Leopards (“Panthera pardus”) are solitary hunters found in Africa and Asia. Rarely seen even though they are fairly common, they are masters of stealth and concealment and are much smaller than lions and tigers. But don’t let their size fool you. According to animal trainers leopards are "most dangerous, idiosyncratic and unmanageable of the great cats." A group of leopards is called a leap of leopards. [Source: Kim Wolhuter, National Geographic, October 2001]

Dereck Joubert wrote in National Geographic, “Unlike lions or cheetahs, leopards are secretive, solitary cats. Without a family to depend on, they hunt alone, slinking through the shadows, surviving on stealth and intelligence.”

Leopards are the most widespread of wild cats. They range across most of sub-Sahara Africa and most of Asia south of the former Soviet Union and can be found in Israel, southern Siberia, and islands of Sri Lanka, Java and Borneo. They are also the most adaptable of the big cats, thriving in habitats as diverse as rain forests, cultivated land, swamps, pine forests, deserts, even cities, and have been found alive in all habitats except the driest of deserts and Arctic tundra. A perfectly-preserved female leopard was found in crater ice at the summit of 19,300-foot-high Mount Kilimanjaro.

Based on DNA evidence, scientists recognize eight leopard subspecies: 1) in Africa, 2) in the Middle East, 3) in India, 4) in Sri Lanka, 5) in Southeast Asia, 6) in southeastern China, 7) in Manchuria and eastern Siberia, and 8) in Java. Using other measures 27 subspecies have been counted — 14 in Asia and 13 in Africa. Some subspecies look noticeably different from other subspecies. The markings on leopards found in Israel, for example, are significantly fainter than those found of leopards that live in rain forests.

Leopards are doing quite well compared to other great cats and are not in any serious danger of extinction. They are relatively common in southern and eastern Africa but are endangered in many parts of Asia. An estimated 300,000 to 700,000 of them live in sub-Sahara Africa. In Asia, they range over an area about equal the area they inhabit in Africa but are found in much lower densities. Leopard numbers are determined by ungulate densities and availability of reliable water sources.

Leopard Specialists: John Cavallo.

Leopard Characteristics

Leopards are much smaller and weaker than lions and tigers and have larger heads, shorter legs and more powerful bodies than cheetahs. Adults stand about one meter to 1.5 meters (39 inches to 60 inches) at the shoulder and weigh 37 to 90 kilograms (82 to 200 pounds). Their head and body measures about one to two meters in length. The tail is between 80 and 110 centimeters long. Males weigh anywhere from 38 to 90 kilograms (85 to 200 pounds), and females from 28 to 55 kilograms 65 to 130 pounds). The largest males have a two-meter-long body and a one-meter-long tail, which curls and has a black tip. The average life span for leopards is round 12 years. The oldest one on record lived to be 19 years old.

Like lions, leopards are adapted to night. Their yellow-green eyes are filled with light-sensitive cones that allow them to see well in the dark but limits their vision to black and white in the day.

Much of a leopard’s body weight is made up of muscles. Powerful jaw, neck and chest muscles allow them to drag their prey a long way and up trees. The animal’s large head houses powerful jaw muscles that give it the power to kill and dismember prey. The heavily muscled shoulders and forelimbs allow it to bring down prey and hold it dwn wll it delivers a suffocating bite

See Cats

Leopard Spots

Leopards have yellowish fur covered by closely-grouped spots that look like rosettes. The patterns are unique to each animal and are regarded as the most beautiful among the great cats. Sudanese believe the markings represent the foot prints of every animal they hunt. Most leopards have: 1) solid black patches and spots on their limbs and head; 2) pale-centered rosettes on theor body; 3) pale background color on their underparts; and 4) a ringed tail.

The spots serve as camouflage and are especially effective against animals like themselves whose vision is adapted for the night and who see black and white during the day. The spots blend in with surroundings, helping the leopard disappear in the mix of light and shade in the forest and sometimes create an illusion of movement even when a leopard is standing still.

