The leopard (Panthera pardus), with the largest distribution of any wild cat, still numerous and even thriving in in Africa while populations of other large African cats are declining, is arguably the most successful of all the large cats. This success is no doubt due the leopard’s exceptional adaptability. While the leopard prefers the savanna and rainforest habitats, it can be quite versatile in habitat selection with leopards using grasslands, woodlands, riverine forests, temperate forests and even semi-arid edges of deserts.
The leopard is an opportunistic hunter with a diverse diet. It will consumes nearly any animal that it can hunt down and catch. Nearly a hundred different prey species have been documented in the leopard’s diet. The leopard feeds on a much broader range of prey than any other big cat (i.e. genus Panthera). The leopard will eat insects, rodents, reptiles, amphibians, fish, birds, and even mammalian predators (such as smaller canid, mustelid, and felid species); however the leopard’s diet consists primarily of ungulates and primates. When available, mid-sized ungulates, ranging in size from 40 to 200 lbs. are the preferred prey. In Africa, this includes species such as the impala and Thomson’s gazelles. In Asia, this includes species such as chitals, muntjacs, and ibex. However, leopards have been know to eat prey much larger than themselves including the common eland and the Nile crocodile.
The leopard hunts mostly at night and relies heavily on its keen nocturnal eyesight and hearing. Generally a leopard will stalk its prey in a stealthy mode, approaching to within 20 feet before suddenly pouncing on the prey and killing it with a quick bite to the throat. The leopard is an agile hunter that can run up to 36 miles per hour and jump nearly 10 feet off the ground.
The leopard is a strong climber and will often drag its prey up into a tree, out of the reach of other predators who might otherwise steal the leopard’s kill. A leopard is very powerful and has been observed carrying prey exceeding its own weight up into a tree (e.g. giraffe carcass weighing an estimated 275 pounds). Actively mainly at night, the leopard often sleeps in arboreal hangout during the day. An elevated resting spot serves as a safe haven from ground predators and a vantage point for prey selection.
Over its range of distribution, the leopard competes with many other large predators, including the lion, tiger, several species of hyena, several species of wild dog, and four species of bear. These other predators can steal the leopard’s kill, as the leopard will wisely abandon its kill rather than risk being killed itself. Occasionally, these other predators will kill, and sometimes eat, leopards. Also troops of large African baboons have been known to kill, and sometimes eat, leopard cubs. Nile crocodiles and pythons have also been known to prey on leopards. Leopards are able to co-exist with these other predators by hunting for different types of prey and by avoiding contact with the other predators.
The leopard has a powerful, long body, with relatively short legs, and a massive skull with powerful jaw muscles. Male leopards can reach a weight of over 200 lbs. and a shoulder height of nearly three feet and are generally about 30 percent large than their female counterparts. However, the size of the leopard varies greatly, with adult leopards from less optimal habitats, such as desert edges and coastal mountains, being smaller (often less than 100 lbs.) than those in better habitats, such as rainforest and savanna. The smallest subspecies of leopard is the Arabian leopard (P. p. nimr) and adult females can weigh less than 40lbs. The Arabian leopard is found in the deserts of the Middle East. Also an adult leopard tends to grow larger in areas that lack other large cats, such as the lion or the tiger.
The leopard’s tawny coat is covered in dark, irregular spots called rosettes. The shape of the spots can either be circular, as in East African leopards, or square, as in Southern African leopards. This patterns of spots differs from the cheetah, which has simple black spots, spread relatively evenly over its body. It also differs from the jaguar, which has small spots inside polygonal rosettes. The melanistic form, often called a black panther, is a color variation commonly found in both the leopard and the jaguar.
A leopard will normally live and hunt within a specific home range or territory. Home ranges are marked with urine and claw marks. Studies have shown that a leopard home range tends to be larger for a male, ranging from about 10 to 30 square miles, compared to five to seven square miles for a female. The home range of a male leopard will often overlap with the ranges of several females. A female’s home range will decrease further when she is caring for young cubs, usually to less than the three square miles.
The female leopard typically gives birth to a litter of two or three cubs. The leopard cubs are hidden for the first eight weeks and then the mother will continually move the cubs from one location to another until the leopard cubs are old enough to begin learning to hunt. Leopard cubs begin eating meat when they are six or seven weeks old; however, the mother leopard will continue nursing her cubs until they are about three months old. A leopard cub has only about a 50 to 60 percent chance of surviving the first year. A young leopard will leave its mother after the second year of its life. A leopard should reach sexual maturity by the third year, with some male leopards becoming sexually mature after only two years. An adult leopard will usually live to be between 12 and 17 years old. Leopards in captivity have been know to live beyond 20 years.
The leopard is elusive, solitary and mainly nocturnal creature. The leopard’s superlative stealthiness and nocturnal habits often allows it to go undetected while living in close proximity to human populations. This may be another reason for their relative success in the modern world compared to other large cats.
A leopard generally does not go out of its way to hunt humans; however, there are known cases of man-eating leopards. In a few cases, the man-eating leopard was responsible for hundreds of human deaths before the leopard was finally killed.
The leopard is a member of the Felidae family and the genus Panthera. It is believed to have evolved in Africa and then radiated out across Asia and Europe based upon the fossil evidence. This evidence suggests that the leopard became extinct in Europe about 24,000 years ago. The leopard’s current distribution includes most of sub-Saharan Africa and ranging north in Asia to Russian and south to Indonesia. While leopard population is thriving in Africa, Asian leopard populations are declining in some areas and becoming increasingly fragmented. The Leopard is native to more than 35 countries.
There are nine subspecies of leopard recognized by the IUCN.
• African leopard (P. p. pardus) – found in sub-Saharan Africa• Indian leopard (P. p. fusca) – found on the Indian Subcontinent
• Javan leopard (P. p. melas) – found in Java, Indonesia• Arabian leopard (P. p. nimr) – found on the Arabian Peninsula
• Amur leopard (P. p. orientalis) – found in Russia, Korea and northeastern China• North Chinese leopard (P. p. japonensis) – found in northern China
• Persian leopard (P. p. saxicolor) – found in the Caucasus, Turkmenistan and northern Iran (areas bordering southern part of the Caspian Sea)
• Indochinese leopard (P. p. delacouri) – found in mainland Southeast Asia• Sri Lankan leopard (P. p. kotiya) – found in Sri Lanka
The Sri Lanka leopard, Arabian leopard and Javan leopard are all critically endangered with wild population sizes estimated to be between 200 and 300 individuals. The Amur leopard is also critically endangered, but its wild population is estimated to be less than one hundred individuals and is considered by the World Wildlife Fund to be the world’s rarest cat.
The Sri Lanka leopard is believed to occur in the following Sri Lankan National Parks:
Yala National Park
Wilpattu National Park
The Arabian leopard is believed to occur in the
Jabal Samhan Nature Reserve in Dhofar, Oman.
Javan leopard is believed to occur in the following Indonesian National Parks:
Gunung Halimun National Park
Ujung Kulon National Park
Gunung Gede Pangrango National Park
Gunung Ceremai National Park
Gunung Merbabu National Park
Gunung Merapi National Park
Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park
Meru Betiri National Park
Baluran National Park
Alas Purwo National Park
In 2012, the government of Russia created the Land of the Leopard National Park, This 650,000 acre national park includes all of the Amur leopard’s known breeding areas and about 60 percent of the Amur leopard’s remaining habitat. Land of the Leopard National Park is also home to 10 endangered Amur tigers.