Density-dependent natal dispersal patterns in a leopard population recovering from over-harvest

Natal dispersal enables population connectivity, gene flow and metapopulation dynamics. In polygynous mammals, dispersal is typically male-biased. Classically, the ‘mate competition’, ‘resource competition’ and ‘resident fitness’ hypotheses predict density-dependent dispersal patterns, while the ‘inbreeding avoidance’ hypothesis posits density-independent dispersal. In a leopard ( Panthera pardus ) population recovering from over-harvest, we investigated the effect of sex, population density and prey biomass, on age of natal dispersal, distance dispersed, probability of emigration and dispersal success. Over an 11-year period, we tracked 35 subadult leopards using VHF and GPS telemetry. Subadult leopards initiated dispersal at 13.6 ± 0.4 months. Age at commencement of dispersal was positively density-dependent. Although males (11.0 ± 2.5 km) generally dispersed further than females (2.7 ± 0.4 km), some males exhibited opportunistic philopatry when the population was below capacity. All 13 females were philopatric, while 12 of 22 males emigrated. Male dispersal distance and emigration probability followed a quadratic relationship with population density, whereas female dispersal distance was inversely density-dependent. Eight of 12 known-fate females and 5 of 12 known-fate male leopards were successful in settling. Dispersal success did not vary with population density, prey biomass, and for males, neither between dispersal strategies (philopatry vs. emigration). Females formed matrilineal kin clusters, supporting the resident fitness hypothesis. Conversely, mate competition appeared the main driver for male leopard dispersal. We demonstrate that dispersal patterns changed over time, i.e. as the leopard population density increased. We conclude that conservation interventions that facilitated local demographic recovery in the study area also restored dispersal patterns disrupted by unsustainable harvesting, and that this indirectly improved connectivity among leopard populations over a larger landscape.