Most of what I’m about to type is purely anecdotal evidence.
It comes from years of game drives and walks in the field, but given that A) we only witness less than 10% of a leopard’s daily routine (and that’s as a Londolozi team, rather than for an individual ranger or tracker), and B) I’m not running any statistical analyses on my personal observations, none of this is gospel, it’s merely the initiation of what I consider to be an interesting conservation stream.
The established fact is that leopards don’t have a particularly high success rate in hunts. I’m sure the figure varies somewhat between areas, and maybe even between individual leopards, but as it’s roughly 20% – or maybe even less – I’ll agree that they don’t score well in the hunt-conversion ratio. Certainly not when you compare them to Wild Dogs, which are up above 70% in their hunting success rate. Of course the dogs have a different hunting strategy and they operate as a pack, so it’s like comparing apples and oranges, but I’m merely giving an appreciation for where these solitary spotted cats sit.
The question we need to ask is what actually constitutes a hunt? From what point does an attempt start to count, so that if fails it will fall into the “Unsuccessful” category? Because let me tell you, I’ve watched countless times as leopards spot a potential prey animal and attempt an approach, but either break it off because things don’t look favourable, or they get seen or smelt long before they are in a position to attempt the final stalk-and-pounce. Most of those I wouldn’t classify as “hunts”.
Are we dealing in distance? ie. does a leopard need to be within 50m before a hunt qualifies as a hunt? Because a leopard might get spotted from 100 metres away, which could skew the stats somewhat, and I’ve seen leopards sit within five metres of a herd of an impala, not making a move, until eventually the impalas drift the wrong way and the leopard opts out of the attempt. If the leopard made the decision not to commit, does that count against it in the hunt/kill ratio?
I don’t have all the answers here, but I imagine some of the criteria are rather loose when it comes to defining what an actual hunting attempt is.
When we are out searching for predators and we come across a herd of impala grazing peacefully, more often than not we’ll presume no leopard or lion is in the vicinity and move on with the search. This is certainly not always the case though. There may well be a leopard very close by.
I’ve been with leopards multiple times in which they get agonisingly close to a herd, and then one whiff of their scent puts the prey on the alert. It doesn’t need to be more than one impala, but even the faintest hint of leopard on the air and the chances are high that the hunt will be over. The vigilance of the prey goes up, the chances of success for the leopard go down, and often the cat will just slink away undetected. It’s a good lesson for us in our endeavours to find them, as sometimes just one impala can give one warning snort, stare around intently for awhile, and then go back to grazing or browsing, and it is actually on to something. We scan the bushes in vain, but very often there is a leopard hiding there, just waiting…watching…
So after all that, I’ll come to my controversial statement. I think leopards actually kill more than we think. I’ll qualify that a bit further, and say I think they are much more successful than we think, but at night. Unfortunately for the leopards here, they are operating in a reserve in which the population of another powerful predator is also high; the spotted hyena. I have seen so many incidents in which a leopard is robbed of a kill by hyenas within only a few minutes of a successful take-down, and I have seen just how effective hyenas are in honing on a potential meal, that I am utterly convinced that leopards are robbed a lot more than we are aware of.
During evening game drive, we are usually back in camp within an hour or so of darkness falling, leaving most of the night for leopards to hunt in private. Given just how much the elements swing in their favour for hunting when darkness falls (the darker the better), I would imagine their success count also spikes, but most of the time we’re not there to see it.
I’m applying these thoughts primarily to places like Londolozi, in which the density of both leopards and their rivals is high. My theory revolves around a lot of the evidence of stolen kills being gone by morning. Hyenas are so good at devouring carcasses that three of them can be done with an adult impala in a few minutes, a feat that would take an adult leopard a couple of days.
We log all our sightings data and upload them to a central database: which leopard was it? Did it have a kill? What as the kill? Was the kill stolen? If so, by what? etc… We record all this and the findings are analysed to see what kind of impact hyenas have, what prey species are favoured when and fascinating bits of info like this, but ultimately it is all dependent on what we see to record. If we don’t find anything, we can’t record it. And like I said, when the lights go out, I think leopards are having a field day out there. Unfortunately so are the hyenas.
Ok I’m exaggerating things here. “Field Day” probably isn’t accurate. But I’d bet good money that the 20% hunting success quoted earlier would go up to at least 30% at night, possibly higher on the darkest nights. I’ll draw the line there before I get shouted down. But I know I’ve seen the same leopard kill twice in one evening, and get robbed both times by hyenas.
And she kept on hunting.
I’ll leave it there, and state simply that it’s important to remember that the figures we read about various creatures are often averages, compiled from various studies across the species range. Area by area, and even individual by individual, there is variety.
And that’s what makes this whole game viewing thing so fantastic!