Text: Pieter van Wyk | Photographs: Pieter van Wyk, Daniel Bailey, Matt Meyer, James Moodie, Dave Landey, Dean Wraith, Jonno Short, Jacques Proust
Someone who does not easily admit defeat in spite of difficulties or opposition.
The textbooks tell us that to truly appreciate nature, it must be looked at void of any human emotion, especially when doing so through the eyes of conservation. However, six years with the Airstrip male taught me more about leopard behaviour than any textbook possibly could and indeed, in many cases, taught me that the textbooks on panthera pardus are in need of some rewriting. So, in the spirit that embodied his life, the Airstrip male’s obituary will at times read somewhat against the grain.
A unique start to life
In June of 2006 the Dudley female gave birth to a litter of two male cubs who were fathered by the Bicycle Crossing male. Both were successfully raised to independence but they would part ways earlier than most and under unheard circumstances. At a young age the cubs were feeding off a kill with their mother when hyenas sniffed it out. Confusion ensued, and they were all separated. The Dudley female managed to locate one of her cubs and she successfully raised him to independence – he became known as the Charleston male and was territorial in the southern parts of the property. The Newington female, the grandmother of the cubs, happened to be in the vicinity when the cubs were lost and coincidentally had also just temporarily lost a cub of her own. The aging leopardess called gently for her cub and the remaining cub of the Dudley female responded to her calls. He was adopted by his grandmother and also survived to independence. This extraordinary event was only the first chapter in what would turn out to be the Airstrip male’s remarkable life story.
I can clearly recall the first time I saw him scent marking around the airstrip – a young male confidently strutting his stuff in an area that encompassed the overlapping territories of three huge dominant males. He was, and would continue to, punch above his weight. Even at his prime the Airstrip male was by no means a big male leopard. Short and stocky but what he lacked in size he easily made up for with courage.
Making his mark
Upon engaging in the task of expansion, his first obstacles were the three aforementioned males. His father, the legendary Bicycle Crossing male was not particularly old at the time but was perhaps past his prime – he shifted his territory further south in response to pressure from his son. The Princess Alice Pans male, who was a large specimen residing further to the west was next on the list. Against the odds, the Airstrip male was able to intimidate his larger adversary enough for the big male to retreat. As a sign of his rising dominance, the Airstrip male was then seen mating with the Western female who had preferred the Princess Alice Pans male on many occasions in the past. The threat to the east possibly presented his greatest challenge and this came in the form of the Emsagweni male. Arguably the largest male leopard to have graced MalaMala in recent memory, he too was an influence in pushing the Bicycle Crossing male south. In an unexpected turn of events, the Emsagweni male disappeared in the winter of 2011. He was a mature male controlling a large territory, and we can only speculate as to how he was killed. His disappearance meant that there were now large tracts of land up for grabs and the Airstrip male was on hand to reap the benefits.
He quickly came to control an enormous empire from the Airstrip and a couple of miles westwards, to Marthly in its entirety, the Mlowathi and northwards into the Tslebe Rocks male’s kingdom and finally east of Emsagweni and southwards along the Matshapiri River. After a while he began to change his territorial routes and abandoned a portion of his new kingdom. This was perhaps a smart move. Male leopards will try and control as big an area as the individual can effectively control, limited only by his ability to cover ground and to dominate other males he may come into contact with. The result of establishing a large territory means that it will incorporate the territories of many females, which has obvious benefits for the male. The areas that the Airstrip male neglected were mainly to the north and east. He ceased to visit the areas anywhere north of the Gowrie boundary and east of Emsagweni.
