Our most interesting bait of 2020 involved a cat called Rail Road (this name is thanks to almost solid black lines of spots that paralleled his spine). He is exceptionally hard to hunt due to his habits. I have watched this leopard for over 3 years. He is a big, dominant male leopard and I know his territory well; I cross paths with him frequently.I don’t like the naming or humanizing of animals, something frequently done these days and it detracts and distracts from real information and solutions around animals and the management there of. Regardless, I have to call them something and leopard #BR549 is ridiculous for my applications and hard to remember. Rail Road is interesting to me on many levels, but mostly due to his parental habits. He seems to have an ongoing, active, and paternal relationship with his cubs.
Now, if you know anything about leopard or read the published biology on them, you will find that leopard are considered a solitary animal. Only females care for the young.(maximum 2 years of age or younger). Thus a ‘group’ of leopard will consist of a mature female and her subadult offspring. I believe this to be incorrect and what I have witnessed leads me to think I am seeing more than just exceptions.This ‘Rail Road’ cat has repeatedly helped raise 2 of his litters. This is rare to witness and many will probably dispute the behavior I have witnessed or attempt to explain it as something else.
This male tolerates and interacts with the mother in a calm and easy way, even passing each other on the limb. She is not in heat at the time and no mating was observed. She was comfortable to exit the general area without hesitation with the male still around the cubs or in the tree with the cubs.
My career as a Professional Hunter began after I was trained as a biologist. This might seem strange and contradictory to a nonhunter, but perfectly natural to me. I think most hunters, basically all hunters, have a keen interest in the natural way of things and studying the habits and trends of the animals they hunt. Most scientists wouldn’t want to call the act of hunting ‘scientific’ but it does fit the role in many ways. In Africa, hunting and hunters play a key role in the preservation of animals and more importantly wild habitat. Habitat is the key, always is. Money to pay for and protect that habitat is always the issue. The animals, the real scientist and myself are just in the middle.
Pursuing leopard is an important part of my life livelihood and enjoyment. Learning about them, observing them and protecting them are key factors in pursuing leopard. While hunting leopard I have noticed the following on more than one occasion and have documented this behavior as best I can…leopard are not the easiest animal to get close to or study.
Proof of parenting? This is hard stuff to prove scientifically; but I have witnessed and documented this huge male play with, tolerate, discipline, feed with and feed after his cubs on multiple occasions with the mother leopard in attendance. This suggests there was no risk to her or her cubs. Is this just one tolerant male cat in all of Africa? Was there a benefit? Or is this normal and our scientist just don’t get enough observation time with this apex predator? To meit means that the male leopard typically thought of as a one-night stand type of father actually plays a role in raising young leopard. Gives a new meaning to the term Cat Daddy.
These behaviors occurred with a single cub in my presence in 2018. It occurred again in 2020 with a set of cubs (one male and one female cub). The behavior was seen and documented on several occasions each year.
Is it only this Tom that behaves in this way? I have learned in my short life that people, animals and experiences are not as unique as you may think…in general its all happened before! Especially with Mother Nature. The second example was documented in 2020 and involves another leopard in Tanzania. We found this cat is a great spot but tricky to hunt. it had a stream nearby, a main crossroads, and a small rock formation. It was bound to be a popular bait site. My team picked a terrible tree. I checked it the next day and sure enough a cat had fed. And sure enough we had no pictures and the set up wasn’t conducive for him to spend a lot of time around the meat as he just couldn’t get to it. I assumed it was a young cat – but I moved the bait anyway to a tree where a cat could eat, hide away easily, and where I had an advantage of the rocks for observation, entrance, and exit. What happened next was all the leopard in the area showed up. First a young male, then a young female, followed by a young male, followed by a large block headed male called Egor. Egor was seen on camera at the base of the tree exhibiting some training to the young male. He allowed all the cats to feed. He scolded the small male and the camera got great photos of the youngster submitting to him – not avoiding him.
Are these two examples really out of the ordinary? A territorial predator, reclusive or not, they do know who is around their area in regard to members of the same species. They mark territories and interact to an extent beyond our current understanding. In this type of situation, it seems really effective to make sure that the genes you were lucky enough to pass on are welcome to survive or even be protected until adulthood or possibly after.
The possible after involves the unexplained times that I have witnessed two large male cats at the same bait. Feeding without fighting on the same bait within minutes of each other while communicating verbally. The only thing for sure is that both are mature males, their relationship further than that is speculation. Maybe they are siblings, maybe they are father and son or maybe it is just not worth the fight.
This may be the start to the rewriting of a leopard biology and social interaction – most accepted literature states. This elusive and adaptive predator like much of the natural world is morecomplicated than it seems.
– Nathan Askew
Scientist(Unofficial), Leopard Expert and Professional Hunter.