Erin Friar McDermott wrote in National Geographic: “Rudyard Kipling imagined a leopard’s spots came from fingertips of a human to help blend in with the jungle. William Allen of the University of Bristol took a digital approach to breaking the camouflage code...After comparing photos of the cats with a mathematical model of pattern development on their flanks, Allen and colleagues concluded that the complexity of many coat patterns was related to habitat. Spotted cats are typical of closed environments like forests; plain-coated ones tend to inhabit open spaces. Behavior also plays a role. The more time a cat spends in trees and is active at night, for instance, the more elaborately marked its coat is likely to be. “In evolutionary time perhaps cats can change their patterning relatively easily,” says Allen.”

Black Panthers

Black leopard

Black panthers are leopards that are black. It was once thought they were a separate species but they actually are leopards with normal spots on a dark background. The spots and rosettes are visible in direct sunlight. There are some completely black jaguars but most large black cats are leopards. It is possible for a spotted leopard and black panther to be born in the same litter.

Both jaguars and leopards can be black or nearly so. The trait is most common in dense forests. David Attenborough wrote: “This particularly so among the leopards of Malaysia, where almost half the population is virtually black. Particularly dark individuals are known as black panthers. They are, however, true leopards and their spots are often just detectable beneath their jet veil.” Black panthers can be viewed as examples of melanism, a genetic change that causes the amount of dark pigment (melanin) to increase in the skin or fur. In deserts leopards are pale yellow. In grasslands they have a deeper yellow color.

Black leopards (black panthers) are particularly well adapted for night hunting. Their black color makes them almost impossible to see in the dark. Their eyes have huge pupils and dense concentrations of light-reflecting cells.

Leopard Behavior and Territory

North China leopard

Leopards are solitary animals except for mothers raising young and brief periods when a male and female come together for courtship and mating. On leopards, the naturalist Maitland Edey wrote, “he is an animal of the darkness and even in the dark he travels alone.” Leopards are very secretive and mainly nocturnal. Like tigers but unlike gregarious lions, they are solitary hunters. The only time leopards come together with other leopards is to mate and raise offspring.

The famous India-based big game hunter Colonel Jim Corbett said that leopards were the most intelligent and skilled hunters among the big cats. Another hunter described them a “remarkable escape artists.” Naturalist Pat Quillen of SOS-Care said: “Leopards are incredibly bold and clever like a coyote. They are too smart. I don’t trust them. Their expression stays the same, yet their minds are always working. Everything is a challenge to them — and they can have rapid mood changes.”

Leopards are mostly nocturnal. Because leopards hunt mainly at night they nap much of the day, often in trees. They sometimes sleep on their backs and are often seen asleep in trees, well camouflaged, their dangling tails being the only things that give them away. Their vocalizations include grunts, “husky sawing roars,” "woodsaw-like coughs” and "full-throated growls."

The naturalist Norman Myers described the leopard as the most feline of the great cats. Like house cats, leopards spend a fair amount of time grooming themselves. They make loud rasping noises when they lick their paws. Even when covered with dew they will sidestep puddles to avoid getting their paws wet. Even so they are good swimmers

Leopards are very territorial animals. Individual animals often use the same pathways and cache their kills in the same tree time after time. Leopards mark off their territory with feces, urine, claw marks, facial-gland scent rubbed against objects, scraping, drooling, rolling on the ground, roaring, conspicuous movements — and fight fiercely to defend it.

Ideally, a leopard needs about 10 to 15 square kilometers with ample prey, water and shelter to exist comfortably. While females sometimes share their ranges with other females, the territories of males rarely overlap. The territory of a typical male may cover 14,000 acres and encompass the territory of four females If a tourist lodges lies within their territory than so be it.

Javanese leopards confine themselves to relatively small ranges. They usually prowl around only at night and spend the day living inside trees. They sometimes shadow villagers taking unattended livestock and if they can't finish it they are adept enough to carry the carcass up a tree to store it until another time. There are also leopards in Borneo and Sumatra. [Source: Return of Java's Wildlife" by Diter and Mary Plage, June 1985]

Leopard Prey

Leopards eat almost anything and have the most varied diet of wild cats. They have been observed eating 40 different animals, including catfish snagged from drying pools of water, porcupines that have had their quills meticulously pulled out, vervet monkeys snatched from the branches of trees, eight-foot-long pythons and aardvarks. They occasionally take dogs, cats, chickens and livestock. When nothing else is available, leopards prey on birds and insects such as dung beetles and scavenge and feed on carrion. They don’t eat everything they come across though. The skins of monitor lizards are too thick for their teeth to penetrate.