Arch rivals – I get knocked down but I get up again
His list of opponents grew to include the Tslebe Rocks male, the Gowrie male, the Hogvaal male, the Newington male, the West Street male and the son of the Tslebe Rocks male but the honour of being his nemesis would be bestowed upon the Marthly male (aka Tyson) – a brut of a leopard who boasted a unique blonde ‘mane’. We witnessed many encounters between these two as the Marthly male advanced deep into the Airstrip male’s territory. It’s fair to say that the Airstrip male was on the receiving end of all the encounters but he simply refused to surrender an inch of his land. One day we’d watch him get dominated and the next we’d see him defiantly scent marking, seemingly sporting his new battle scars as if they were medals of honour. Despite clearly winning all the battles, the Marthly male lost the war. He did however leave his mark.
One eyed wonder
Blog extract from September 2013 by Ranger Gary Hill:
“The Airstrip male leopard has sustained an injury to his left eye as a result of an aggressive encounter with the Marthly male leopard. The photograph clearly shows the injury. At first glance it would appear that he cannot see through that eye, however, what you see is the inner membrane or inner eyelid, also known as a nictitating membrane. This eyelid, apparent in all cats, plays an important role in maintaining the surface of the eye. The photograph indicates that both outer and inner eyelids are badly bruised, causing the eye to appear shut. Upon closer examination, we noticed that when the Airstrip Male looked intently at an object, the nictitating membrane would fold back. This allowed his eye to be used normally.
We hope the Airstrip male recovers from this injury. Secondary infection is unlikely, but would worsen the condition substantially. Although we do know of other male leopards with only one eye, having survived such an injury, a full recovery is possible.”
His eye never recovered but yet again he soldiered on. Being blind in one eye never seemed to hamper his abilities.
A family man
Leopards are solitary and lions are the only social big cats – if that’s the case then my eyes must have deceived me because I’m sure I watched the Airstrip male spend some quality time with members of his family. I’ll admit that’s being economical with the truth but the fact of the matter remains that on several occasions this male was viewed in the company of related leopards and the atmosphere was anything but hostile. On a couple of different occasions, I saw this male spend time with the Kikilezi female and her/his cubs. Just as with male lions, he was never overly affectionate but was also far from aggressive and tolerated the inquisitive cubs. Even when the youngsters became independent he tolerated their presence. There were also accounts of him sharing meals with his aging mother.
Some of my most memorable sightings with this leopard involved interactions with other predators, most notably lions and hyenas and indeed it was his nonchalant approach to the former that won over much of our respect, but would also ultimately lead to his demise. Between the rangers there are many accounts of him strolling towards a pride of lions, way past the point where most leopards would’ve chickened out. He would then normally observe them for a brief period before moving away but on the odd occasion the lions detected his presence and gave chase. Every chase that we witnessed ended in a safe escape for the Airstrip male however I can recall at least two instances where we found him sporting deep gashes along his hindquarters with lions nearby. The Airstrip male also treated us to many spectacular and peculiar sightings with hyenas. One of them took place at a giraffe carcass with the Airstrip male and a hyena peacefully feeding together and by together I literally mean a foot apart. They would take it in turns to chase off the vultures before continuing to feed side by side.
Another one of my favourite sightings took place close to midday in sweltering summer heat when we watched him kill an adult warthog. The kill itself was a rush but it was the aftermath and his dual with an enormous female hyena that will stick with me for many years – the patience, stealth and calculated aggression he displayed optimised his ‘never-say-die’ mentality.
Extract from a blog by Ranger Dean Wraith:
“…Just as we were about to leave, chaos broke out 30 meters from us and three young warthog came tearing past the car. We then heard the distinct sound of a warthog in some serious trouble. We moved the vehicle forward and there the action was, the Airstrip male had caught a rather large female warthog and the fight was on. Initially the warthog held its feet with the leopard hanging off, key for the leopard at this point was to flip the warthog over onto its back. The Airstrip male being a smaller male leopard but tenacious, managed to do just that and flip the warthog onto its back and that was all she wrote. Well so we thought. As the warthog slowly but surely was fading, a hyena started to approach the scene, realising that it was a leopard the hyena stormed in and the Airstrip male was off into the bush. The hyena had scored a full meal but not before the warthog had one last burst of defiance and had a go at the hyena. The damage had however been done and the warthog breathed its last breath as the scavenger began to feed.”
