Leopard Ecology as Studied by Radio Tracking

Dr. Brian Bertram was one of the first researchers who in the late 1960s ventured into the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania to study lions and leopards at a time when wild leopards in particular were relatively unstudied predators. His report "Leopard Ecology as Studied by Radio Tracking" of field studies carried out in 1972-73 was first published in 1982 (in: Symposium Zoological Society London No. 49), of which an excerpt is presented here.

Observations of leopards hunting could rarely be made except in the daytime. Almost invariably the leopard hunted alone. It was apparent to the observer that the major problem the leopard had to overcome was a considerable one - namely to get within a few yards of an unalerted prey animal. Overall, only three (5%) of 64 daytime hunts by radio collared leopards were successful. A "hunt" was defined as an orientation and an approach towards a particular prey animal. Thus many hunts ended, because the potential prey animal wandered away, totally oblivious of the leopard. It is likely that the hunting success rate of fully adult animals only, and at night when most hunting occurs, is somewhat higher.
African Leopard painted by Eric Wilson Leopards were observed to use three methods for getting to within range of their prey. By far the most was stalking. Having detected potential prey, the leopard approached it slowly and stealthily, body low to the ground, making use of cover, and advancing only when the prey animal was not looking. Sometimes the leopard was resting inactive when it first detected its prey, in which case, if it was concealed at a suitable place such as near a stream crossing, it remained there and in effect used the second hunting method, namely ambushing. Ambushing was rare, however, probably there were few places in the environment where prey animals would come predictably. The third hunting method was a little more common and largely opportunistic. In the course of its travels the leopard investigated clumps of vegetation and dashed after any small animal (particularly hares (Lepus capensis)) flushed out of them.


Painting by courtesy of Eric Wilson

The interactions between leopards and the other large predator species are complicated. Radio collared leopards were seen chasing, but also being chased by, cheetahs and hyaenas. Cheetahs and wild dogs were both so scarce as to be unimportant in the study area. Spotted hyaenas deprived leopards of parts of some of their larger kills or scavenged carcasses, and are probably one reason why leopards kill small prey and why they carry that prey up into trees if possible. The presence of hyaenas, with their adaptations as highly efficient scavengers, probably helps to prevent leopards from getting a significant part of their food by scavenging.

Lions were observed to chase leopards whenever they saw them. In these cases the leopard invariably escaped safely into a tree, although it may not always succeed in doing so. The presence of trees or rocks as retreats is presumably what makes it possible for leopards to co-exist with their larger rivals. Lions are able to keep their territories empty of other lions, but they cannot exclude the more agile and arboreal leopards.