Leopards prefer medium- and small-sized mammals. They often kill animals mant times larger than themselves. In Africa, they hunt duikers, chitals, bushpigs, ground birds, gerenuk, wild hares, impala, other species of antelope, warthogs, small mammals like squirrelsm hyraxes, monkeys, and baboons and occasionally chimpanzees. With large animals such as antelope, baboons and monkeys they sometimes to feed on the young rather than adults.

A large kill can provide a leopard with enough food for two weeks. Even so such kills are usually made every three days or so, more for a female with cubs. Most prey is killed with a suffocating bite to th neck. Larger prey are often killed by twisting the neck until cervical vertebrates break.

Puncture marks, perhaps made by leopards, have been found in the skulls of prehistoric baboons and hominids. It has been theorized that leopards hunted hominids at night and hominids sought out tree-stored leopard kills for meat, skins and bone marrow. See Ancient Man, Bushmen.

Leopards on the Hunt

Alert leopard

Leopards hunt primarily at night. They usually stalk their prey — crouched, with their ears back and their belly to the ground — to get within striking distance and attack with a quick leap to grab a hold of their prey. The naturalist Norman Myers wrote, “A leopard on the prowl takes care to conceal itself from the start while at the moment of attack it reveals itself for only a few moments — if that.”

A hunting leopard patiently and carefully observes its prey before making a move, and then moves slowly and freezes, moves slowly and freezes, its cushioned feet allowing it to move almost silently. The only part of leopard’s body in motion when it freezes is its nervously twitching tail. The leopard keeps its eyes fixed on its prey during the entire hunt. The closer it gets to its prey the slower and more carefully it moves. When the leopard makes its final leap it is so close to its prey and so quick that the prey hardly knows what hit it. Sometimes the prey leaps when it realize the leopard is there and the leopard brings it down in mid air.

Leopards kill by suffocation. When they attack they secure themselves to their prey’s body with their claws to get a firm grip and then clamp down on their prey’s neck with their powerful jaws, cutting off the air supply to the lungs and holding the position, often while the animal struggles, until the prey stops moving. Fresh leopard kills are often relatively undisturbed except for a couple of vampire-like punctures in the neck.

Hunting leopards need cover to stalk their prey. Sometimes monkeys alert other animal to their presence. Making a kill is also dangerous. Leopards have been seriously injured by warthogs. One leopard in Masai Mara in Kenya is lost half of its tail in a showdown with a baboon.

Some leopards like to leap onto victims from a tree, going for a quick bite to the spine. Others sneak up on baboons at night while they are asleep in their sleeping tree.

Description of a Leopard Hunt

"One morning," writes naturalist Edwin Bauer, "we found [a leopard called] Half Tail crouched in the crown of acacia tree. Not far away, several impala females with fawns began gazing directly towards the tree. Very slowly, almost imperceptibly, the cat flowed onto the ground and almost disappeared from view. We could see only her white ear spots moving ever so closely toward the unsuspecting antelope. She moved only when they lowered there heads to feed. But a sudden clap of thunder and flash of lightning caused the prey to stand alert." After it started raining the impala headed for higher ground and the leopard retreated.

"One another morning we spotted her flattened on the ground," Bauer wrote, "as several impala browsed nearer and nearer. She was so focused on her target that she took no note of a red-necked turkey fowl that carefully passed less than two meters from her fore paws. the bird would have been an easy meal, but Half Tail ignored it. May she preferred the chance of a large meal over the certainty of a small one. In the end she had neither. Before the antelope came within range, a breeze bought them the cat's scent, and they fled. By then the bird was gone too."

Leopards, Kills and Trees

Leopards are the only great cat that spends a lot of times in trees. Lions, tigers and jaguars sometimes climb in trees but not nearly to the extent of leopards, who use tree limbs as a perch to survey the landscape for prey and sometimes launch ambush attacks, Leopards haul their kills up into trees to keep them out of the reach of other predators such as hyenas and jackals. They also mate and sleep in trees.

