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Lair of the Leopard: To Cache Kills, Leopards Prefer Caves Over Trees

A nameless cave from which a whirlwind blows, Pliny the Elder referred to it in his work Naturalis Historia. Vjetrenica, it would later be called. Icy breaths exhale from the mouth of Vjetrenica, the largest cave in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina. The scent of long-closed rooms…of dank underground caverns…of something alive, or once...

Lord of the cave: Big Cave in Zimbabwe, guarded by its chief inhabitant. (Photograph courtesy Big Cave Camp.)

A nameless cave from which a whirlwind blows, Pliny the Elder referred to it in his work Naturalis Historia.

Vjetrenica, it would later be called. Icy breaths exhale from the mouth of Vjetrenica, the largest cave in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The scent of long-closed rooms…of dank underground caverns…of something alive, or once so, drifts from the cave’s opening.

In fact, Vjetrenica is a more than 30,000-year-old burial site, according to paleontologist Cajus Diedrich of PaleoLogic in the Czech Republic.

The cave conceals evidence of an age-old battle between two now-extinct foes: the Ice Age leopard and the cave bear. Four adult leopard skeletons were found a mile or so from Vjetrenica’s entrance and near a cave bear skeleton, says Diedrich, who recently published a paper on the discovery in Quaternary Science Reviews.

Photograph showing France's Chauvet Cave, where long-ago humans painted cave leopards, and cave bears roamed.
Echoes across time: ancient drawing of a cave leopard, with the paw print of a cave bear beneath it, in France’s Chauvet Cave. The artwork and paw print are more than 30,000 years old.(Photograph by Jean Clottes.)

The cave bear may have been killed by a leopard, Diedrich believes. But revenge is a dish best eaten cold: the four leopards, who weren’t hunting together as their remains aren’t the same age, may in turn have been felled by cave bears.

Or, perhaps more likely, they might have been snared by a ponor—a death-trap underground river that suddenly springs up to swallow the unwary. After the waters of Vjetrenica’s ponor subsided, all that was left were the bones of leopards past.

Picture showing a caracal as it makes its way through Serengeti grasses.
A caracal on the watch for, perhaps, leopards as it roams the grasslands of Serengeti National Park. (Photograph by Daniel Rosengren.)

Leopards in Caves?

Why were leopards in Vjetrenica?

Leopards often hunt in thick vegetation, then stash their kills in trees—or do they? Evidence from tens of thousands of years ago, and from today, shows that leopards use caves far more often.

“In contrast to the ‘leopard in the tree’ idea that these cats cache their kills in large branches,” said scientist Darryl de Ruiter of Texas A&M University, “they may prefer to use the deep recesses of caves.” Vultures, hyenas, and lions, which might steal a leopard’s kill, don’t go there, he added. “In a cave, a leopard has it made.”

Picture showing The Drakensberg - dragon mountains - in South Africa: leopards stir here, within Leopard Cave.
The Drakensberg – dragon mountains – of South Africa: among the jagged peaks lies the entrance to Leopard Cave. (Photograph courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

Sign of the Leopard

Two decades ago, de Ruiter and Lee Berger of the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa discovered a leopard cave, the Gladysvale Leopard Lair, in South Africa’s John Nash Nature Reserve. The bones of reedboks and other animals littered the cave floor.

Most caves in the Highveldt area, where Gladysvale is located, have trees growing in their entrances. “Nonetheless,” said de Ruiter, “leopards drag carcasses into caves, avoiding trees entirely. In our study, 83 percent of the cached carcasses were in caves, and only 17 percent in trees.”

A recent discovery uncovered cave leopard skeletons inside Vjetrenica Cave.
Icy winds blow from within Vjetrenica Cave in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Cave leopards once fought cave bears inside the cave. (Photograph by Dragan Radic.)

Caves, he thinks, offer leopards the ability to store bigger prey than tree limbs could bear. “We found very large animals—elands and zebras, for example—clearly killed by leopards. The prey leopards are capable of successfully transporting has been greatly underestimated.”

Ukahlamba is a spiked mountain range in South Africa that lies 250 miles southeast of Gladysvale. Also known as The Drakensberg—dragon mountains—Ukahlamba’s high, jagged peaks shadow a deep, low overhang, a cave hidden in a sandstone cliff. Leopard Cave.

The cave’s darkness hides a creature that stirs only with the setting sun.

Closed! reads a sign near the entrance, as if its dweller had served notice. Within are the bones of its kills: the sign of the leopard.

Across the South African border in Zimbabwe, eyes watch the moon rise from Big Cave Ridge. “Leopards use caves here as shelters to rest in by day,” said Dave Waddy, owner of Big Cave Camp near the ridge, “then the cats emerge at night. We’ve found several such caves, including one we call Big Cave.”  Here be leopards.

Picture of a caracal killed by a leopard and dragged into Gladysvale Leopard Lair in South Africa.
One cat kills another: the remains of a caracal, dispatched by a leopard, inside Gladysvale Leopard Lair in South Africa. (Photograph by Darryl de Ruiter.)

The Truth About Leopards

A world away in distance and time, our ancestors may have known the truth about leopards.

Chauvet Cave, it’s called, a system of interconnected caverns that lies in the valley of the Ardeche River in France. The scene resembles South Africa’s Leopard Cave, albeit in a northern forest.

First explored by modern humans on December 18, 1994, Chauvet Cave is filled with paintings, engravings, and drawings of cave bears and cave lions, among other animals.

Archaeologist Jean Clottes of the French Ministry of Culture, whose research on Chauvet Cave is featured in the 2011 film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, found that the paintings were made some 30,000 years ago. They represent at least 13 species, including a leopard. It’s the oldest known human art depicting a leopard.

“It was a time when wild leopards still roamed Europe,” wrote biologist Theodore Bailey in The African Leopard: Ecology and Behavior of a Solitary Felid, “a time when our ancestors apparently considered leopards fascinating creatures worthy of representing on a cave wall.”

The last big cats of Chauvet Cave and Vjetrenica vanished long ago. Will we someday say the same of the leopards of Leopard Cave, Gladysvale Leopard Lair, and caves across Africa?

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Cheryl Lyn Dybas
Award-winning science journalist and ecologist Cheryl Lyn Dybas, a Fellow of the International League of Conservation Writers, brings a passion for wildlife and conservation to National Geographic, Natural History, National Wildlife, BioScience, Yankee and many other publications, and is a Field Editor at Ocean Geographic. Eye-to-eye with the wild is her favorite place to be.