Just a Fight or Something More? Investigating Female Leopard Infanticides

By Nikki Le Roex
Project Coordinator, Sabi Sands Leopard Research

Leopard Sabi Sands

In the heart of the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, a chilling scene unfolded one cold autumn morning in 2019. Two female leopards, Nanga and Xidulu, were locked in a heated stand-off. After Xidulu had retreated some distance and reunited with her young cubs, one of them strayed too far from her side. In a swift and merciless attack, Nanga seized the opportunity, biting the cub behind its head and killing it instantly. The surviving cub managed to flee to safety while Xidulu chased Nanga away. This astonishing encounter raises the question: What drives such seemingly senseless violence among female leopards? 

In the animal kingdom, conflict and power struggles are not uncommon. Disputes over territory and access to mates are very normal, in fact. However, this particularly brutal behavior observed amongst female leopards in South Africa requires further investigation into the oftentimes violent lives of this species. Female infanticide, a rarely observed behavior, has recently captured the attention of researchers studying African leopards. A recent article authored by Panthera scientists in Ecology delves into the mysterious world of these solitary felines and sheds light on the possible motivations behind this unusual behavior.

Mother and cub Sabi Sands 2

Looking at Male Infanticide Among Wild Cats 

Let’s start with what we already know. Male infanticide, a commonly observed behavior across many species, is driven by the desire to increase reproductive opportunities with females. Male wild cats often kill young that are not their own to allow females to enter oestrus more quickly, giving males the ability to reproduce more quickly, too. Female infanticide, however, presents a more perplexing puzzle. Unlike males, female leopards seldom gain direct benefits from killing another's young. Therefore, scientists postulate that female leopards may engage in infanticide to increase their chances of securing food or other resources like breeding space or future territories for their own offspring. 

We had to investigate further. The Sabi Sands Leopard Project (SSLP), an extensive long-term study in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve supported by the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) in South Africa, has revealed intriguing patterns in this unusual leopard behavior. Although physical altercations between adult leopards are common and male infanticide is the leading cause of cub mortality, female infanticide here is extremely rare. Prior to the encounter between Nanga and Xidulu, only two other instances of female infanticide have ever been recorded. In both cases, a female leopard named Tutlwa played the role of the perpetrator, while Nanga found herself the victim. In 2015, Tutlwa killed Nanga's three-month-old cub. One year prior, she claimed the lives of both of Nanga's three-month-old cubs. These incidents indicate a pattern that calls for a full-on analysis.

Mother and cub Sabi Sands

An Insight into Female Leopard Territoriality

Delving deeper into these incidents, similarities began to emerge. In every case, the perpetrator was an older female who was either pregnant or supporting her own dependent cub. The dead cubs were not eaten by the perpetrator, nor were the perpetrators outside of their territories at the time of the incidents. All three incidents did, however, occur towards the edge of the perpetrator’s home or core range. Taken together, female infanticide in this high-density population seems to be related to the defense of breeding space (rather than territorial expansion) and linked to the perpetrator’s reproductive status. These findings challenge conventional notions about female behavior in solitary species and emphasize the importance of studying social interactions among seemingly independent individuals. 

The unique research conducted by SSLP provides unparalleled access to the secretive world of leopards. Daily sightings and meticulous documentation of individual life, while minimizing disruptions, have unveiled remarkable insights into their behavior, ensuring that the study contributes to both scientific knowledge and effective conservation strategies. By unraveling the motivations behind female infanticide, Panthera researchers with our Sabi Sands Leopard Project move closer to comprehending the complex strategies animals employ to ensure their reproductive success. While female infanticides may be especially violent and tragic, understanding the intricacies of leopard behavior not only fascinates us but plays a vital role in safeguarding these magnificent creatures and their habitats.

Young leopard
©craig taylor

Read the full study in Ecology.

Learn more about the Sabi Sands Leopard Project.