After making a kill, a leopard usually drags it prey by the neck to a tree or a cave or a secluded spot where it can feed undisturbed. Leopards can drag and carry kills twice their size up trees. They have been observed heaving 300 pound impalas and reedbuck up trees after dragging them more than a mile through the bush. One was even observed munching on a young giraffe at the top of an acacia tree.

A large animal can provide a leopard with food for days and keeping it in a tree ensures that only the leopard can feed on it for that time. Leopards that don’t haul their prey up into a tree often lose to other predators. it. Since leopards usually hunt alone they can easily be driven off their kill by a pride of lions and or a pack of hyenas.

Leopards sometime disembowel their kills to make them lighter and easier to drag into a tree. One of the telltale signs of the presence of a leopard is a carcase with a desiccated head hanging in a tree. Leopards sometimes cross their legs over their prey when they eat.

Leopard Mating and Young Leopards

Leopard mating can be quite rough. Males have barbs on their sex organs that may stimulate ovulation but likely also causes the female pain. It is not uncommon for the female to aggressively attack the male after copulation is over. Even with this being the case, a leopard pair may mate hundreds of times while a female is in estrus or more than a 100 times in a single day.

The gestation period for a leopard is 90 to 105 days days but leopards reproduce relatively slowly because females give birth only once every couple of years. Litters generally consist of one to four cubs, usually two or three. It is unusual for all leopard cubs to survive and sometimes mothers lose their entire litters. The cubs are often taken by baboons, hyenas and other predators. They are also sometimes poisoned by tribesmen or ranchers. Typically one cub survives and is weaned by three months.

Cubs stay wit their mother for a year or more and siblings sometimes associate for longer than that. Young cubs are raised in dens in trees or in caves. The fathers do not stick around to help protect the cubs and the mother leaves them alone when she is off hunting. Surviving cubs are often very well hidden by their mothers. When the female returns from a hunt mother and cubs rub against and lick one another.

The mother teaches her offspring how to hunt. Cubs are fed on kills even before they are weaned. The mother will often let older cubs practice their hunting skills on an animal she has recently killed. Young leopard cubs also develop hunting skills though play. To amuse themselves during their long waits for their mother, leopards cubs often play with a branch, which also helps them increase their dexterity for hunting.

Dangerous World of a Leopard Cub

Dereck Joubert wrote in National Geographic, “She was eight days old when we spotted her. Her eyes were still milky gray, and she wobbled slightly. Emerging into the sunlight from her den, she seemed curious and bold, taking no notice of screeching squirrels. Her mother had lost five previous cubs to hyenas, baboons, and other predators. What would happen to this one? Finding any leopard is difficult, so when we discovered this mother and cub in the thick groves of ebony and acacia trees at Mombo, an area in Botswana's Okavango Delta, we decided to follow the little one as she grew up. [Source: Dereck Joubert, National Geographic, April 2007]

“From her first days, Legadema, as we came to call her ("light from the sky" in the Setswana language), was under constant threat. Whether it was a troop of baboons that tried to drag both mother and daughter out of their den, or the lurking hyenas, death was never far away. Lions, a significant threat to young leopards, thrive in this part of the Moremi Game Reserve. But none of this kept Legadema from exploring the forest on her own when her mother left her alone for days at a time to bring back meat. Wherever Legadema went, vervet monkeys with darting eyes spotted her a mile off, and squirrels set up alarm calls. In time, these incidents only made her better at concealment and stealth.

“Her mother, a patient teacher, instructed Legadema in the skills she would need to survive as a predator: how to pin down prey and where to clamp on their throats with her jaws to suffocate them. Only after mastering these and many other lessons would she grow into the solitary hunter that all leopards must one day become.

Mother Leopard Teaching Her Young to Hunt

Dereck Joubert wrote in National Geographic, “As they patrolled their territory and hunted together, Legadema seemed a mirror image of her mother. The two formed a strong bond during their first years, sometimes playing like siblings. Once after playing around a tree Legadema slipped and her mother had to save her from a 60-meter fall — a tricky maneuver for an animal equipped only with teeth, claws, and determination. [Source: Dereck Joubert, National Geographic, April 2007]

“When Legadema was five months old, her mother brought her a live baby impala. At first Legadema wasn’t sure what to do, playing inquisitively, then attacking ineffectually. Her mother guided her tolerant through every step of the kill, until at last Legadema learned that living animals can become a meal. Her predator skills honed, Legadema turned her attention to squirrels, becoming almost obsessed with dizzying and deadly games of hide-and-seek. Over time, she grew adept, killing hundreds of squirrels as well as such larger prey as baby warthogs.

