Sand Reserve, the size of a male’s territory is an average of about 27km2. Females’ areas average between 18km2 and 23km2, and are chosen based on the availability of food and potential den sites. Territory sizes and location are, of course, subject to the dominance of the individual leopard, and its competition.

When a male and female are together and are not mating, they are merely competitors for resources. This is what we assumed to be the case here, especially since the daughter of the Kikilezi female does not have a territory of her own yet. Clearly this is what she tried to rectify the very next day by roaring repeatedly in the same area. This is an unexpected move, and this young lady is flirting with danger if she continues in the same vain. The area in question is occupied by her mother who will not be lenient if she finds her daughter trying to establish herself there.

When we saw the two leopards again, we got a better understanding of the reason for their dispute. It seems as if the young female is the keenly interested party. Perhaps she wanted to mate with the Airstrip male, as she was trailing him relentlessly and would approach him when he stopped to rest. This only resulted in more snarling, growling and actual fighting. The Airstrip male was not in the slightest bit interested – probably because he knows that she is very young, and does not have an established territory of her own. This state of affairs would make breeding futile. He eventually managed to evade her when he crossed through the Sand River onto the western bank, and she gave up. We left her heading off in the opposite direction.

There were to be two more severe cat fights involving three different male leopards disputing the same turf. The contentious area of land is on the western bank of the Sand River around Princess Alice’s Pans toward the Flockfield Tower. This is where the two incidents took place. The first altercation involved a young male up against an ‘old hand’. The second was between two ‘young guns’. The irony is that neither fight involved the Airstrip male or the Large male leopard from Sparta, the primary stakeholders of that territory. This means that any victor would still not hold the rights to the area being contested.

The first altercastion involved the Bicycle Crossing male leopard who had finished the remains of his impala kill stashed at the Flockfield Boma river crossing. He was found on the prowl. It would seem he had the upper hand in an altercation with the Son of the Sparta female 2008 – a much younger male looking for territory. This young leopard has had refuge in his (probable) father’s territory, the core of which is further to the west. His twin brother still resides in that area, and is yet not actively looking for territory. It is great to see the Bicycle Crossing male still aggressively defending his domain which he has largely abandoned due to increasing pressure from his son, the Airstrip male.

Son of the Sparta Female 2008 Shows his Battle Scars, by Gary Hill

Son of the Sparta Female 2008 Shows his Battle Scars, by Gary Hill

A mere two days later, and the Son of the Sparta female 2008 had chosen another foe; this time another young male. Both leopards share the challenge of acquiring territory. The strongest and most dominant males are the ones that will win the best territories, resulting in perpetuation of the strongest genes. This is pivotal for any species, and is the cornerstone upon which the concept of ‘survival of the fittest’ rests.

The two leopards, similar in size and ambition, squared up in battle that must have lasted a few days, and which had no decided outcome. They came to blows occasionally, with each cat determined to stand its ground. The Son of the Sparta female 2008 had more visible damage, with nasty gashes on his face and above his eye. This might have been from his earlier encounter with the Bicycle Crossing male. One can only hope that these clashes do not result in either leopard sustaining critical injuries. So far the young male has managed to hold his own. He warded off a different young adversary a few weeks ago after an altercation around the Tamboti Thickets, and followed that up with a run-in with the large male leopard from Sparta. He has a fantastic nature and is a favourite of rangers and guests alike. What impresses us is his persistence in ‘owning’ a piece of the Sand River. He would have a much easier time trying to establish a territory if he moved himself away from the river which is so hotly contested.

Young Male Leopard Before the Stand-Off with the Son of the Sparta Female, by Gary Hill

Young Male Leopard Before the Stand-Off with the Son of the Sparta Female, by Gary Hill

We will watch events unfold with great interest!

The Eyrefield lion pride and the Manyelethi males

There were some interesting movements between the members of the Eyrefield pride, and the four brothers making up the powerful Manyelethi male coalition. The males continued to move about their large territory, although each time we saw the Eyrefield lionesses, there was at least one Manyelethi male present. Early on the morning of the 6th May, we found three of the Manyelethi males and two Eyrefield lionesses close to the airstrip. They had just caught a male impala, which the dark maned male was busy devouring. He did not allow any of the other lions to move in until he had had his fill. The great respect of this dominant male was obvious.

The Manyelethi Male Lion Devours a Kill, by Gary Hill

The Manyelethi Male Lion Devours a Kill, by Gary Hill

On the following day all four brothers were found again. This time near the airstrip with a single Eyrefield lioness. We managed to locate them by the sounds of their roaring during the night and early  morning. They kept up the noise as night fell again.

We have been following the movements of the Eyrefield pride very anxiously after one of the lionesses was found dead last week by a neighbour. The cause of her death is not certain. This is very sad news for the pride, especially since they lost three of their cubs in the great January floods. What makes it even sadder is the fact that the deceased lioness is the mother of the two seven month old cubs. And since their mother had died, we had not seen either of them at all. We did manage to find the youngers’ tracks which gave us a glimmer of hope. These babies are now faced with the daunting struggle to survive. The only chance they will have is if the rest of the pride accepts them, and if one of the lionesses adopts them. Luckily they are no longer dependant on milk.

Manyelethi Male Lion with Ranger Rodney Shuttleworth, by Gary Hill

Manyelethi Male Lion with Ranger Rodney Shuttleworth, by Gary Hill

On each occasion that we found one of the lionesses, we searched for any sign of the orphans (which must have spent at least a week separated from the rest of the pride). When three lionesses and all of the males were located on the 9th May, there was still no sign of the cubs. The next time that we managed to find the pride members was on the 12th May. Three Eyrefield lionesses were fast asleep, along with three Manyelethi males. They were in the dry river bed of the Manyelethi River, some distance upstream of where it meets the Sand River. The Manyelethi River has always been magnificent, with its high banks and wide bed sweeping between the rocky outcrops of Marthly. Since the floods there are many pools of water which attract much animal attention. The lions all had full bellies and must have fed on a large animal over the course of the night, or early hours of the morning.

When we returned in the afternoon, only the dark maned male lion remained. He began to move northwards out of the river bed. In the hope of him leading us to where the others had gone, we followed him out of the river and through some thick bush. When we began to see vultures hovering above us, we were sure the final destination was near. In a gully ahead was what we were after. The remaining lions from the sighting in the morning were littered around the carcass of a large kudu bull that they had killed. Although most of the lions were sleeping, we could still hear some feeding activity. Imagine our delight when we found the two older cubs on the kudu kill! Although we had heard of a confirmed sighting of the cubs to our west the previous day, we were ecstatic to see for ourselves that they are alive and doing well.

Orphaned Eyrefield Cubs Happily Feeding, by Gary Hill

Orphaned Eyrefield Cubs Happily Feeding, by Gary Hill

They both sidled up to one of the lionesses, which seemed to return their attention enthusiastically. This is the same lioness that lost her three cubs in the floods. It will be wonderful if she takes it upon herself to look after the orphaned babies. For now, all they have to do is keep up with the pride. With a little luck, they might just make it.

Another interesting chapter for the Eyrefield pride which has endured so much over its history on MalaMala Game Reserve.

Until next time,

The MalaMala Ranger Team.

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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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