Family Bonds

The main mating season of the major carnivores is in late spring, but female leopards come into oestrus in the cold season as well. During this period they attract the male into their home range by scent marking and unmistakable calling, uttering a rasping sound termed 'sawing'. For a couple of days male and female live together and mate repeatedly. Frequently repeated copulation induces ovulation and is an essential preliminary to impregnation of the female.

During the initial stages of their encounter they often growl and snarl. But soon the intervals between outbursts of noise grow longer, until all sounds cease. They usually mate in dense cover and instinctively avoid attracting attention. Forced for the time being to abandon their intense watchfulness, which normally is essential for their survival, they keep as quiet as they can. Should the couple advertise its passion loudly, they may easily fall victim to a tiger or lion.

Usually the male leopard seizes the female by the scruff - sometimes for several hours. At the end of their mating the leopardess twists around and slaps the male with her paw. The couple parts company. While the male provides stability in his home range by excluding other males that would jeopardize the safety of their mutual offspring, the female will raise the cubs by herself. As long as she takes care of her litter, she will not come into oestrus again.

After about 90 days the female gives birth to 1-3 cubs and hides them in thick bushes, tree cavities or caves. The cubs are born blind and open their sky-blue eyes about ten days later. During the first weeks the leopardess usually spends more than half of the time with her cubs, suckling and licking them vigorously. During her absence the cubs remain fairly immobile in the security of the den. If the leopardess feels disturbed in her den, she looks for a new one and moves her cubs. She carries them in her mouth, holding them gently by the head between her canines and molars. Sometimes she shifts her den three to four times in order to ensure their utmost protection from predators and scavengers. With the cubs' age advancing she leaves for longer periods of time to hunt, guard and eat her kill. Once the cubs are about 2 months old, she carries part of her kill to the den to supplement their diet with meat.
Pashu+Pati in May 1998Soon the cubs accompany their mother on her expeditions and familiarize themselves with her home range. But at the age of 6 months they are still too clumsy to hunt with her and tend to get in the way most of the time. At times she instils discipline by an occasional slap and snarling at them, since they have to learn to remain quiet and avoid danger. Observing her stalking and killing prey is an important lesson in their training. In their play they ambush each other, pounce upon and wrestle with each other.

Even at this age they enjoy being suckled by their mother. But when at the age of about 8 months their permanent canines start growing, she rejects them more and more often. Their milk teeth do not fall out until the permanent canines are of equal size. As a result they can always injure and defend themselves, even if their decidious canines are not sufficient armament to kill. At this age they exercise stalking and making use of the slightest available cover. Yet more often they succeed in panicking prey and scaring it into their mother's direction, helping her hunt in this way. Later on, they chase easy prey such as hares and jungle fowl on their own. But of course not every attack is successful, and rigid training and experience is required for them to be able to fend for themselves.

By the age of 18 months the cubs equal the size of their mother and, with a good diet and sufficient exercise, have learnt the art of hunting, confrontation and escape. Their contests have become more aggressive, and their physical closeness begins to lessen. More and more often they stray alone in their mother's home range, but keep in touch by scent marks and sounds. Occasionally they still share kills, but at the age of 2 years they lead independent lives and start establishing their own home ranges. Not all sub-adult leopards leave their natal area when becoming independent. Male sub-adults usually move further away than females and are driven out latest when becoming sexually mature at the age of about 2½ years. At this time the efficiency of the mother's training will show in the young leopards being able to survive this critical phase of their development. If they find sufficient game and successfully stand their ground against competitors, they will thrive to the age of 15 years.

Arjan Singh has watched a young leopard family and recounts ...