Leopard (Eng.); luiperd (Afr.); ingwe (Zulu & Xhosa); nkwe (Tswana); yingwe (Xitsonga)
Derivation of name
From the Latin, panthēra, and ancient Greek, pánthēr, (‘pán’ = all; thēr’ = prey) meaning ‘predator of “all prey”’. Species names from the Latin, pardus, and meaning ‘spotted’. The English name thus means ‘spotted lion’.
Leopards are solitary and secretive carnivores that are excellent hunters. They occur over large parts of sub-Saharan Africa and most of South Africa, excluding the Greater Karoo basin. They are adapted to many habitats and can be found from arid, desert regions that receive very little rain to humid forests and mountainous regions. As one of the ‘Big 5’, leopards attract many ecotourists to South Africa, who go looking for them in the Kruger National Park or Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Unfortunately, leopards are persecuted and sometimes killed by some farmers and other livestock owners who want to protect their livestock from these fierce predators.
Leopards are elegant, solitary and secretive carnivores. They have stocky muscular bodies, short powerful legs, a big head and long tail. This creature has big, pale greyish/greenish eyes, long whiskers and sharp canines.
Cubs are greyish with barely visible spots while adults have a yellow/golden undercoat with black rosettes and spots. The rosettes usually do not have a spot in the middle and they are found on the side of the body, back and upper tail. The rest of the body (legs, belly, neck and face) is covered with small to large black spots and the spots found on the lower front neck often form a characteristic ‘necklace’ or ‘bib’.
The spotted whisker bases and rosette patterns are unique to each leopard and are thus used to identify individuals. Leopards are white on the belly, inner legs and neck. The back of the ears are white at the top and black below. There are some leopards that appear to have a completely black undercoat (panthers) due to the high production of melanin. However, they still have rosette patterns, which are visible under certain light intensities.
Males tend to be bigger (31–91 kg weight, 1.8–2.3 m in length) than females (17–58 kg weight, 1.7–1.9 m in length). Leopards found living in savannah and woodlands are generally larger than those found in mountainous and desert terrain.
Leopards are terrestrial. They use all four legs to move from one place to another. Leopards are very good swimmers and climbers. They feel at home in water and in trees as well as on solid ground.
Leopards use both sound and behaviour as methods of communication. Cubs may produce soft chirps between growls and mews, and mothers may produce a sharp hiss to indicate to their young to take cover when facing danger. Loud calls are produced to indicate their presence to other leopards within their home range. Females may produce a soft growl during the mating ritual. Snarling and swiping with a paw may be used to indicate displeasure. Leopards can also cough, puff, meow, grunt, spit and rasp.
Leopards have white tipped tails, which can be used to provide cubs with direction when moving through their territory. The female leopard may also use her white tipped tail to indicate to her cubs to lay low and keep quiet while hunting. Leopards may flick their tails as a sign of excitement.
Leopards are territorial and mark their territory with faeces, urine and cheek-rubbing on trees. They can also leave scrape markings on the ground, trees or logs. This communicates to other leopards passing through that the territory they are in is occupied.
Leopards have the largest distribution of any wild cat. They are found over at least 80 countries across Africa, the Middle East and Far East, Siberia, Sri Lanka and Malaysia. Out of those 80 countries about half of the leopard population is found in Africa. Leopard populations are declining and fragmented outside sub-Saharan Africa. In South Africa, leopards are found throughout the country except for the greater Karoo basin. They are found in the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Northern Cape, North West, Limpopo, Gauteng, Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape.
Leopards have the widest habitat range of all the large cats, ranging from rainforests to desert. In Africa, they are found in woodland, grassland, savannah, forest, mountain, coastal scrub, swampy areas, shrubland, semi-desert and desert habitats. The distribution of leopards within desert environments is restricted to moist water courses.
Leopards are opportunistic hunters. Their prey includes a variety of animals such as insects, domestic animals, fish, birds, reptiles, foxes, jackals, cheetahs, hyrax, porcupine, klipspringers and occasionally large antelopes, which may be twice their weight. However their general diet consists of small to large mammals. There have been reports of leopards turning the tables on lions and spotted hyenas.
