An incredible week at MalaMala. Lions a-plenty, leopards mating and the discovery of some new arrivals from one of our favorite leopards. We also enjoyed two sightings of the elusive Cape Hunting dogs, and once again saw the two cheetah brothers at Clarendon Dam. And there you have it …. The MalaMala Seven.
Here are the numbers….
- Number of lion sightings: 15
- Number of leopard sightings: 24
- Number of cheetah sightings: 1
- Number of wild dog sightings: 2
- Number of elephant sightings: 34
- Number of buffalo sightings: 26
*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.
So climb on board folks, and let’s venture into the magical wilderness that is MalaMala.
It is certainly an interesting time for the Eyrefield lion pride. We managed to view them on almost every day this week. It is fascinating to watch the young cubs. Already about eight weeks old, they are doing really well and we were lucky to see them four times. But even more captivating is how the two orphaned cubs are getting along.
Each time we saw the youngest cubs, they were out in the open playing with each other and doing their best to sneak some milk from their mother. This really makes for excellent viewing and entertainment, especially since they are already comfortable with the presence of the Land Rovers. Their mother seems to enjoy hiding her cubs in the safety of the lush bush that flanks the Sand River. When she returns to her hiding spot after a bout of hunting, she often summons her cubs onto the open sand banks. No professionally manipulated set could match this backdrop, which makes for excellent photographs.
Every sighting of the cubs is special, but the show they gave us on the 18th was unique. Early in the morning we found evidence of a lioness crossing the Sand River at West Street. From the tracks, it was clear that the three youngest cubs and two older cubs were in tow. We could tell that the mother had made her cubs cross the river unaided. One would expect her to gently pick them up by the neck and to help them across one-at-a-time. It would, without doubt, have been an extraordinary sight to watch these youngsters struggling across the water. In some areas the channel is more than knee deep, and the babies would have had to put their unpracticed swimming skills to the test.
It was not long before we found the group walking along the river bank. Mother was in an agitated state, and was sporting some wounds on her neck and thigh. One can assume that the pride had made a kill and that there was a challenge for the meat. The lioness was determined to lead the cubs to her intended destination, and would not allow them any respite. When she paused for a brief moment, the cubs would approach her in the hope of suckling. Their pleas were met with aggression, and they were not allowed close. It was also obvious that the lioness displayed extra aggression toward the two orphaned cubs which were trailing behind at a distance. It is understandable why this mother is not happy with their presence. She has her own cubs to worry about. Even though the orphaned sisters are fully weaned by now, they will still try to suckle. This would deprive the youngsters of their essential milk.
When we left them, the mother lioness was in much the same mindset, and continued marching the cubs south.
In the afternoon we could see where they had crossed the river once again. This time they were led back west! We managed to find the mother, with the two older cubs in tow. The orphans were unwavering in their determination to keep sight of the lioness as she hunted around Flockfield Tower. They waited patiently on the road while she chased after some impala. After the hunt failed, the lioness headed toward the Airstrip with the two cubs following once more. We are not certain where she had hidden her youngsters.
This all took place after an equally fascinating sighting of some members from the same Eyrefield pride on the 16th May. We found the Manyelethi male with the scarred hip in the presence of two lionesses – the mother of the young cubs, and the lioness which lost her cubs in the floods. The orphaned cubs were there too. The lions were found resting in the Matshipiri River. The adult females began to wonder downstream while the male was happy to remain resting. The cubs were up and could not decide who to follow. One cub elected to march behind the females, while her sister stayed behind with the male. The distance between the now separated lions was increasing steadily. Eventually they were almost a kilometer apart. It was at this stage that the cub following the females became agitated. She was calling desperately to try to lure her sister along. She began to wonder back toward where the two lay. The lionesses continued downstream and the cub was becoming isolated. She was undecided what her next move should be, and was scurrying along the riverbed, venturing up the banks and out of view. The cub then headed back to the lionesses, which had finally come to rest again. Then, in the distance, we saw Manyelethi male walking towards us. He had the other young cub trailing behind him. The sisters ran enthusiastically towards one another and had a greeting ceremony when they met, followed by a good wrestle. If these cubs manage to survive this testing period, there is going to be an incredible bond between them in the future. Although this particular separation came to naught, it is easy to see how easily they can lose touch with each other and the other pride members.
As evening approached, the same two lionesses and the Manyelethi male started to trail behind a herd of buffalo that had wandered into the river close to where the cats had been lying. The lionesses positioned themselves along a well-trodden path along which the buffalo were walking. Most of the buffalo were in the distance ahead, yet there were still a few old bulls trying to keep up with the rest of the herd. We could see a few of these bulls walking along the path – set for an ambush from the predators. The suspense was immense. When we heard the sounds of galloping hoofs, we turned on the lights to see how the lions were faring. An unexpected sight met us. One of the lionesses was being chased around by an old ‘dagha’ boy! She did well to evade his bulky horns. The old bull had now isolated himself from his company and would usually be in a vulnerable position. Luckily for him, there were not enough lions to pose a threat and he moved off unimpeded.
