Species Brief: The Leopard (Panthera pardus)
Photo: Baiju Patil.
Did you know?: Did you know that the leopard is found in Sri Lanka, but the tiger is not? The leopard moved into peninsular India long before the tiger and was able to cross over the land bridge between India and Sri Lanka (across the Palk Strait) before it became submerged. The tiger entered the subcontinent through northeast India, spreading across the region and reaching south India after the land bridge had disappeared.
Natural History and Physical Characteristics:
The leopard is the smallest of the four “big cats,” after the tiger, lion, and jaguar. It is the most adaptable of the four, able to occupy habitats from dry deserts to the Congo rainforest. The leopard has a wide range, from Siberia, to South and West Asia, and across most of sub-Saharan Africa. Fossil records indicate leopards and other members of the Felidae (cat) family originated about 25 million years ago, in the Late Pliocene or Early Pleistocene period.
Leopard coat colour varies from pale yellow to deep gold, with distinctive dark spots called rosettes. It is easy to confuse leopards with two other big, spotted cats, the jaguar and the cheetah. Jaguars have rounder heads, shorter, stockier limbs, and are generally larger and have a more muscular, bulky appearance than leopards, while cheetahs have longer legs and a thinner build than either of their spotted brethren. Jaguars are found only in Latin America, while leopards and cheetahs co-exist in Africa, and are not found in the Western Hemisphere. Leopards’ spots tend to be smaller and more densely packed than jaguars’, and they do not usually have central spots within a circle of rosettes, as jaguars do. Cheetahs have simple, black, evenly spread spots. The spotted coat of all three cats provides superb camouflage in variegated terrain.
Melanistic leopards (and jaguars) are commonly called black panthers. They do have spots, but their dark fur makes their spots difficult to discern.
An adult leopard measures up to 76 centimetres at the shoulder with a maximum length (from nose to tail tip) of about 267 centimetres. Males can reach 90 kgs and females up to 60 kgs.
Leopards are solitary, elusive, and nocturnal. They are opportunistic carnivores, and are well known for their climbing ability. They are frequently seen resting on high tree branches during the day, and can drag heavy kills up trees. An African leopard was seen to haul a young giraffe more than twice its weight 5.7 metres into a tree. They descend trees headfirst. They are powerful swimmers, and swift and agile, able to run at over 58 kilometres per hour, leap 6 metres horizontally, and jump up to 3 metres vertically.
Leopards will eat anything from dung beetles to large ungulates and monkeys, as well as rodents, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and birds. They are the only known natural predators of adult chimpanzees and gorillas, though they tend to avoid large, male silverback gorillas. When living in proximity to humans, they will take cattle and feral dogs, and occasionally will attack and kill people, probably sometimes confusing them with their natural prey. Leopards tend to defer to lions and tigers, living on the margins of the larger cats’ territories.
Leopards can breed all year round. Gestation is approximately 3 months, with females giving birth to 2-4 grayish cubs with barely visible spots. Cubs are weaned at around 4 months, and live with their mothers for about two years.
Despite their versatility, leopards have been extirpated from 40% of their historic range in Africa, and from over 50% of their historic range in Asia. They are extinct in six countries that they once occupied, and endangered in six others.
Leopards are tolerant of human presence. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for humans. Man-animal conflict is growing, in India and in other leopard range countries due to human incursion into once wild areas. In addition to persecution due to conflict with humans, leopards are threatened by poaching, poorly managed legal trophy hunting (particularly in Africa), and habitat loss and fragmentation throughout Asia and Africa. In parts of Africa, leopards are persecuted by tribes who use skins for ceremonial dress and body parts for traditional purposes.
The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) currently lists the leopard as “Near Threatened,” but stated in 2008 that it may soon move the species to “Vulnerable” due to heavy hunting for the commercial trade in Asia, and other threats. The Amur leopard, a leopard subspecies, is one of the rarest felids (cats) in the world, with approximately 30 surviving in the wild in far eastern Russia’s boreal forest.
In ancient times, leopards were believed to be hybrids of lions and panthers, as reflected in the name – leo-pard – a Greek compound of lion (leo) and pardos (panther).
Books and links:
Hunter, Luke (2011). Carnivores of the World. Princeton University Press, ISBN 0691152276.
Schaller, George (1972). Serengeti: A Kingdom of Predators. New York: Knopf. ISBN 039447242X.
Sanctuary Asia: India’s Leopards In A Spot Of Trouble.
Many A Slip – A Forest Story.
Source: Jennifer Scarlott and Parvish Pandya, Sanctuary Asia.