Text, photographs, and video: James Moodie
It is without a doubt that one of the major attractions that MalaMala Game Reserve has to offer are the big cat sightings we have on a daily basis, in particular the leopards. Seeing these elusive predators doing as they please in their natural surroundings is in itself one of the greatest privileges anyone can ask for, yet the ability to get intimate with these cats and study their habits without much attention being paid to us, makes the experience that much more amazing. Particularly when they are performing their instinctual tasks that make them so fascinating. Seeing a sleeping leopard is always amazing, but when they start to perform, it’s a whole different story, especially interactions between two individuals. The main action at the moment is between two of MalaMala’s heavyweights, the Treehouse Male and the Airstrip Male.
Although these leopards occupy two different territories, they do slightly overlap, with the Sand River being the main barrier between them. In order to better understand the behaviours between these two powerhouses, we need to look at their past in order to understand why they currently act the way they do.
The Airstrip Male is one of the Reserve’s best known leopards and a favourite amongst rangers, guests and photographers (due to his bright blue blind left eye). He is a very scrappy leopard, rarely backing down from any form of conflict (and as you can imagine sports many scars from doing so), even if the other opponent is much larger than him. He was born during July of 2006, sired by the Bicycle Crossing Male, a powerful and tenacious male who has dominated the southern and central parts of the reserve for almost a decade and therefore has very good genes. His birth mother is a female leopard known as the Dudley Female, arguably one of MalaMala’s most successful females due to her amazing parental skills and the amount of cubs she has successfully raised to independence. Sadly she has not been seen for quite some time and due to her age (nearing 17) we suspect the worst.
The Airstrip Male’s background story is quite amazing, and one that demands respect. At a very young age he was separated from his mother and brother, the Charleston Male, and whilst wandering around the bushveld for days he happened to come across another female, the Ngoboswan Female, who had recently lost her cubs to hyenas. As fate would have it she accepted him as her own and raised him to independence. He is now a very dominant force in the northern and western parts of the reserve, claiming one of the largest territories amongst all the male leopards we are fortunate enough to see.
The Treehouse Male on the other hand is a relative newcomer onto the property, having come from the western parts of the Sabi Sands Game Reserve, he has established himself firmly on the western bank of the Sand River, adjacent to the ageing Airstrip Males territory. The information we have gathered from our neighbours is that he was born during December/January of 2010 to a male known as the Sand River Male and raised by the famous Nottens Female. He arrived on MalaMala as a nomadic male and immediately caught the attention of the Bicycle Crossing male, who didn’t take likely to this young intruder being on his territory. Over several months the conflict persisted and eventually the Treehouse Male left, returning back west seeking refuge from the far more powerful and experienced Bicycle Crossing Male. We didn’t see him again for quite some time until he eventually returned to the property, having grown a substantial amount more, to begin his takeover. He started with the late Newington Male, using his size as intimidation, followed by the late Princess Alice Pans Male who was already way past his prime. He now dominates the western bank and is doing a fine job for such a young and inexperienced leopard.
So here is where the conflict begins, with both leopards having such close territories it was inevitable that they would eventually come to blows with one another. The Airstrip Male was recently seen around Campbell Koppies mating with the Kikilezi Female, a female who has a territory that also borders with the Treehouse Male, and was seen mating with him shortly after Airstrip Male, seeking as many males as possible in the immediate area to mate with in order to trick them into believing the cubs are theirs, a clever tactic indeed.
The dominant female on the western bank is the Tamboti Female, who has had two litters of cubs within the last year (both sired by Treehouse male), with both of those sadly unsuccessful. Nobody knows what happened to the first litter, however the second litter was presumed to have been killed by the Airstrip Male who was seen sniffing around Tamboti’s den site just south of our airstrip. This is far out of Airstrip Male’s territorial range, but when the scent of cubs is picked up by a rival male, he will become relentless in his pursuit of the cubs.
The Treehouse Male is young, but by no means small, being our largest male on the property. However it is because of the easy takeover of his current territory, as well as a lack of competition from other males, that he has very limited experience in fighting, a department that the Airstrip Male has bucket loads of. Both leopards have been seen in the same area on numerous occasions, with the Airstrip Male the leopard doing the trailing to look for a fight as Treehouse generally scent marks as he walks. At one stage both leopards were seen being chased up the same tree by the Marthly pride of lions, although nothing came of this as the two just growled at one another and once the lions had moved off they parted ways. This is rather curious as the Treehouse Male is larger than his counterpart, yet appears to lack the confidence to engage in combat, while the Airstrip Male also seemed rather reluctant to engage his much larger enemy, possibly seeing his size and youth as a threat to sustain massive injury.
The Airstrip Male is currently almost ten, therefore is most likely attempting to sire as many litters of cubs as he can before potentially being overthrown by another younger and stronger male, and the Treehouse male is beginning to expand ever so slightly onto the eastern bank of the Sand River, doing constant patrols along Airstrip Males territory. It will be interesting to see what transpires in months to come as both leopards seem evenly matched with the hands they have been dealt. I’m sure the conflict will continue with Treehouse, the heavyweight, using his youth and size to his advantage, while Airstrip Male, the street fighter, will use his tenacity and experience to his. For now the conflict has calmed, but there is a storm brewing and only one will come out victorious. Which side will you be on?
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