Leopards spend most of their time alone and aren’t known for sharing much of anything, be it territory, food, or a mate. It came as quite a surprise, then, when park guides in South Africa spotted and filmed a male leopard mating with two females.
“This is very unusual,” says Luke Hunter, a researcher and chief conservation officer for Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization, who wasn’t involved in the filming. “I’ve seen two male leopards attending the same female leopard when she is in heat, but not vice versa.”
Guides at Londolozi Game Reserve, adjacent to Kruger National Park, spotted the unusual arrangement. The guides know the leopards in the area, and note that the females are sisters, born three years apart.
“Because they are related and clearly know each other, they tolerate sharing,” Hunter says. “If two unrelated territorial rival females came together, I’d expect fur to fly.” (Watch: “Rare Leopard Cannibalism Caught on Video.”)
Richard Laburn, a Londolozi guide, notes that over the preceding few days, the male had been mating with the younger female on the edge of the older female’s territory, and such mating “can be a loud affair,” Laburn says. This likely drew the older female to the scene, and also notified the guides, who could hear the commotion from afar.
Unlike female lions, which tend to become receptive to mating—also known as coming into heat, or estrus—at the same time, leopards do not. It’s likely a coincidence, then, that these two females were both receptive at the same time.
When leopards mature, they leave their parents’ territory and eventually find their own. Once these solitary creatures carve out their own private space, they tend to stick to it and interact with each other only at the boundaries of their personal domain, Laburn explains. (Watch: “Leopard Plays With Prey's Own Bones.”)
The strange sight was filmed in late November 2017 and quite possibly gave rise to pregnancy in the older female. She is currently raising a litter of cubs, Laburn says. The younger female was probably too young to conceive, as she was two and a half years old at the time; typically leopards cannot get pregnant before the age of four, he says.
Leopard War and Peace
Amy Attenborough, also a guide at the reserve, notes in a blog post that the same male had killed the older female’s cubs several weeks before she was spotted mating with him. It “may seem crazy that she would tolerate a male that had done this to her offspring, but it is, in fact, typical behavior,” she writes.
“By killing cubs that aren’t his, the male forces the female back into estrus, allowing him to mate and sire cubs of his own. She, in turn, recognizes that he is the dominant male, and is the one she needs to mate with to reproduce again.”
The biting and snarling in the video are also typical of leopard mating. “Males of many cat species, including domestic cats, ‘scruff’ the female during mating; its gentle, they don’t break the skin, and it might help soothe or reassure the female so she doesn’t become aggressive,” Hunter says. They also “vocalize heartily during the act of mating—this is also normal.” (Watch: “Leopard's 'Playful' Bite Could Have Dangerous Consequences.”)
The leopards in the video have relatively small territories and will likely encounter each other in the future, Laburn says. Of course, it’s still unclear exactly where the younger leopard will establish her own territory, which will depend upon competition and space, he says.