The Airstrip male had expended much energy and with the sun beating down and took refuge in some nearby shade. The hyena had also succumbed to the heat and barely fed off the carcass for a couple hours. This fight was far from over. As the sun descended towards the horizon, the temperature cooled and the hyena began to feed again. The Airstrip male was laying just ten meters away and would soon initiate his plan to recover what was his. At first he made cautious approaches and snatched up some of the scraps before the hyena charged at him. As he got closer, the hyena’s attacks intensified. Like a battering ram she pummelled him backwards multiple times. On a few occasions she made solid connections that saw the leopard tumble backwards in a rather embarrassing fashion and I even shared a few laughs with my guests at the leopard’s expense. In our view this battle was over but yet again the Airstrip male defied the odds. As darkness fell, the leopard’s advances became more and more aggressive despite being pinned back every time. It must be added that most of his advances at night started with remarkable displays of stealth. He’d stalk up to within feet of the hyena without being detected. Eventually, when the time was right, he attacked with no holds barred and after a brief but intense scrap, the hyena gave up.
It was never beneath the Airstrip male to scavenge a meal from another leopard or to feed off a fresh or rotting carcass when he stumbled upon it (like that four meter plus rock python near Bicycle Crossing). That being said he was also a great hunter and often went after warthogs and baboons – both challenging targets even for a male leopard. One kill that left me somewhat in disbelief occurred near Maurice’s Pan.
We were following the Airstrip male as he marched along one of his usual patrol routes when he noticed a troop of baboons and before we knew it he was out of our sight. It was summer and the vegetation was lush. The baboons were roughly 40 meters away and most of them were foraging on the ground, barely visible if at all except for three baboons; the big alpha male and two adult females. These three were perched on a horizontal branch about a meter and a half off the ground and only a foot or so above the sea of green. We had no idea where the leopard was or which of the 20 plus baboons he was setting his sights on so we just sat and waited. A couple of minutes passed. I was rummaging through my centre console and when I looked up and the scene that met my eyes initially played out in slow motion – the horizontal branch now only supported two baboons with dislodged leaves floating gently around the space that was occupied by the third. Then in frenzy all hell broke loose with an explosion of panic, ear piercing distress calls and resounding alarm calls. The troop had no idea what was going on and the leopard was still out of sight. Our eyes scanned every inch of the vegetation in front of us but only after a minute or so did we realise that the Airstrip male was already 40 meters behind us and with a dead baboon in his jaws. He managed to stalk, kill and extract undetected. Undoubtedly one of the most impressive sights I’ve ever witnessed.
At this point in time we cannot state without doubt which offspring are his. The reason for this is quite interesting – female leopards in this part of the world have learnt that by mating (and pseudo-mating) with two males during the same period increases the cubs’ chances of survival as both males will assume paternity. A nifty trick that also leaves us at a loss especially when the female is literally mating with both males at the same time – sightings of three leopards mating. DNA samples have been submitted to determine who (if anyone) will carry on the Airstrip male’s bloodline. We’re waiting for the results and will share them as soon as we can. We know of at least eight female leopards that he copulated with.
Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light
By all accounts the Airstrip male went out fighting. Reports state that his body was found under the shade of a bush. He’d dragged himself to this position before passing away. Tracks nearby suggested that he’d been involved in a scrap with two lions – two varying reports both point the finger at the members of the Marthly pride, either the two lionesses with cubs or two of the sub-adult males. I’d like to think that it went down something like this – the Airstrip male noticed one lion on its own and advanced only to realise, when it was too late, that his blind eye had let him down and there were in fact two lions. I’m sure he went out like he lived: all guns blazing!
The Airstrip male will always hold a special place in many a ranger’s heart. His fighting spirit and ability to overcome the odds combined with the affection he showed towards his own will always be remembered. A true legend of MalaMala Game Reserve.