The leopard is the least seen and least understood of Africa's Big Cats. It has been described as the perfect predator. It harbours enormous strength and supreme beauty, pound for pound it is perhaps the most powerful of the world's great cats. It is a perfectly tuned killing machine, dispatching its prey quickly and quietly. The pinnacle of refinement on the cat blueprint, the leopard moves with a fluid grace, a true prince of the night.
This is a perfectly built cat with a beautifully spotted coat ... the largest spotted cat in Africa. The average mass of a fully grown male is 60 kg (135 lbs) and a female ranging between 30 kg (66 lbs) and 40 kg. At the shoulder the male can measure up to 80 cm (31,5"). After a gestation period of about 106 days one or two young are born which weigh approximately 500 g (1 lb).
The leopard is most easily recognised by its rosette patterned coat and extremely long, darker tail. This large cat is sometimes confused in appearance with the South American Jaguar ... the leopard though is less stocky and unlike the jaguar, its rosette markings are generally smaller and have no internal spots. The overall size of the leopard depends very much on the subspecies and location ... with the largest animals growing to a length of nearly 5 feet with an additional tail length of some 3 feet ... generally the male is between 20-40% larger than the female.
The base coloration of the coat also varies greatly depending upon location, ranging from golden/yellow in open grasslands, through yellow/cream in desert areas to deep gold in mountain and forest regions.
Leopards have a wide habitat tolerance ... they are solitary and secretive animals except during mating season or when a female is accompanied by juveniles. They are primarily nocturnal, however when undisturbed and protected they may be seen moving during daylight hours and are often seen lying up in trees. They usually hoist their kills up into trees to keep out of the reach of other predators and scavengers.
All ‘Black Panthers’ are born in the same litter as normally marked cats.
The leopard is a versatile hunter and generally nocturnal in its pursuit of prey - however the increased frequency of hunting found in the female raising young often leads to more opportunist hunting during daylight hours.
The type of prey taken by the leopard is again dependant largely upon its locale ... in the open grasslands of Africa where roaming herds of large to medium sized herbivores are common the leopard will take young eland and wildebeest, impala and gazelle.
However in the same areas the leopard will also take small mammals such as hares and rock hyrax, reptiles and insects. In contrast, in the west and central forested regions of Africa the leopards prey consists mainly of the smaller antelope such as duiker, small monkeys and various rodents such as rats, squirrels and porcupines.
It is clear the leopard has an exceptional ability to adapt to changes in prey availability, and has a very broad diet. Small prey are taken where large ungulates are less common. The leopard shows several behavioral adaptations which permit it to compete successfully with other large predators ... the first being its dietary flexibility.
Although a strong and competent hunter the leopard is not without threat from other carnivores ... because of this leopards often cache large kills in trees. Great strength is required ... there have been several observations of leopards hauling carcasses of young giraffe, estimated to weigh up to 125 kg (2-3 times the weight of the leopard) up to 5.7 m into trees.
Leopards may also retreat up a tree in the face of direct aggression from other large carnivores. In addition, leopards have been seen to either kill or prey on small competitors, e.g. black-backed jackal (Estes 1967), African wild cat (Mills 1990) and the cubs of large competitors (lion, cheetah, hyenas, wild dogs: Bertram 1982).
Leopards have also been observed to ambush terrestrial prey by leaping down from tree branches, although this behavior is apparently opportunistic and relatively uncommon (Kruuk and Turner 1967); like other cats, they probably generally prefer to get their footing on the ground before launching the actual attack.
Although no other wild cat has such a wide spread range and diverse prey base as the leopard, it is still under threat in many regions. Once common in all parts of Africa apart from the deserts of the Sahara, it has now gone from most parts of northern Africa, apart from a few widespread areas of the Atlas mountains and is scarce in the extreme west of the continent. Subspecies of the leopard once common in the middle east, P.p.nimr and P.p.jarvisi are now all but extinct, as is the Persian leopard (P.p.saxicolor).
In south east Asia and India its numbers have dwindled mainly due to hunting for its prized fur and through loss of natural habit due to the spread of the human population. The Korean Leopard (P.p.orientalis), also known as the Amur Leopard are extremely rare in the wild, suffering extensively from habitat loss. Although the leopard has had greater survival success across the African/Asian range compared with the Cheetah and Lion, who now only exist in single locations within this extended range, the leopard, especially in the Middle East and South West Asia is under extreme threat.
The leopard picture gallery:
This beautiful background was made by Morning Glory at Northern Dreams.