Leopards are solitary animals. All cats are, except lions. The reclusive ones become social only when they court and have cubs. Occasionally, they may socialise around a kill. At all other times, these large cats are said to avoid each other. So it seemed incomprehensible that an adult male leopard in Akole, Ahmednagar district, Maharashtra, was babysitting a cub while its mother went hunting all night.
Vidya Athreya studies the ecology of these wild cats living in farmlands. She had trapped and collared the male leopard named Jai Maharashtra. The collar was loaded with gadgets to pinpoint the animal’s location and to text message the information every hour.
As soon as Jai was released, he walked six km and sought shelter in a hilltop cave.
Three days later, three km from Jai’s tryst with the research team, Vidya collared a leopardess, Lakshai. About 24 hours later, Lakshai left her sugarcane hideout and joined Jai in the cave. Were they consorts? How did Lakshai know where to find Jai? Was their meeting accidental?
Eventually, the two descended and resumed living in the farmlands of Akole. Although they met occasionally, they seemed to live independent solitary lives. Perhaps their sojourn together in the hilltop was a coincidence.
Weeks later, Lakshai’s GPS locations were confined to one sugarcane field for a few days; she wasn’t moving at all. Vidya guessed she had a litter. At this time, Jai moved in with Lakshai, never leaving her side.
On a couple of nights, when Lakshai left the field, perhaps to hunt, Jai stayed put. It seemed as if he was babysitting while the mother was out. Accepted knowledge says male cats don’t care for cubs.
Then Vidya received GPS information indicating Jai and Lakshai walked side by side along a path one night. On visiting the site, she discovered the pugmarks of two adults and a cub. Perhaps Jai was the cub’s father, she surmised.
However, the result of a DNA analysis was surprising: Jai was Lakshai’s son. He was a few months away from setting out to establish his own territory. In the meantime, he was being a dutiful older son and protective brother.
Even tigers are proving to be family-oriented. Rajesh Kumar Gupta, the Field Director of Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, has observed two instances of adult tigers being affectionate fathers. He writes in Stripes, the bi-monthly publication of the National Tiger Conservation Authority, when the mothers and cubs met the dominant males, the little ones ran forward to greet their dads and nuzzled up to them like pussy cats.
In February 2011, a tigress in Ranthambore called T-5 died leaving two four-month-old cubs orphaned. It seemed unlikely the cubs would survive on their own, and the Forest Department began provisioning them with meat. The dominant tiger of the area, T-25 aka Zalim the Cruel, was an irascible fellow, chasing jeeps, and growling in annoyance at humans. It seemed likely Zalim would kill the cubs. Instead, to everyone’s surprise, the adult tiger adopted the orphans. Although they were likely to be his daughters, such behaviour was unknown. Zalim taught them to hunt, took them on his patrols, and even guarded them against the unwelcome attentions of an adult tigress.
While the behaviour of Jai and Zalim may be surprising, tigresses and leopardesses hardly live lonely reclusive lives. They inhabit a landscape of sisterhood: surrounded by sisters, mothers, cousins, and aunts. Daughters generally settle down adjacent to their mothers, while sons disperse far and wide.
We know adults communicate with each other through growls and scent marks. But in 2000, Elizabeth von Muggenthaler from the Fauna Communications Research Institute, North Carolina, showed tigers were capable of producing and hearing infrasound. Various uses of such low frequency sounds have been suggested: to intimidate rivals, to paralyse prey, and attract mates.
Vidya suspects leopards may also use infrasound to communicate over long distances. That would explain how Lakshai knew where to find Jai.