Common Name: Leopard
Scientific Name: Panthera pardus
Species: P. pardus
Even though this cat is the smallest of the 4 big cats (lion, tiger, jaguar, leopard), it is still able to kill large prey such as a gazelle and carry it into a tree. This is due to its large skull and powerful jaw muscles. Its body is long for a cat and its legs are relatively short. As a result, it is not a very good runner, but it is an exceptional climber and a great jumper. The adult head and body length are between 3 feet and 6 feet while the tail reaches 2 to 3 feet. Shoulder height is between a foot and a half to about 3 feet. Males are much bigger than females and weigh between 80 and 200 pounds compared to 60 to 130 pounds for females.
Although spotted like other cats, the leopard has rosettes rather than simple spots like those found on such cats as the cheetah, but it does not have internal spots like the jaguar. It is interesting to note that leopards found in East Africa generally have circular rosette spots while those in southern Africa tend to have spots that are more square in shape. Although the background color of the coat is generally pale, leopards have a wide range of colors with the darkest form being called a black panther. The mottled coat conceals the cat by day when it is resting and provides great camouflage at night when it is hunting.
Other adaptations that the leopard possesses are excellent hearing and night vision, as well as sensitive whiskers on its muzzle. All of these adaptations allow the leopard to move with stealth, grace, and power undetected over the terrain. It is generally not the top carnivore in its habitat, but the leopard is nevertheless a powerful predator in sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia. This opportunistic carnivore feeds on grazing mammals, pigs, primates, dogs, insects, and fish. It usually eats in the trees or in thick vegetation where it does not have to deal with lions and hyenas who might try to, at the very least, take its meal away or even kill it.
Leopards, despite their smaller size, are just as capable of killing humans as the larger cats and some have included people as part of their diet. The Leopard of Rudraprayag is claimed to have killed over 125 people and the Panar Leopard allegedly killed 400 after being injured by a poacher and thus unable to hunt normal prey. The leopard’s varied diet (It has been observed eating insects as small as dung beetles as well as giant elands weighing as much as 1800 pounds.) and its ability to live in different habitats from desert to jungle increase its chances for survival in the ecosystem.
This high degree of adaptability has allowed the leopard to have the largest distribution of any wild cat in the world. Its present world population is estimated to be about 250,000, but some subspecies are on the verge of extinction. Logging which destroys their habitat and hunting are the two primary reasons why its population is in decline and is fragmented outside of subsaharan Africa. Predation by lions, tigers as well as by packs of wild dogs and hyenas also have an impact on reducing the population of leopards, but there is some good news. In Namibia where leopards were once considered a nuisance, they are protected because they are now looked upon as a source of income because of ecotourism. This beautiful animal whose main vocalization is like the sound of a saw cutting coarse wood has a life expectancy in the wild of about 15 years and about 20 in captivity.
Even with a secretive nature, an ability to breed throughout the year, and an adaptable foraging behavior, it needs our help to survive. Presently, the South Arabian, Barbary, Anatolian, and Amur leopards are all considered critically endangered and the Zanzibar leopard is presumed extinct. If conservation programs similar to those taking place in Namibia do not become more widespread, this master of concealment is destined to disappear forever.
Author: Giovanni D
Sources: Wild Cats. Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland. Nowell, K.; Jackson, P, 1996, pages 24-29 Walker's Mammals of the World. Ronald M. Nowak, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999 The Encyclopedia of Mammals, Edited by David Macdonald, Brown Publishing, 2006 pages 28-29 The Encyclopedia of Animals, Edited by Per Christiansen, International Masters Publishers, 2007 page 135 http://www.kruger2canyons.com/leopard.htm
Photo Credit: Arthur Morris taken at Nakuru National Park, Kenya; Giovanni DeNicola; February 2008