Airstrip male leopard at it again
The Airstrip Male was found early on in the week, and we were excited to see him with some female company. This male is now approaching six years old and is close to reaching his prime. Over the past eighteen months we have seen him blossom, expanding his territory on an impressive scale and successfully defending it from other male leopards. He has also been seen courting numerous females – his exploits with the Tamboti Female being the most frequent. The Kikilezi Female, Sparta Female and the Daughter of the Ngoboswan Female 1997 have also had their turn. This time, though, it was the Daughter of the Campbell Koppies Female which had left her territory to seek out The Airstrip Male.
This female leopard was born in January 2007. Throughout 2011 she was seen with a young male cub of about eight months old. He constituted her first litter, and unfortunately did not fare too well. Further sightings of her were without the cub, and we can assume him dead. We will probably never know what happened to him. Earlier on in 2012, she was seen mating with the male leopard with the very yellow eyes that has been spending time around the Mlowathi River. He is doing well in establishing a territory, and should earn himself a name soon.
Her courting with the Airstrip Male was viewed on five days this week, and provided lucky guests with spectacular entertainment. That the female had followed the male far from her own territory reaffirms the Airstrip Male’s dominance. Females will seek out males like this in order to ensure the best possible genes for their offspring. The cubs can also benefit from having a successful father, as the dominant males are able to prevent other male leopards from trespassing on their territories. This ensures that foreign males will not threaten the safety of the cubs, as if these males came upon cubs that are not their own they will not hesitate to kill them. Since the daughter of the Campbell Koppies female has a territory that also overlaps with the male with the yellow eyes, it is a wise move for her to mate with both and to therefore confuse the paternity. Both males will assume that the cubs are their own, and will hopefully do them no harm.
Throughout the week, the Airstrip Male continued on his usual territorial patrol. The female would follow his every move, doing her best to ensure that their courting lasted for the entire duration of her being in estrus – usually about seven days. They moved together from the Main Camp, to the Mlowathi River, to the Airstrip and then off toward the Matshipiri River. They then parted ways. On the 17th May, we followed the female as she headed back toward more familiar surroundings. We will monitor her closely to see if she shows any signs of pregnancy in the months to come.
We were thrilled to see the lesser-viewed twin brother of the Airstrip Male, the Son of the Dudley Female 2006. He was seen at Charleston Koppies where he has established a good territory. Not to be outdone by his brother, this male had also found himself some female company. He was mating with an unidentified female (we are doing our best to determine who she is). In close proximity of these mating leopards, we found younger female seeking refuge in the high branches of a Marula Tree. It is possible that she was chased up there by either of the adult leopards, or that she is the daughter of the female that was mating, and that mother had cleverly enticed the male away from the cub. A third possibility exists for her position in the tree. Shortly before she was found, a pack of nine Cape hunting dogs had been found nearby. They could certainly have been the culprits that forced her to seek safety above terra firma. All are possible explanations. We’ll leave you to decide on the most plausible.
And finaly ….. [Drum roll please] ……. After many weeks of wondering where they have been hidden since their birth about a month ago, the Kikilezi Female revealed her new babies. There are two of cubs aged between 4 and 6 weeks. They are still very fluffy, and were at first shy of our vehicles. After a few days of viewing they have become more relaxed, and now just go about playing with each other and their mom. Naturally guests and rangers alike observe the beautiful family like amazed ‘grinning gawkers’. It’s hard not to.
On the afternoon of the 17th of May, one of the rangers found the Kikilezi female lying in the shade of a tree on the western bank of the lower reaches of the Mlowathi River. As relaxed as she always is, she couldn’t seem to keep her eyes off the land rovers and was at high alert. After about an hour or so, the reason for her increased vigilance became evident in the form of 2 little balls of spots and fur. The tiny leopards came bounding out of the bush and jumped on top of their mother and began to play. Every now and then they would look up at the vehicle, and one could see the perplexed look in their eyes as they wondered what these strange, big, green objects were. As the rules we follow so strictly dictate, we left the three leopards in peace as the sun began its descent, and went looking for other nocturnal life instead.
The leopard trio has been viewed on almost every day since, and the cubs become more and more trusting of their surroundings and of our vehicles. The next 2 months will be tough for this veteran mother as she moves the babies from den to den to avoid being detected by other predators.
Another treat this week was the pack of 8 Cape Hunting dogs, which we viewed on more than one occasion. Having found tracks of the marathon predators early on the morning of the 13th May around the southeastern parts of Charleston, we assumed that they were – at that point – long past our southern border. In the early evening, after stopping for an early sundowner, one of the rangers was on his way to show his guests the ever-popular hyena cubs at the hyena den. Instead he stumbled upon 8 Cape Hunting dogs. They ran around for a while, and were lost going north-west into the fading light.
The next morning, a few rangers headed southwards to follow up when tracks of these animals were found close to West Street. They had moved during the night, and a fair distance too! Their tracks were confusing, heading northwards then back southwards and zigzagging – not in the typical determined manner of wild dogs. After almost three hours of searching, when the last of the rangers was about to give up and head back for breakfast, they magically appeared with a nyala kill north of Rattray’s Camp in the Sand River. And the reason for their more erratic behavior was revealed. Two of the adult female dogs were very heavily pregnant, and were almost at the point of not being able to walk – let along run – with the pack. For the rest of the day they lay around in the open sand and slept. Just before sunset they became active and moved off the property in a south-westerly direction. Lets keep our fingers crossed in the hope that they decide to den on MalaMala this winter.
Until next time,
The MalaMala Ranger Team.
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.