Mashatu – young wanderer

It was our last game drive in Mashatu in south east Botswana in August 2021. At that time of the year, the mornings were chilly but the days warmed up beautifully. Every morning we met for coffee and a rusk at 6h00. It was still dark and the idea was to leave camp at first light around 6h30 to be in the reserve at sunrise. It took at least forty five minutes to make our way down to the Majale river where we knew the wildlife sightings would improve. In winter wildlife is forced to congregate around the remaining pools of water in the Majale river. The leopards tend to centre their activities in this area because of the abundance of game and wonderful enormous trees to hide and lie in during the heat of the day.

“If you do not expect the unexpected you will not find it, for it is not to be reached by search or trail.” ~Heraclitus.

We were ambling along, wondering what we would see next when we were privileged to come upon a young male leopard. At around 22 months, the sub-adult leopard should be independent of his mother. Each young male is forced out of his natal territory, away from his mother and out of the sanctuary of his father’s territory. Beyond his familiar boundaries he is forced to fend for himself. His new reality is harsh, now alone he has to survive and thrive despite many arch enemies, such as lions and hyaenas and territorial male leopards.

It is estimated that a young male, independent of its mother can venture up to 24km from his home territory in search of new areas, scouting new hunting areas while trying to avoid other predators. Leopard cubs normally leave their mother when they are between 12 and 18 months’ old. The males leave earlier, while female cubs may stay near their natal range for longer. Leopards reach sexual maturity around 24 to 28 months but rarely breed before three to four years of age. After about four and a half years, these now mature male leopards, which have survived battles, injury, hunger, conflict, and tangles with lions and hyaenas, start to challenge for their own territory. With fortitude they will progressively dominate that area and take over female leopards and their territories.

“Imagine for only a moment what this world would be like if change did not occur. You may say life was simpler, yes in some cases that is right. But just as children grow, we grow with change. Imagine trying to stop a child from growing up, it is impossible to do. Accepting change as a way of life allows you to continue to develop and move forward.”~ Catherine Pulsifer

This young male looked to be around two to two-and-a-half years’ old. Alone, he was wandering along the river course. He stopped regularly to rest and lie on fallen tree trunks. There, he would just listen and observe what was going on around him.

The colours of winter, with its browns, oranges and yellows, enabled this male leopard to blend beautifully into his surroundings.

He walked into a croton grove which provided dappled light and great camouflage. In the grove he found a sign post and spent some time reading the scents left on the tree trunk. Satisfied that all was well he sharpened his claws on the tree trunk leaving his own scent. Leopards have interdigital glands on their paws and leave their scent by reaching up to scratch trees with their claws at just above eye level.

“Sensory perception is the silken web that binds our separate nervous systems into the encompassing ecosystem.” ~ David Abram

Tree-clawing or scratching have been interpreted as conveying a variety of signals, from territorial marking to simple sharpening of claws. Scratching leaves traces of interdigital glands which act as chemical signals and the visual claw marks give an indication of the size and strength of the leopard.

This male was very active. It was not enough to read the “sign post” as had to climb the tree. Perhaps there was the faint scent of an old kill in the tree which caught his attention.

Once up the tree he had a good lookout. Leopards are supremely adapted to the arboreal habitat. Finding a comfortable horizontal branch he stopped sat down and just watched all the goings on around him.

After spending some time observing from his high lookout he decided to come back to terra firma. He then decided to walk parallel to the Majale river bank around 20 metres in from the bank. He had plenty of cover and many big trees to escape into if he unexpectedly bumped into lions or hyaenas.

It is fascinating to watch a leopard wander along the top of a river bank. It is clear he is walking through a world of sensory impulses. Smells and sounds guide him along his path.

On his way down to the Majale river he crossed several small sand tributaries which when flowing fed into the Majale. The beauty of the sandy background is that it presented the leopard in an uncluttered background. The shape of his face suggests this will be a large male leopard when he is fully grown.

“We live in a world which in some respects is mysterious, things can be experienced which remain inexplicable, not everything which happens can be anticipated. The unexpected and the incredible belong in this world, only then is life whole. For me the world has from the beginning been infinite and ungraspable.”~ Carl Jung.

In an interesting article from the Pondoro website at Pondoro.co.za. , the reasons for scent marking might be anyone of the following:

  • territorial advertising to inform other leopards of their presence.
  • a female might mark more regularly than normal to advertise her going into oestrus.

The function would be to either avoid (it acts a warning to stay away from the territory) or to find each other more easily (mating).

Scent marking can be done in a variety of ways:

  • the spraying of urine upwards and horizontally onto trees and bushes.
  • marking with interdigital glands by clawing the bark of trees just above eye level, but still easily visible.
  • marking by raking the ground with their hind claws leaving their scent with interdigital glands.
  • reaching up to prominent branches situated just above eye level and rubbing against it with scent glands on their cheeks and heads. Cats have sebaceous glands that coat their hair and skin with an oily secretion. Grooming the fur by their roughly barbed tongue stimulate these glands that are attached to the roots to release secretions. These secretions waterproof the fur, and by rubbing against something, a chemical signature would also be left behind.

These scent markings can persist for weeks. Leopards are also creatures of habit and will mark the same trees and bushes while patrolling well worn trails. A leopard scent marking with glands on the head and cheeks would be done as high as possible to try and amplify their height or size.

Leopards of both sexes patrol their ranges and scent-mark trees, bushes and rocks with urine mixed with anal gland secretions. Scraping, urine-spraying and tree-clawing are most commonly used by leopards

Eventually he walked down into one of the larger tributaries feeding into the Majale river. The landscape view shows the wonderful camouflage that his rossetted coat offers him.

After walking for quite a while he decided to lie down and rest. His resting place gave him a good view along the tributary.

He lay on the edge of the tributary for quite a while. Although his head and eyes were stationary his ears were constantly moving backwards, forwards and sideways accessing the direction and nature of the sounds around him.

In his wanderings he did not cross paths with any potential prey. Eventually as the winter morning started to heat up he climbed into a Mashatu tree where it looked as though he was going to rest for the day.

Once a leopard has settled down to sleep on an elevated tree bough it looks supremely comfortable. No lions or hyaenas can get at it. It will be a peaceful rest provided a troop of baboons do not see him.

It was a privilege to spend an hour or so following this wandering leopard. The leopards in Mashatu are, for the most part, habituated to game vehicles and take little notice of them. The game vehicles are allowed to drive off-road which allows guests to follow a leopard in its wanderings. This provides exceptional photographic opportunities.

“The world is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.” ~ Bertrand Russell.

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

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