Leopard (Panthera pardus)
Order: Carnivora, Family: Felidae
The leopard could at one time be found from the British Isles to Japan and throughout most of Asia. Today they can still be found in Africa, except for the true deserts of Sahara and Kalahari, and some parts of Asia such as Sri Lanka. Leopards are more common in eastern and central Africa. Conversely, they are rare in western and northern Africa and most of Asia.
I. GEOGRAPHIC RANGE
II. PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS
- The leopard could at one time be found from the British Isles to Japan and throughout most of Asia. Today they can still be found in Africa, except for the true deserts of Sahara and Kalahari, and some parts of Asia such as Sri Lanka. Leopards are more common in eastern and central Africa. Conversely, they are rare in western and northern Africa and most of Asia.
III. FOOD HABITS
- Mass: 28 to 90 kg.
- These cats have an elongated and muscular body. Their paws are broad and their ears are short. In tropical regions their coats tend to be shorter and sleeker, whereas in colder climates their fur is longer and denser.
- The coloration varies from the color of straw to grayish to even chestnut. The backs of the ears are black except for a spot either located centrally or near the tips. These appear to other animals as eyes. The throat, chest, belly and the insides of the limbs are white. The rest of the head, throat, chest and limbs all have small black spots. The belly has larger black spots, almost like blotches.
- Region and habitat have an affect on the appearance of the leopard. In Africa, leopards living in hilly areas tend to be larger than those living in lowlands. There is a tendency to melanism, or black coloration, in this species. This characteristic is more frequent in densely forested areas where being darker is probably beneficial in remaining unseen as compared to open areas. Whether spotted or black, the leopard's coloration is extremely effective. Scientists have been unable to spot these cats just a few yards away even knowing that they were present.
- Leopards have been recorded as long as 2.92 meters but that is extreme, 1.37-1.67 is more common.
- The diet of these big cats is surprisingly varied. Prey for this species includes wildebeest, impalas, reedbucks, Thomson's gazelles, jackals, baboons and storks. These are the most common food sources, with Thomson's gazelles and reedbucks making up the majority.
- The leopard includes other prey in its diet. At times they seem to show a preference for canines, even attempting in the past to snatch dogs right from the feet of their masters. They will eat fish and domestic stock such as goats. Droppings in Kilimanjaro were studied and revealed that leopards eat small rodents as well. They are capable of killing apes. They will even eat carrion, scavenging tiger kills.
- These cats are capable of sneaking right up next to the prey before being spotted, almost appearing from nowhere. Bite marks occur on the nape of the neck and the throat. The bite on the back of the neck often occurs when animals are attacked from behind. The marks on the throat indicate strangulation. These big cats are capable of carrying carcasses bigger than themselves and dragging them up trees to avoid losing prey to other carnivores. They may also store kills in trees for later use.
- Depending on the region, leopards may mate all year round (India and Africa) or seasonally during January to February (Manchuria and Siberia.) The estrus cycle lasts about 46 days and the female usually is in heat for 6-7 days.
- Cubs are usually born in a litter of 2-3, but infant mortality is high and mothers are not commonly seen with more than 1-2 cubs. The pregnant females find a cave, crevice among boulders, hollow tree, or thicket to give birth and make a den.
- Cubs open their eyes after a period of 10 days. The fur of the young tends to be longer and thicker than that of adults. Their pelage is also grayer in color with less defined spots. Around 3 months the infants begin to follow the mother out on hunts. At one year of age the young can probably fend for themselves, but remain with the mother for 18-24 months.
- The females of this species tend to take care of the young but there have been reports of males helping the nursing mother and child, by bringing them kills for example.
- Leopards are famous for their ability to go undetected. They may live practically among humans and still be tough to spot. They are graceful and stealthy. Amongst the big cats they are probably the most accomplished stalkers.
- They are good, agile climbers and can descend from a tree headfirst. Along with climbing, they are strong swimmers but not as fond of water as tigers; for example, leopards will not lay in water.
- They are mainly nocturnal but can be seen at any time of day and will even hunt during daytime on overcast days. In regions where they are hunted, nocturnal behavior is more common.
- These cats are solitary, avoiding one another. However, 3 or 4 are sometimes seen together. Hearing and eyesight are the strongest of these cats' senses and are extremely acute. Smell is relied upon as well, but not for hunting.
- When making a threat, leopards stretch their backs, depress their ribcages between their shoulder blades so they stick out, and lower their heads (similar to domestic cats.)
- During the day they may lie in bush, on rocks or in a tree with their tails hanging below the treetops and giving them away.
VII. ECONOMIC IMPORTANCE FOR HUMANS
- Leopards live in highly variable habitats. They feel just as secure in swampy tropical forests as in rugged mountains. They live in lowland forests, mountains, grasslands, brush country, and deserts.
- A corpse of a leopard was once found at an elevation of 5,630 meters on Kilimanjaro, and not frozen into the ice as some people had suggested.
The skins of these cats have been sought after throughout history. There is still a market for them today, although much of the hunting is illegal.
When living near populated areas these cats will attack and kill domestic stock such as goats and pigs. Where this prey is provided leopards will achieve unusually high densities and the problem persists. They will also attack and kill humans. One particular leopard in India, known as "Kahani man-eater" killed over 200 people, although this behavior is not the norm.
IX. OTHER COMMENTS
- The status of the leopard ranges from endangered to critically endangered to threatened depending on the geographic region. Even though these cats are highly adaptable, they still face many problems. These include habitat destruction, being hunted as trophies and for their fur, and persecution as killers. In the 1960s, illegal hunting of leopards for their fur became so common that as many as 50,000 skins were marked annually.
- Leopards are one of few animals that are capable of catching and dying from anthrax.