Leopard dynamics can cause a long-winded debate on what is true, what is false or otherwise what is calculated assumption based merely on observation.
There is a good chance most opinions will be based on observed or calculated presumptions. Yes there are a few facts about territorial behaviour, but what if you encounter two non-territorial male leopards acting in a way that is not often seen in general leopard dynamics.
Some background: adult leopards are solitary cats. They hunt alone and they feed alone, be they male or female. A lot of risk is calculated as any injury or wasted energy could cost their lives. They don’t have the backup a lion does in the form of a pride and are completely dependent on their own ability and skills to catch, kill, feed and defend in order to survive. It truly comes down to survival of the fittest and about passing on their genes.
Male leopards tend to spend slightly longer being dependant on their mothers; one theory behind this is the far likelier dispersal enforced by their fathers or other dominant males. A young male who has had the benefit of his mother’s hunting for a few months longer will likely be bigger and better able to fend for himself. Females on the other hand often inherit part of their mother’s territory or may move off completely setting up their own.
But what happens when a male leopard becomes independent?
Young non-territorial males are slowly pushed out of their father’s territory as they start to approach a size at which they may be a threat to him. For a lucky few, establishing a new territory might simply involve finding an unoccupied area or one which a the previous owner has recently been killed. The majority of the time, territorial establishment would mean aggressively competing with an existing territorial male and winning the area. This keeps a mix in the gene pools and keeps the strongest genes going forward.
Another leopard who originated in the Kruger National Park, he has established a large territory in the south eastern areas of Londolozi.
One afternoon recently we encountered the Ndzanzeni young male leopard. Born in late 2016 he is still young but fully independent of his mother; a successful hunter yet non territorial. He was full bellied and seemed uncomfortable as he got to his feet and lay down numerous times.
When a hyena ran out from a thicket behind him it started putting questions in our mind. Did he have a kill nearby? We scanned the area, suddenly spotting another leopard in very close proximity feeding on an impala kill in a Tamboti tree.
When I say close proximity, it was literally a few meters behind our vehicle. Through the thick tree canopy this second leopard seemed much smaller and assumptions was that it was a female. As it descended and walked past the Ndzanzeni young male we realized it was actually the Tatowa young male. Two male leopards feeding off the same kill? Surely two males taking opportunity at feeding on the same kill is not the norm?
Male leopards are generally very aggressive towards each other, but with these two being non-territorial it stirred questions of their dynamics. Why were they tolerant of each other when it is inherent as a male to be dominant and protect an area with the coming of sexual maturity? It was an area the Tatowa young male hadn’t grown up in, yet was an area the Ndzanzeni young male knew all too well as it was his mother’s territory. These two could ultimately compete for the same territory one day yet they were both benefiting from the same kill. Who made the kill?
It was an interesting sighting that still leaves questions as to why they tolerated each other. Why there was no aggression but submission and acceptance from both individuals. Both these individuals are from different mothers but we presume the same father (Inyathini male leopard). Ultimately, leopards are very risk-averse animals. As stated earlier, risks they do take tend to be very calculated, as injury can be very costly for a solitary hunter. In this sighting, what was most likely was that these two young males had far more to lose than they had to gain from a violent encounter.
We all look forward to seeing how these two males develop over the coming weeks, months and years. With space at a premium among Londolozi’s leopard population, it will be interesting to see where these males end up. Will one of them inherit the Inyathini male’s enormous territory, or will they both be forced to seek life elsewhere?