I don’t want to go too much into the science on this one as I’m going to get it wrong and I don’t currently have the research at hand, but recently looking at the current territorial status of various leopards about the reserve, it was the shift in areas of occupation that most caught my eye.
The two oldest females we currently see are the Mashaba female (almost eleven years old) and the Nanga female (almost ten). Both have been territorial on Londolozi for over half a decade, yet neither currently occupy the areas they used to; both have shifted their core hunting grounds, yet neither has been pushed out by a larger stronger female.
No, the reason they have moved is surely because of their daughters.
If we just take the broad strokes of female leopard territorial behaviour, females establish as large a territory as possible, then if they birth female offspring who survive to independence, they cede off portions of their territory to these offspring, so that by the time the mothers reach old age and are unable to bear cubs any more, they ideally have a small community of daughters whose territories border their own, and when they (the mothers) die, the daughter simply fill in the gaps.
This is more of a model scenario than anything; some leopards raise no female daughters, some have such small territories that they can’t cede space, and some daughters simply don’t find room on the periphery of their mother’s territories and are forced to go elsewhere.
When we distil everything in nature down to its rawest form, it’s ultimately about genetics: animals do what they need to do in order to survive, which gives them a chance to further their genetic line. It’s the same with leopards. A mother leopard doesn’t want her daughter – that represents a year-and-a-half investment of her time and energy – to wander off into the wilderness and be killed immediately, so she throws her a bone (although not literally this time) and tolerates her living nearby, even granting her territory, which will greatly increase her survival chances, since competition with rival, non-related females is therefore reduced, this furthering the mother leopard’s own genetic line.
Another advantage comes in the form of lowered cub mortality, as related females with cubs, that bump into each other will likely display lowered hostility towards each other. This only really holds weight when the females are very closely related, like a mother and a daughter or sisters from the same litter. When they are sisters from different litters who won’t have spent much time together and therefore don’t recognize each other, things change and aggression necessarily heightens. A general idea is that greater relatedness means greater tolerance, but it will likely be situation-dependent.
Ultimately, what appears to be a stable situation to us is underpinned by a genetic drive. Cause and effect. Cost vs. benefit. Energy intake vs. energy output. Modern humans in urban environments have in large part lost that subconscious motivation that pushes them to make certain choices. Maybe the increase in anxiety is modern society is due to a growing disconnect with that subtle genetic drive. I don’t know.
I do know that the beauty of nature is the concurrent depth and simplicity it displays. The reasons for leopards behaving the way they do can be such a mystery to us, yet at the same time they can be absurdly simple as soon as we understand them.
It’s the pursuit of that understanding that makes the whole thing so appealing.