Grow up fast and die young: The accelerated life of a JAWAI Leopard
Updated: May 4, 2019
As the heat sets in, and the days slowly tick by here at Jawai, I continue to gather evidence and observations to explore this theory and to develop it into a much larger understanding of the life of leopards in this area.
When I arrived at Jawai, I spent many hours conversing with the local villagers and hearing about the constant influx and surprising behavior of the leopards of the area. Having worked for five years at Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa, I was used to a relatively stable leopard population in which large males held territories for many years. I can think of at least two males that have dominated their territories for well over 8 years and I am sure other keen leopard followers If the locals are to be believed, then it seemed possible that maybe these leopards were not as territorial as their African counterparts. I played around with the ideas of flexible movements and shifting territories to align with the agricultural and pastoral landscape. However, after carefully watching the males in the area I saw all signs of a territorial cat: scraping, roaring, sent-marking and smearing of the facial glands on the walls of caves. So what is the reason for the high turnover? A couple of observations provide clues… Photograph taken on 18th December 2013
The first was when I watched a female raising a litter of two cubs (B and C) whilst she still had a youngster from a previous litter (A). The one and a half year old male (A) was often seen together with the new cubs (B and C). When I returned for a second season, I was met by the same female having yet another litter, this time three cubs (D, E and F), and the previous two (B and C) still very much a part of her life.
Photograph taken on 9th October 2014
It did not stop there. On a camera trap I managed to catch the same female mating with a male while her then 4-month-old cub (D) watched on. Incredible. In the space of two-and-a-half years she had had three litters and was showing signs of preparing for a fourth! Over the same period of time in Londolozi, a female would be just about rearing cubs from a single litter to independence. Infanticide is well documented amongst big cats and it is thought that solitary species are more susceptible to infanticide than social species because they cannot rely on co-operative defence. Once a new male leopard arrives on the scene, he usually kills the cubs and inseminates the female as soon as he can so they stand a reasonable chance of being brought up to independence. It is common practice though for some time to pass after the death of a litter, before the mating process starts again. This delay allows the female to evaluate the fitness of the new male and to ensure stability in the area before mating again. This period can be as long as six months. When Naina’s (another Jawai female leopard) previous cub (from a litter of one) was killed by a male in late March 2014, she began to mate within 10 days. This example, together with the one described above, shows that the interval between mating/litters here is short. I also observed a series of sightings of a male leopard born in April 2013. After 19 months he had left home and by the age of 20 months, we were seeing him exploring areas as far away as 10,5 km from his birth hill. Even before his second birthday he was a fully independent leopard. Although not unheard of in Africa, it is certainly a relatively short time scale for a male to reach independence.
The young male leopard mentioned above seen resting in a recently ploughed field.
A Google Earth satellite image showing the hill on which he was born and the area in which he started to lay claim to at just 19 months of age. A second major observation on the relatively short lifespans of Jawai leopard is unfortunately linked to my saddest day thus far here in this magnificent area. In mid-March 2015, I was taking guests on a morning drive and saw a large male limp into a cave. A single photograph taken by a guest was enough to confirm that it was the same male we had seen for the first time just two weeks prior – a newcomer to the area. We called him Bhero (named after the god of a temple where he was first spotted). He is about 5-6 years old. The jeep slowly drove forward and about 200 meters away we saw a second male leopard, seemingly asleep, sprawled out on the rocks in the early morning sun. I was surprised at how close we could approach this leopard, without him even lifting his head. A quick look through our binoculars and I immediately knew something was wrong. His body was still and his paws covered in blood. He was dead.
The New Male: Bhero - photograph courtesy of Chagan Lal
I have worked with big cats for many years and I have seen dead animals on many occasions, but nothing could have prepared me for this. I climbed out the jeep and walked towards his motionless body – he was lying on his side and his pelt was shining in the sun. His body was still soft and warm. At Jawai we have developed an identification guide using the ‘thumbprint’ of the rosettes. Every leopard has unique rosettes and spot patterns. It only took me a split second to recognise that this was Nag Vasi, my favourite leopard in Jawai and the father of Naina’s cubs.
