As guides at MalaMala, we often feel as though we are personalities in an ongoing wildlife documentary. Following the journeys of the animals as they move through their daily lives is a tremendous privilege and an experience that will not be easily forgotten. The script of the documentary cannot be predicted. Every excursion into the bush reveals dramatic discoveries, and one is constantly engaged in a roller-coaster of emotions.
During my time as a guide, I have been lucky to witness some incredible sights. I have always said in the blogs that to see any of these animals is amazing, but the interaction between the species is what can be deemed really special. This is the ‘MalaMala magic’, and it is always out there waiting to be found. There have been too many fantastic sightings to share, but I have been sure to record each and every one, no matter how seemingly insignificant, in my journal and have tried my best to keep a photographic collection.
In my last ever post as a ranger, I have decided to run through a couple of the most significant movements among the leopards of MalaMala during my tenure. I have also given a brief highlight of the plight of the Styx and Eyrefield prides, and mentioned some of my most memorable sightings.
The ultimate leopard hunt was surely when we witnessed the Jakkalsdraai female throwing herself on two full-grown impala rams that were engaged in battle and had their horns locked. At the time this behavior was unheard of and unrecorded. Luckily Debbie Mills was on board, and managed to snap some shots, otherwise nobody would have believed us!
The Selati pride gave us a sighting of a lifetime when they brought down a kudu bull in the Sand River, in broad daylight and in plain sight for us to all see.
Being able to witness a female cheetah with her four young cubs was extraordinary. Considering that the Sabi Sands is not known for its cheetah viewing, this was even more special. There are now only two cubs remaining from this litter. The female cheetah also performed some spectacular hunts.
Once a coalition of four male cheetahs – often seen at Clarendon Dam – there appears to be only one male remaining, and there is perhaps an opening for new males to enter the fray.
A pack of Cape hunting dogs decided to set up their den on Charleston in the winter of 2012. This gave us amazing insight to their ways, and it was a treat to be able to view these rare animals on such a consistent basis.
Then there are the lions. This apex predator endures a life that is more challenging than many are led to believe. The shifting of dynamics of in the prides is fascinating to observe, and the prides undergo a great deal of misfortune. Out of the six prides that are frequently seen on MalaMala, the Styx and Eyrefield prides are the two that we get to view most often.
It was sad to see the young male cub of the Styx pride pass at the hands of the Marthly pride. The little cub, known as ‘Junior’, was the last chance the old grandmother of the Styx pride had to raise a cub to independence. Then the lioness with the limp left us in early 2013. The latest drama was the death of one of the three young cubs belonging to the youngest adult lioness. A female cub was recently killed, yet again at the hands of the Marthly pride. The young nomadic Styx male did extremely well to survive on his own for a period before he perished. The lead lioness from the pride has defeated all odds by raising all four of her cubs to near adulthood. It has been fun watching these four lions develop.
The Eyrefield pride lost three young cubs when the floods of January 2012 swept them away. Then a lioness died leaving behind two orphans. It was difficult to watch the orphans as they tried to keep up with the pride. With none of the lionesses able to adopt them, they only survived a few more months before they passed. We recently paid tribute to the oldest lioness of this pride when she died a few weeks ago. Six of the seven young cubs are males. Watch this space and these boys are set to become the next big thing!
Following the movements of the powerful Manyelethi males has been incredible. They are a formidable coalition that are likely to dominate for the next few years. To shadow these four beasts as they move on a territorial patrol, or to have them roar in close proximity to the Land Rover, is a humbling experience.
It is unfair to single out one species as a favourite. However, there is nothing more spectacular than a leopard. Their beauty is astounding. Their hunting ability astonishing. And, their cunning and intelligence is tangible. They have individual characters, and have been my favourite animal to view. The rich history and heritage of the leopards of MalaMala makes these animals even more fascinating.
Seeing more than one leopard in a single viewing is rare, and always a special affair. Being able to witness leopards mating is particularly spectacular. The rawness of the mating ritual has one transfixed every time, and I have been able to see a fair share! Here are some of the combinations of mating pairs I have seen; some of them on more than one occasion:
- The late Emsagwen male and ‘Shadow’ female leopard
- Emsagwen male and Kikilezi female
- Airstrip male and the ‘Vomba’ female
- Airstrip male and Tamboti female
- Airstrip male and Kikilezi female
- Airstrip male and Emsagweni female
- Airstrip male and Mlowathi female
- Airstrip male and Ostrich Koppies female
- Gowrie male and Mlowathi female
- Bicycle Crossing male and Calabash female
- Bicycle Crossing male and Jakkalsdraai female
- Bicycle Crossing male and Unknown female
- Bicycle Crossing male and Flockfield female
- Princess Alice Pans male and Tamboti female
- Newington male and Tamboti female
- Unknown mating pair at Lion waterhole
And then there are the leopard cubs! There is no greater privilege than seeing a tiny leopard cub. To raise a leopard cub to independence is a difficult challenge. We are reminded of this on a constant basis as we see even the most experienced mothers running into trouble. Only cubs that I viewed when they were less than three months old have been listed:
- Jakkalsdraai female and two cubs born around September 2011. One female cub is surviving and is reaching independence.
