A scientist on his honeymoon recently filmed an exceptionally rare, grisly sight: an adult male leopard cannibalising another a juvenile male leopard, mere minutes after the kill.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime event to witness, for sure,” says Tanner Harvey, a Ph.D. student studying snake venom at the University of Northern Colorado.
His work often takes him into the field, but Harvey’s December trip to Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park was strictly personal.
Just after dawn on December 30, Harvey and his wife Kathy Yang embarked from their campsite with their guide, hoping to catch a glimpse of a nearby lion pride.
As their vehicle curved around a rock formation, the group saw a leopard panting at the foot of a tree, a behaviour the big cats often exhibit immediately after a kill.
The group’s gaze then turned upward into the tree, where they thought they saw a second leopard alive and well. They quickly realised that the second leopard was, in fact, dead.
You Are What You Eat
Judging by the dead leopard’s appearance, Harvey’s guide said that it was probably freshly killed and dragged into the tree by the other leopard—a strategy leopards employ to protect their kills from scavengers.
As the group watched, the leopard hopped up into the tree, repositioned the corpse, and began feeding. In all, the male leopard spent 90 minutes or so eating its prize before it climbed down the tree, sunned and groomed itself, and slinked into a nearby cave.
“Time flies when you’re watching a leopard eat another leopard,” says Harvey.
Luke Hunter, president and chief conservation officer for Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organisation, confirmed what Harvey witnessed is rare. He says that the dead leopard likely met its untimely end by trespassing on a more senior male’s turf.
"The consuming cat is probably a resident, territorial individual who encountered the young cat in his turf, perhaps recently dispersing and looking for his own territory," he wrote in an email. "Young males run the gauntlet of territorial males who, as is this case, may kill the younger intruder."
Digesting the Literature
Cannibalism is not common among leopards but its certainly been recorded, Hunter adds.
Studies going back to the 1960s have documented leopard infanticide, as well as the occasional bout of leopard-cub cannibalism. In 2013, a photographer in Botswana spotted a male leopard killing and eating a cub. That same year, Hunter co-published a study finding that male leopards that killed unrelated male cubs were more likely to sire the mother’s subsequent litter, giving murderous males a reproductive edge.
Fewer records exist for adult leopards killing and eating other adults. In 1977, two leopards in a Zimbabwean national park fought over a freshly killed duiker, leading to the death of one and an extra meal for the other. In August 2005, researchers in Botswana watched as an adult male leopard killed an adult female leopard, presumably as they fought over a freshly killed impala.
Harvey may soon enter these rarified ranks. He is currently writing his doctoral dissertation on snakes, but if he has time, he’d like to separately write up his leopard observations to add them to the scientific literature.
“I’m not fully up-to-date on large-mammal carnivore research, but I do know this is a really rare event,” he says.