07 Jan

An Unlikely Mother: The First Reported Case of a Wild Leopard Cub Adoption


Unlikely adoption among animals, both wild and domestic, make for lighthearted and exceedingly popular news stories. Admittedly or not, most of us have gushed over viral videos and photos showing both inter and intraspecies adoptions, such as domestic dogs who have adopted orphaned piglets, or lionesses who have assumed responsibility for the young of another pride member.

Interestingly, while this phenomenon is common among mammals and frequently highlighted in the press, adoption among big cats in the wild occurs less often than one might expect. When reported, wild cat adoption is typically found in species that maintain extended, related social groups such as lionesses from the same pride or non-territorial, related cheetahs whose home ranges overlap. In addition, the occurrence of such adoption is typically uncovered remotely, by scientists tracking wild cats using GPS (Global Positioning System) collars or through genetic fingerprinting techniques.

Recently, however, Panthera’s Lion Program Director, Dr. Guy Balme, and President, Dr. Luke Hunter, along with Natasha de Woronin-Britz from the Erindi Leopard Project, co-authored a paper in the South African Journal of Wildlife Research on the first reported case of offspring adoption in a wild leopard, entitled A case of offspring adoption in leopards, Panthera pardus.

As explained in the report, in May of 2007, Natasha and several other safari guides from Londolozi Private Game Reserve in northeastern South Africa were fortunate to witness a 15-year-old leopard (known as the 3-4 female after the distinguishable row of spots above her whiskers, but for the sake of this story we will call “Umame”) adopt the 7-month-old male cub of her 9-year-old daughter, the ‘Dudley Riverbank female’. On this day, Umame, with her 4-month-old male cub, and the Dudley Riverbank female, with her two 7-month-old male cubs, were seen feeding intermittently on an impala kill. Upon leaving the kill, one of Dudley Riverbank’s cubs voluntarily, and for no apparent reason, joined Umame and her younger cub! Although the Dudley Riverbank female was heard calling for her youngster after it disappeared, she did not attempt to reclaim her cub, and neither mother appeared overly concerned at the time.

Over the next several years, observations by the Londolozi guides confirmed that after its adoption, the cub was cared for solely by its new mother for just under two years, when it reached independence. Encouragingly, of the three male cubs born to Umame and her daughter, two successfully survived to adulthood and dispersed naturally. Since then, both males have established territories in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, in which the Londolozi Reserve is located, and have sired their own litters. After 17 years, during which she gave birth to 11 litters comprising 19 cubs (four of which survived to independence), Umame died naturally of old age in 2009. Her daughter, the Dudley Riverbank female, has since raised another male cub to independence and is busy rearing a new 9-month-old female cub, ensuring the future of Umame’s blood line.

Adopted leopard cub (left) with Umame’s younger, biological cub – Londolozi Private Game Reserve, South Africa

Interestingly, while one might think such selfless behavior would fall under the category of ‘animal altruism,’ many scientists maintain that such alloparental care, or the provision of care to another’s offspring, is motivated by kin selection. First addressed by Charles Darwin in ‘The Origin of Species,’ the concept of kin selection refers to an individual’s self-sacrificing behavior that allows for the evolution of characteristics, or genes, that implicitly serve the interests of that individual, including the survival of its close relatives, even with the potential of harm to the individual.

Several factors suggest that this case of offspring adoption was also motivated by kin selection. To begin with, Umame had previously given birth to 11 litters, and therefore was not likely to benefit from additional parental experience gained in raising her daughter’s cub. In addition, upon reaching independence, the adopted cub dispersed from Umame’s range without providing any apparent reciprocal benefits, such as social or nutritional support, to Umame or her biological cub. It’s also unlikely that Umame mistook the adopted cub as her own, particularly due to the difference in size between the biological and adopted cubs. Umame also willfully fostered her daughter’s cub despite the potential drawbacks in doing so, which included reducing her fertility and triggering competition between her adopted and biological offspring.

Furthermore, prior to the adoption, the Dudley Riverbank female had given birth to three litters comprising six cubs, none of which survived to independence. As a result, it’s likely that the Dudley Riverbank female’s unsuccessful history in raising litters and the decreased energetic demands associated with abandoning one of her cubs contributed to the adoption.

Overall, this case has provided wild cat scientists with significant insights into the factors impacting leopards’ reproductive capabilities, and suggests that adoption among solitary carnivores may be more common than previously thought. In order to gain an even better understanding of the reproductive capabilities of leopards, Panthera has been working with safari guides from Londolozi and other lodges in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve to aggregate leopard life history data that has been collected over the years. Collaboratively, they have now successfully reconstructed the life histories of more than 400 individual leopards from at least 15 matrilines and over 200 litters – an impressive dataset that stretches over 30 years.

Thanks to these efforts, our understanding of leopard ecology has considerably improved. In addition, these demographic data have helped Panthera's field staff gauge the effects of trophy hunting on leopard populations and convince several African governments, including South Africa, to enforce stricter, more sustainable leopard hunting regulation. Records from SSGR have also helped Panthera’s scientists determine the effects of the faux leopard skin trade on leopard populations in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, which is being used to engage leaders of the Shembe church and Zulu royal family to ensure that cultural practices using leopard skins are sustainable in the long term.

Panthera is extremely grateful to all the guides at the Londolozi Private Game Reserve who provided information on this adoption and the events that followed; notably, James Kydd, Maxine Gaines, Brent Leo-Smith, and Kate and Tom Irmie. The research on leopard ecology in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve is a collaborative partnership between Panthera, the different ecotourism lodges in the reserve, and the Sabi Sand Wildtuin management team.

Learn more about Panthera’s work in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve:

Learn more about Panthera’s Munyawana Leopard Project.

Watch a National Geographic television series starring Umame, entitled “Leopard Queen.”

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