Solitary Leopards Show Social Tolerance

A mother and cub relax around the remains of a large male impala. Only meters away, a male and female leopard were mating in thick shrub © Nicholas Pilfold

With some notable exceptions (e.g. lions, hyenas, wild dogs) most large African carnivores live a solitary existence. They hunt for food, raise young, and fend off rivals all on their own. This is particularly true for the species that I research at Loisaba Conservancy: the African leopard.

It is already a rare sight when more than one leopard is found in the same location, even more so with multiple individuals. But it does happen. The circumstances for why it happens can be as interesting as the event itself.

This past February, I had the chance to experience a leopard congregation (aka “a leap”) around a kill site. A large male impala had been killed by an equally large male leopard, and once he had his fill, other leopards moved in for leftovers. In many cases, this tolerance for sharing food would not have been allowed by a dominant male still at the kill site; but in this circumstance, he was distracted by a female looking for a mate.

An adult female looks back towards the direction of her departing male mate © Nicholas Pilfold

While the male consorted with the female within the privacy of some dense shrub, a mother and cub moved in on the leftovers. They were extremely relaxed around the kill, recognizing that the adult male was not a threat. Four leopards in a such a tight setting was a surprise and was only surpassed when the next morning a fifth leopard showed up to work on some of the last scraps high in a Boscia tree. The fact that the fifth leopard showed up so quickly likely meant she was in the vicinity when the kill happened the day before.

While leopards spend much of their lives in solitude, events like these remind us of their capacity for sociality in the right setting.

By: Nicholas Pilfold, Ph.D., San Diego Zoo Global

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