In our last blog we mentioned that, as winter draws near, lion dynamics were at the forefront of our minds. Vanishing waterholes will result in a higher density of animals along the shrinking (but perennial) Sand River and this will result in rival prides and coalitions coming into closer proximity to each other. To some extent the same holds true for leopards albeit that they are far less dependent on water. In this blog we’ll focus on a ‘hotspot’ that has formed along 4kms of the Sand River and involves no fewer than 12 different leopards, well 15 if we include 3 cubs. It’s definitely a space to watch over the coming months!

Final

Leopard Hotspot!

So, why are we seeing so many leopards in a relatively small area? Simple; because it’s prime ‘real estate’.

The area has permanent water, riverine thickets, rocky outcrops and open grasslands – these different habitats allow for a wide variety and high concentration of prey as well as many ideal den sight options – all of which are what females look for when selecting territory.

Males have larger territories but look for the same high density of prey and water availability and, perhaps more importantly for them, is the number of females in the area.

The lower reaches of the Mlowathi River and a stretch of the Sand River on both sides of MalaMala Camp forms the northern half of the current ‘hotspot’ while the southern half saddles the Sand River down to West Street Bridge.

The Piccadilly female
The Piccadilly female

Females:

Most of the area in question that’s north / east of the river in the northern half of the hotspot technically forms the eastern parts of the Piccadilly female’s territory. However, she has been spending a lot more time in the western parts of her land – perhaps in a deliberate attempt to keep her cub away from the hotspot. Her infrequent visits to the east have drawn the interest of the Nanga female and allowed for a bolder approach from three young females; the Plaque Rock female, the Ndzutini female and the Tlebe Rocks female. The latter has been the most-viewed female in the area and the only one that we’ve seen mate with the Ngoboswan male. Over the last few months, we’ve watched the Nanga female (who is much older) shift her territory south-eastwards but it’s unclear if she intends to push further down into the area in question.

The Ndzutini female
The Ndzutini female
The Nkoveni female and her cubs
The Nkoveni female and her cubs

The Nkoveni female now controls most of the hotspot’s northern half that’s south / west of the river. At one point it did look like she was going to give up some of the area to her daughter, the Plaque Rock female, but since giving birth she’s been a lot less accommodating. This resulted in the Plaque Rock female turning her attention eastwards and into the densely populated northern section of the hotspot.

The Three Rivers female
The Three Rivers female

The Three Rivers female has raised a few eyebrows by moving into areas where we don’t normally see her – encroaching on the Nkoveni female’s territory and deeper into the hotspot.

The Island female with a young imposter
The Island female with a young imposter

As the cub of the Island female grows, so her mother starts to lead her further afield after spending much of the last few months along the lower reaches of Matshipiri River. Unlike the Piccadilly female, the Island female has ventured into the hotspot with her cub on several occasions. She’ll have to be careful as this is exactly how her last cub was killed. But, on this occasion it is likely that both the Accipiter male and the Maxim’s male will assume paternity. The Island female herself doesn’t have too much to worry about in terms of rival females. She’s in her prime and is the largest female on the reserve.

The Maxims male and the Three Rivers female Photo by our guest Grant Scott
The Maxims male and the Three Rivers female. Photo by our guest, Grant Scott
The Accipiter male
The Accipiter male

Males:

The Maxim’s male will probably have the biggest impact on this hotspot. He has started to expand his territory northwards and is applying pressure on the Flat Rock male. It would appear as though he has the upper hand as sightings of the Flat Rock male have dropped. The Maxim’s male has also begun to venture east of the Sand River more often and here he’ll find two very different rivals; the young but promising Ngoboswan male in the northern half of the hotspot and the older, more experienced Accipiter male in the south. The Maxim’s male will probably focus more on the north as the spoils will be richer. Few leopards would fancy their chances if pitted against the Accipiter male now but the Maxim’s male is probably one of them. These two large males have been ‘neighbours’ for a few years now but the chances of an upcoming confrontation may be more likely now than ever. This is because the Accipiter male is starting to consolidate his territory as he enters his twilight years and this could very well mean that he’ll spend more time along the Sand River where his territory borders that of the Maxim’s male.

The Flat Rock male
The Flat Rock male

The Ngoboswan male has already seen off two males as he seeks to establish himself. He outcompeted his brother, the Eyrefield male, who has since moved to the northern half of the Matshapiri River. He also sent an unidentified male packing. Not a bad start for this youngster who will surely grow into a very large specimen like his father, the Accipiter male. But, he is currently no match for the Maxim’s male and will have to hope that the latter opts not to overextend himself.

The Ngoboswan male and the Tlebe Rocks female
The Ngoboswan male and the Tlebe Rocks female

With so many leopards in this one area we have to wonder if this hotspot is a powder keg waiting to explode or will things resolve themselves in a more peaceful manner? Stay tuned to see how this unfolds!