“Despite her deep fear of baboons, Legadema one day killed an adult female. When she discovered a newborn clinging to the baboon mother’s fur, the situation took a bizarre turn. The ting baboon innocently reached out to Legadema, accepting her as its new mother. Legadema initially seemed confused, but for the next for hours, she watched over the baby baboon, then groomed it and gently carried it to safer branches higher in the tree whenever the baby cried. Eventually the two cuddle together and went to sleep. Was Legadema feeling early maternal instincts? Before the night was over, he cold claimed the life of the helpless infant, and Legadema left the baby to resume her role as predator, feeding on the mother baboon’s body.

“At 13 months old — still an adolescent — Legadema got into a spat with her mother that escalated into a permanent rift. The cause: Legadema’s refusal to share a kill. Although tension between the two had been building for some time, Legadema was now demonstrating her independence. And her mother drover her away...Legadema shared part of her mother’s territory for a while. Later she established her own territory.” In 2006" at the age of three and half she mated.”

Large Carnivores Help Ecosystems

In January 2014, AFP reported: “The gradual decline of large carnivores such as lions, wolves or pumas is threatening the Earth's ecosystems, scientists warned as they launched an appeal to protect such predators. More than 75 per cent of 31 large carnivore species are on the decline, and 17 of them now occupy less than half of their former ranges, says a study published in the American journal Science. [Source: AFP, January 10, 2014]

"Globally, we are losing large carnivores," wrote William Ripple, lead author of the study and a professor in the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University. "Many of them are endangered," Ripple wrote. "Their ranges are collapsing. Many of these animals are at risk of extinction, either locally or globally. And, ironically, they are vanishing just as we are learning about their important ecological effects."

Ripple and his colleagues reviewed published scientific reports and focused on seven species that have been studied for their widespread ecological effects. They are African lions, leopards, Eurasian lynx, cougars, gray wolves, sea otters and dingoes. The different reports show that a decline in pumas and wolves in Yellowstone National Park led to an increase in animals that feed on tree leaves and bushes, such as deer and elk. This disrupts the growth of vegetation and shifts populations of birds and small mammals, the researchers said.

In Europe, fewer lynx have been tied to overpopulation of roe deer, red foxes and hares, while in Africa the disappearance of lions and leopards has coincided with a dramatic increase in the number of olive baboons, which threaten farm crops and livestock. In Alaska, a decline in sea otters through killer whale depredation has triggered a rise in sea urchins and loss of kelp beds.

"Nature is highly interconnected," said Ripple. "The work at Yellowstone and other places shows how one species affects another and another through different pathways." For instance, avoiding overpopulation of herbivores allows forest flora to develop more and sequester more carbon dioxide, the main green house gas responsible for global warming. But the authors of the study say it will be very hard to convince people to accept a large scale restoration of large carnivore populations. People are afraid of them and have fought them to protect their livestock and their communities, they said.

Leopards and Other Predators

Leopards stay clear of large adult baboons, lions and hyenas. A single lion or a pack of wild dogs can drive a leopard from its prey. Lions sometimes feed on leopard cubs. Leopards sometimes feed on tiger cubs. Lions and tigers have been known to kill adult leopards.

Leopards often struggle over prey with hyenas. Sometimes a single hyena and a leopard will consume prey together. Four hyenas are usually able to drive a leopard away from its prey. Sometimes a pair of them can do it. A single hyena has been observed following a leopard wherever it goes in hopes of scavenging food.

Leopards sometimes share the same range with tigers and lions but usually go out of their way to avoid them and occupy different ecological niches. An adult tiger weighs four times more than an adult leopard. If a leopard is seen in territory previously occupied by a tiger, it probably means the tiger has been poached.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, Natural History magazine, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Top Secret Animal Attack Files website, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, The Economist, BBC, and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2014

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