Nikki Le Roex, Project Coordinator for the Sabi Sands Leopard Project, shares insightful new research about territorial leopard behavior in this blog. She opens a window into the lives of this solitary carnivore — and why leopards may get along with one another better than you may think.
Wild animals need space to eat, sleep and reproduce. Those that are territorial need exclusive range and must defend it against competitors. But when the habitat is healthy and populations are at or near capacity, there may not be enough exclusive space for everyone. Individuals are forced to fight for space, share it or go elsewhere. But fighting can be costly — it can end in injury or death. Sharing comes at a price, though. What if there aren’t enough prey species, mates or dens for everyone?
This presents a dilemma for solitary carnivores, like leopards, who are typically territorial. Their mating systems demand access to the opposite sex, but discourages same-sex sharing. Males don’t want other local males mating with their females, while females don’t want other females taking all the best food and den sites. Males and females, however, are usually more tolerant of one another because sharing space enables mating opportunities and potential protection for their young. But when space is at a premium, what is the best way for solitary species to get what they need?
We used our unique long-term research site in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve in South Africa to evaluate territorial behavior among leopards and understand the impact of space constraints on solitary carnivores. The Sabi Sands Leopard Project has been in operation since 2009, making this study the longest-running leopard research program to date. As a result of a secure environment and sensitive game-viewing practices, leopards here are extremely relaxed around vehicles. Consequently, behaviors that are seldom (or never) viewed among leopards elsewhere are recorded frequently. Daily leopard sightings are recorded by experienced ecotourism guides and converted into high-quality observation data.
Using data from 63 leopards over five years, we found that under high-density conditions, leopards share a considerable proportion of their space. Interestingly, home range overlap occurred among all pairs of leopards — males shared with males (25 percent of their ranges), females shared with females (25 percent of their ranges) and male and females overlapped by an average of 50 percent. This form of relaxed territoriality is strategic; when population density is this high, the risk of injury from territorial fights is far greater than the cost of sharing resources. Leopards are willing to share their space to keep the peace. Although some space is shared, leopards likely avoid each other (and confrontation) within those areas by utilizing them at different times.
When we investigated what conditions enabled space-sharing among leopards, we found that overlap was more likely to occur where resources were most plentiful — areas where leopards could afford to share. Males and females shared areas where prey was abundant; males shared space in areas with high female leopard density. Interestingly, as male leopards reached their prime, they frequently overlapped with more females rather than encompassing a greater proportion of their range. This means that access to females (and mating opportunities) is more desirable than having access to every female in the area. This is likely because female leopards undertake mating excursions, seeking out mating opportunities with males located outside of their home range. Additionally, females shared more space with related females, but this was only true for mothers and daughters, not sisters.
Each day, we are learning more and more about these fascinating carnivores. Though they might seem solitary and overtly territorial, leopards are more tolerant of one another than we previously expected. Who knows what eye-opening behaviors leopards in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve will reveal next?