I have clearly marked (in red) the rosette pattern on the left flank of Nag Vasi. The top image shows a close up of his pelt. The bottom picture shows the same area highlighted on Nag Vasi just three weeks before his death. I had to hold back the tears in front of the guests. This was the male I had spent a lot of time with during my months at Jawai, tracking him countless times. I knew his favourite paths, his caves and his watering holes. I knew where to look for him on these ancient hills and the time of day he would usually move about. I had spent so much time observing him that he responded by allowing me to get closer. Initially he would run away when I got within 200 meters; a year-and-a-half later he would let me park 20 meters away. Our relationship was founded on respect. And just like that he was gone…. It was obvious that he had been in a brutal fight. His body was covered in scratches and puncture wounds; but the most disturbing were the multiple bites to his head where the skull had been pierced a number of times. When big cats fight it seldom ends in death; one protagonist almost always gives up and makes a run for it. If a cat is to die, it is usually due to the subsequent wounds; they crawl into caves or thickets to die quietly and out of sight. The death of Nag Vasi was different. He had obviously been killed on the spot – out in the open on the rocks - his skull fractured and throat crushed. The magnificent blue-eyed male was no longer. His death allowed me to have a closer look at his body - his extremely long tail, his powerful leg muscles and his phenomenal physique. His condition was magnificent. It also allowed me the rare opportunity to try and age him. I guessed his age to be 8-9 years old and the official Forest Department post mortem declared him to be in good condition aged approximately 10. He was huge, but he was not old! Just a few days after the death of Nag Vasi, one of Naina’s current three cubs has been separated from her mother. Bhero has been seen, nose to the ground, following the scent of the helpless 9-month-old sub-adult female. By ‘normal’ standards I would say that these cubs are doomed, far too young to go independent, but yet among the Jawai leopard population I cannot be sure. I witnessed Naina leaving her cubs for extended periods of time when they were as young as 4 months old. She also had a habit of only ever taking food to two cubs, leaving the third to fend for itself. I paged through my journals from some of the other big cat projects I was fortunate enough to have been involved in. In the vast Pantanal area in southern Brazil, Projeto Onçafari, a jaguar habituation team based, had managed to follow the life of a wild female jaguar living on a working cattle ranch. This female had learnt to hunt cattle; cleverly following them even as skilled cowboys moved the herd throughout the vast tracts of the ranch. She had her first litter of cubs at 23 months of age, 13 months earlier then what is accepted as the norm. I thought at the time that maybe it was the human presence that was making her mate and reproduce early. Now that I look back, it may actually be a similar story to the one I am witnessing here in Jawai. The two landscapes in Brazil and Rajasthan could not be more different, but both are highly influenced by man.
In the Pantanal, the cowboys are constantly moving the cattle to different enclosures. One day a jaguar could have around 1000 cattle in its territory (an abundance of food) and the next day they could have all moved. At Jawai the Rabari – the local herdsmen - move their livestock to various fields, rotating the area and giving the grasses time to recover. In both cases the farming activities of men have a major influence on the availability of food for leopards – this is in complete contrast to the situation at Londolozi in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, where human activity has had very little impact on the animals. In addition to the unpredictable movement of their key prey species, cats in both areas retreat to safe hideaways during the day to avoid coming into contact with people.
In Brazil it is to avoid the cowboys as they go about driving cattle and fixing fences. In India it is to avoid the Rabari and other farmers working the wheat, sesame and mustard fields. So, although both systems are different in how they are worked, leopards in both areas share the same limited and patchy distributions of prey and ‘places of safety’ resources. Both landscapes are highly influenced by man.
A group of cowboys move out into the Pantanal to try and round up the cattle and drive them into a different grazing area.
A family harvesting the wheat in the dramatic landscape of Jawai. For the jaguars, their hideaways are the small-forested islands in the wetlands of the Pantanal; for the leopards it is the caves on the granite hills. I call them ‘places of safety’. If another leopard, or jaguar for that matter, moves in and starts to threaten your ‘place of safety’, you are left with little option but to fight…often to the death!
A narrow track allowed us access into one of the forested fragments in the Pantanal wetland of Brazil. It was in these areas that jaguars would retreat to during the day.
A female leopard emerges out of a deep cave in Jawai, India.
Of the 29 individual leopards I have seen at Jawai, not one has been over 10 years of age. In South Africa we regularly have leopards living beyond 15 years, some even as old as 17/18. These observations and records, when juxtaposed, paint a picture of a possible undercurrent that could be at play here. Is it possible that the pressures on the leopards, brought on by the unpredictable movement of prey, human involvement and limited ‘places of safety’, are forcing the leopards into a shorter and accelerated life? On arrival at Jawai, I assumed that leopard mortality rates would be low; after all there were no lions, tigers and very few Striped Hyenas to threaten them. Here the leopards are at the top of the food chain. In the last 17 months, in an area of roughly 60 km², I have recorded 29 different leopards - however, 13 of these cats are either confirmed dead or have not been seen in the last 6 months. Presumably they have been killed or pushed out. With not a single known story of human malpractice, I believe that in Jawai the pressures and conflicts by leopards on leopards are exceptionally high. Judging by the wounds inflicted on Nag Vasi, I would say the battles are fierce. A highly competitive leopard population will result in the high turnover of animals which the local villagers had initially told me about.
I have inserted a picture to show you what I would call an old leopard (left). This female, known as Nottens was roughly 16 years old when this picture was taken. You can see the age in her ears and eyes and fur condition. The female on the right, Naina, is much younger. My guess is 6-7 years old.
The ultimate goal of a big cat is to reproduce. My theory – based on these observations - is that given expectations of a short lifespan you may as well mature young, mate young, mate often and go down in a big fight. Leopards are widely regarded as the most adaptable of the big cats. But does this adaptability go as far as changing their biology and internal clocks to suite a specific environment and landscape?
Can you help?
I want to find out if you are aware of studies (or stories) that may back up my theory that big cats, especially leopards, are able to change their biology as a coping mechanism to a human-influenced and/or highly-stressed environment.
Is anyone aware, for example if tigers mate for the first time at a younger age in a heavily visited Tiger reserve compared to a more isolated scarcely visited reserve?
I would love to hear from you. Any other comments, questions and observations on this newsletter are also welcome.
PS: Upon finding the body of the male leopard we immediately called the Forest Department. We all moved away and I left one staff member in the vicinity, until the officials arrived, so as to ensure no person interfered with the body.