Where Sex Is a Spectator Sport

Love is in the air in Kruger National Park, South Africa.  Spring here.  Hotter than hell in Oklahoma.  On a cool morning we chanced upon a gorgeous young leopardess in the process of enticing a male to cross the road in front of us.  Once she reached the other side of the road , she fell upon the sand, flipped back and forth on her back, flung her legs in the air and switched her tail alluringly.  The male in quick pursuit bounded across the road dangerously close to the cars that had stopped.  But once he reached her, she led him deeper into the bush for a private tryst.

Photograph by Pam Harrell

One hundred days from August 11, our beautiful young lady will give birth to 2 or 3 cubs.  Contrary to popular beliefs, the father will probably live with his new family for several months, helping with the hunt and providing protection.  He may then be lured away by another attractive female and move on to be with her to start another new family.

We observed the mating ritual of a mature male lion.  His ruff a dark rich brown, he was still young enough to be in his mating prime.  His mate, a rare white lioness, the material of tribal lore, had been born in the wild.  Cubs are born pure white and may remain white the rest of their lives or they may mature to a creamy blonde with tell-tale black circles of fur on the back side of each ear.

Most unfortunate is that these rare beauties are being bred to be killed as canned hunting trophies.  My heart and full support go out to Linda Tucker of Global White Lion Protection Trust who works to change South Africa’s hunting laws.  Most of the white lions that live in the wild are found in Kruger National Park.  West of Kruger National Park is the Timbavati Reserve.  Here the white lion is bred for survival of the species.

The mating ritual was quick and frequent with the lioness determining when the relationship ended.  While the male reached the point of ecstasy, he crinkled his nose as if a bad odor had drifted across his nostrils.  Often his mouth was half open, but he attempted to bite the female on back of the neck.  The female obviously not interested in his love bite twisted her head from side to side preventing this.

One hundred days later the lioness will give birth to three to six cubs.  The survival rate of a litter is very low.  Males often kill cubs as they consider them a threat to their places in the pride.  While mothers often leave their cubs to make a kill, the cubs are vulnerable to attack from other males outside the pride and other predators, such as hyenas.  It is survival of the fittest and luckiest.

Hippos sunburn easily as they hardly have any hair.  One would think all that thick skin would somehow have a built in sunscreen. It does secrete a red oily substance that helps a bit.  But the best protection is to spend the entire day in the water, leaving it to munch on grass when the sun has set.

It was no surprise that mating took place in the water too.  With lots of water displacement, noisy splashing, and hissing and grunting anticipation, the male raised his huge body upon the back of the female.  This was another quick mating ritual.

Eight months later the mother hippo will give birth to a bouncing baby hippo under the water.  Calves weigh 50-110 pounds at birth.

The funniest breeding is that of elephants.  They frolic in the water and make the most of a pool party orgy.

When one of the males had finished mating, he sat back in the water on his rump and hind legs and raised his front legs in the air.  Proud of his accomplishment he briefly swung his trunk in the air as if he had just performed a circus trick.  We couldn’t leave without giving him a round of applause.

Twenty-two months later, the longest gestation of any land mammal, a fat little bundle of elephant will hit the grassland.  Female elephants are super maternal: they often will gather around the newborn, each using her trunk to help the baby stand. They will continue group rearing and protectively shielding until the teenagers reach sexual maturity.

We considered our observations of mating rituals to be a privilege.  The survival of each species is precarious.  Such parks and reserves as Kruger National Park give us, not only insight into our own natures, but the opportunity to observe wildlife in real and natural states of existence.

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