- Matshipiri female and two cubs born around October 2011. One female cub is surviving and reaching independence. I was the first to discover these little ones in the Hogvaal Donga, which meant they were extra special to me!
- Ostrich Koppies female and two cubs born in early 2013. These provided unbelievable viewing in their early days as the female had chosen the most ideal den site. One cub is still surviving.
- Calabash female and her two cubs produced in the winter of 2012. Both died at a young age.
- Calabash female and at least one cub produced in February 2013. This was by far the smallest cub observed of the lot. We followed the mother when she went into a rock and appeared with a cub no bigger than a man’s shoe. The cub’s status is unknown.
- Kikilezi female and two cubs born in March 2012. Both have since died.
It has been a wonderful saga following the wise old Kikilezi female leopard. When I first arrived at MalaMala, she was looking after a cub of a year old. We were able to witness this cub’s passage to adulthood as the mother became more and more aggressive toward her, forcing the cub to independence. We then followed the young female on her quest to acquire territory, a task which is still ongoing. The young female tried her best to coerce the Airstrip male into mating with her, and he finally succumbed after many months of persuasion. This young female has recently become known as the Emsagweni female, and has grown to be a beautiful leopard. There was much celebration when the Kikilezi female produced her fourth litter of cubs. The two cubs were the first to be sired by the Airstrip male, and both have sadly died.
A trip to Charleston might see you be rewarded by some hyena activity at the den site near F-Bend Open Area that was discovered way back when by Kim Wohluter. You might also have a chance to find the Jakkalsdraai female. Sightings of her are hard-earned and richly savoured, and she is also one of my best. It was a treat to see her raising yet another cub to independence, and to witness her recent mating episodes with the Bicycle Crossing male.
It has been heart wrenching watching the beautiful Tamboti female trying her best to produce her first litter of cubs. After trying to conceive with multiple partners, she has at long last enjoyed success. She is currently keeping two cubs expertly hidden and I will follow their future with interest. I have witnessed her execute more hunts than any other leopard. Her career has been marred with drama – often having encounters with lions, hyenas and male leopards. It was fascinating to see how she shifted her territory westwards and become less frequently viewed.
The dynamics of the male leopards has been amazing. The Emsagwen male was a huge specimen with a massive territory and was very prolific while he was around. He mysteriously vanished in 2011, opening up opportunity for young male leopards to move in and acquire fragments of his empire. The Airstrip male was the most significant benefactor, quickly swooping through the Emsagwen male’s old turf and even using the very same patrol routes. The Hogvaal male arrived and set up shop east of the Matshapiri River. The (new) Gowrie male and (new) Tslebe Rocks male extended their territories south and became familiar faces. The West Street male and Newington males arrived.
The Airstrip male is a classic success story. From humble beginnings lurking around his namesake, he expanded his empire to become the most dominant male leopard of MalaMala. He has mated with six females that we know of. Interestingly his visits to the western bank of the Sand River have become few and far between, and this seems to be a response to the increased presence of the Newington male in that area. By no means a large leopard, the Airstrip male is a dogged warrior and his determination is evident when following him on his parades of scent-marking. In the south his twin brother, the Charleston male, has become a dominant force.
The Bicycle Crossing male is more dominant than ever, and with progeny littered throughout the Sabi Sands, he is showing no sign of slowing down. The same cannot be said of the Princess Alice Pans male who seems content to allow his son, the Newington male, to flourish within his territory. The old male has been very tolerant of the Newington male’s presence, and the young leopard has a bright future.
As a guide at MalaMala, you are a small part of a such an efficiently run camp. Thank you to all the staff of the camp who make everyday routines run so smoothly. MalaMala is a world class destination, and that is due to all your hard work. I would like to thank all the rangers for playing such a huge role in my experiences. We have become great friends and I will miss being part of such a dynamic team. I have crossed paths with many wonderful guests along the way and it has been a great pleasure sharing the magic of MalaMala with you all!
Ranger – MalaMala Game Reserve
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.