Geoffrey Chaucer once said, “Time and tide wait for no man”. Never was a truer word spoken. Time cannot be changed or regained. We are all slaves to time. In fact, as you read this, you have lost 10 seconds that you will never get back… It can never be taken back and dictates our movements on a minute by minute basis. It is perhaps nature’s greatest constant. We have learned to live with it but we will never beat it. This is the same for all things on this earth. Everything is affected by time. Even the largest, brightest stars had a beginning, and therefore will have an end. It is what we do with the time given to us that is important. In the animal kingdom, all decision making is directed to one goal: passing on genetics: successfully raising offspring. Time is necessary for organisms to mature, to reach an age whereby reproduction is possible; but time is also their enemy. At some point, it will become too late and their reproductive capabilities will be no more. For one of the stalwarts of Sabi Sabi’s leopard population, that time is drawing near. At 13 years of age, Nottins is approaching the end of her life and her biological clock is ticking like a time bomb in her ears. Her last cub, a female, is no longer on this mortal coil and time is running out for her to leave her legacy in this life.
For fear of repeating myself to regular readers, the leopard population in the Sabi Sands is the densest in the world and with that, comes competition. Territories are held for less time, life expectancy is shorter and survival rates are lower. In 10 years of reproductive capability, Nottins has only successfully raised 2 cubs to maturity and the percentage of leopards making it to maturity in this area is probably no more than 15%. It sounds harsh but the population is not dwindling. Nature has its balance in check. However, Nottins does not feel constrained by statistics. Every cell in her body is telling her that maybe this is her last chance and she does not intend to pass it by. The other morning we found Nottins and Xihangalas engaged in mating activities. The impressive Xihangalas looked full as normal and seemed uninterested in Nottins’ advances. However, she was in no mood to be rejected. Leopards are one of the few species where the female pursues the male more often than not, and that morning Nottins was not taking ‘no’ for an answer. She strode around him time and time again, a constant low rumbling emitting from her mouth, as she tried to tempt her mate. The flirtatious nature of her advances could not be missed as she presented herself to him, tail raised, leaving no doubt as to her intentions. Finally, the big male could resist nature’s most archaic need no longer and relented to her approaches.
Leopards mate, as do lions, many times a day for a period of a few days. Normally, there is a 20 minute or so break between copulations but Nottins seemed insatiable in her needs. Twice we watched them mate within 5 minutes. Xihangalas’ barbed penis causing the female obvious pain as it was withdrawn. These barbs are designed to help the ovulation process and although painful, Nottins’ biological clock kept her coming back for more.
The mating seemed almost brutal at times such was its intensity. I have had the good fortune to view leopards mating a few times before but I have never seen a male bite the neck and stretch the skin in the way that Xihangalas did that day. Perhaps through unknown processes that we humans will never understand, Nottins’ desperation to be given one last shot, was transferred into the dominant male; his desire to pass on genetics ignited by her intensity.
As we left them later that night, walking side by side into the darkness, time was our enemy as we had to return to the lodge and digest another day of mixed emotions: the realisation of the fear that Nottins’ cub was no more, yet also the hope that she will defy the odds and make time for one more chance.
With Nottins being such a long inhabitant of the area around Sabi Sabi, all of the rangers feel a special bond with her. It is dangerous to develop emotional attachments to these animals but almost impossible not to when we spend so much time with them. We are all well aware that her time is running out and hope as one that she can beat father time and achieve a hatrick of successful offspring. There will be many pitfalls for her to negotiate on the way: starvation, hyenas, lions and other leopards just to name a few. The odds may be stacked against her but the optimist in me wants to think that perhaps her past failures have taught her valuable lessons and that experience will play a vital role. Do animals feel pressure, I don’t know, but I do believe that somehow Nottins knows that she may not have another chance. Only time, as always, will tell…