The leopard dynamics at Londolozi are always in a state of flux, with subtle factors constantly at play. New leopards will suddenly appear on the scene and familiar individuals fade to distant memories. With such a high density of leopards at Londolozi, the competition for territory is fierce. Recently we’ve witnessed firsthand numerous interactions between the different leopards all over the reserve, mainly in the name of territory. Due to the fact that there are a number of young leopards at Londolozi that are now reaching the age where they too will become territorial, I thought it might be a good time to look into the reasons leopards have their territories where they do.
One of the most important factors that influences leopards’ territorial behaviour is the fact that they are solitary animals. With the exception of a mother and her cubs, a mating pair of leopards or a chance meeting of two individuals, leopards do not generally interact with each other that much. Leopards are solo hunters and rely on themselves alone to survive; therefore it is in their best interest to live in an area where there is an abundance of prey species. This desire to live in the best areas is what leads the leopards’ territorial way of life.
When it comes to establishing territories, male leopards behave slightly differently to their female counterparts. Leopards only defend their territories against individuals of the same sex, therefore, the territory of a male and a female can overlap without any hostility between the two leopards. The main things a female wants in a territory are; firstly, a good supply of prey species and water and secondly, suitably well hidden den sights in which she can hide her cubs. Male leopards select their territories based on the amount of prey species available and, more importantly, the number of female leopards in the area. Males have much bigger territories than the females and their territory will most likely include a number of females within it. Male leopards look for areas with many females so that they can mate with them and attempt to spread their genes to the next generation of leopards.
Let’s start with female leopards. When female leopards reach the age of roughly a year and a half, they tend to gravitate towards independence. Usually the female offspring inherit a portion of their mother’s territory, although this is not always the case. The theory behind this territory inheritance is that the mother would rather share a territorial boundary with her offspring instead of a completely unrelated female – this could mean that territorial confrontations are less hostile.
Male leopards, on the other hand, tend to stay with their mothers slightly longer than the female cubs and typically become independent at around two years old. The theorised reason that male leopards stay with their mothers longer is because when they do become independent they are usually chased out of the area by their territorial father, therefore they need a little extra time to develop before facing the world on their own. The young males will become nomadic and can wander far away from the area in which they grew up in search a territory of their own, although recent research has shown that this distance isn’t always as large as previously thought; many males establish territory within 10-15 kilometres of their natal area.
The process of leaving one’s home turf and moving into a new area and establishing a territory ensures that genetic diversity is maintained – one reason why the leopard gene pool is so robust. Dominant male leopards need to be especially careful of the young nomadic leopards that arrive in their territory because the younger males often kill the cubs fathered by the territorial male in order to bring the females back in a state where they can mate. Interestingly, we have noticed on a few occasions that when a territorial male gets older he is more likely to tolerate his own male offspring in his territory as is the case with the Inyathini male and his son, the Tortoise Pan male. Despite the fact that the Tortoise Pan male has killed cubs that may well have been fathered by the Inyathini male a couple of times, the Inyathini male still allows his son in his territory. Maybe it’s the male version of ‘territorial inheritance’ – but it’s too early to say.
Watching the shifting territories of leopards at Londolozi is fascinating. Armed with the knowledge of why leopards choose their territories where they do, we can attempt to understand their secretive lives a little better. One thing is for sure though – leopards do not always act in the way that the textbooks say they should, and that’s half the fun.