Leopards usually kill their prey by suffocating (large prey) or severing the spinal cord (small prey). They usually drag their prey up a tree, under dense bushes or amongst rocks, where they can enjoy it away from other carnivores. Leopards readily feed on rotten carcasses. These predators usually stalk and pounce on their prey on the ground or from trees. They are more reliant on stealth than speed to capture their prey.
Leopards display surplus killing. They may kill more than one prey animal at a time and store the prey at different locations, which they can revisit over time. Some researchers have noted a female leopard that killed three prey animals and stored them at different locations. Out of the three prey items, she managed to eat only one of them and decided not to return to the two stored items. Leopards pluck the fur of their prey before feeding on them.
SEX and LIFE CYCLES
Males reach sexual maturity at the age of two-and-a-half to four years old while females reach sexual maturity around two-and-a-half to three years old. Leopards are non-seasonal breeders and they will probably breed shortly after reaching sexual maturity. They are polygamous (the male mates with more than one female). The female’s oestrus cycle is every 46 days and lasts for one week.
To indicate their readiness for mating, females will approach the male and sway in front of him, swat him in the face with her tail while emitting a low rumbling growl. She will then lie in front of him with her rear slightly lifted, inviting him to mate. During mating, the male will use his paw to hold the female by the back of her neck in an attempt to force the female to remain submissive. When mating is complete, the female will roll over. To ensure that conception takes place, leopards will mate repeatedly during the female’s oestrus cycle.
About one to four cubs are born at any time of the year after a gestation period of 100 days in a lair among rocks, bush piles or in termite mound holes. The cubs are born blind and only start to open their eyes four to nine days after birth. The cubs will drink milk from their mother for four months and start practising their own kills from eight months. The mother will protect and move her cubs from place to place until they reach independence. Cubs reach independence when they are about 12 months old.
Siblings tend to stay together for about two to three months after gaining their independence. Males will move away from their natal area while the female cubs are likely to remain resident at the borders of their mother’s territory. This behaviour by related females, called ‘philopatry’ or sometimes ‘the exploded pride’ benefits the related leopards as the daughters get the chance to hunt in a good area, use known, secure den sites, and they are somewhat protected from aggressive encounters with unrelated leopards; thus basically protecting the gene pool of the family, even though they apparently live solitary lives.
Leopards are solitary and territorial creatures. Adult males and females will only come together briefly during mating. After mating has taken place, they will go their separate ways. Female leopards raise the cubs alone. Infanticide (the killing of cubs by adults, and in the case of leopards, by unrelated adult males) is common. It is estimated that almost half of juvenile mortality (and nearly a third of all offspring) in leopards is the results of infanticide.
Male leopards occupy larger territories than those of females and they usually encompass a few females within them. The size of a male territory is mainly determined by the number of females present while the female territory size is mainly determined by the availability of prey. The male leopard will have exclusive breeding rights to the females that are found within his territory.
Females will defend their territory from other unrelated females and males against other males. Leopards mark their territory with scent and loud calls, making their presence known without coming into contact with each other. These loud calls are of great advantage for solitary animals that rely only on themselves and avoid unnecessary confrontation with other leopards that may be found within the same territory.
Scent marking is achieved by spraying urine upwards to facilitate marking at head height and sometimes cheek and neck glands are used to mark bushes that are positioned at head height. Territory may also be marked with droppings and tree-scratching points. Tree-scratching is used to clean the claws and also spread the scent produced between the claws.
THE BIG PICTURE
Friends and Foes
Leopards compete with other predators for food and shelter. Due to the fact that leopards are predators one would think that they might not have enemies. Well, they do have some enemies. Leopard cubs can be very vulnerable to a range of wild predators. Adult leopards seldom fall victim to attack, but they can be attacked by other predators. Wild dogs and lions have been known to kill adult leopards. This killing may be a result of enemies fighting for survival. Rare cases of cannibalism have been recorded for leopards.
Humans can also be regarded as enemies of the leopard. Leopards are persecuted by farmers and other livestock owners for attacking their livestock or wild game; they are killed by big game hunters for trophy hunting, by traditional healers and communities for folk medicinal uses and by some tribes as well as a church who use leopard’s skins for traditional ceremonial wear and for religious ceremonies. The hunting of male leopards for trophies by humans may lead to increased levels of infanticide. The new male that takes over the territory of the deceased male may kill the cubs that have been sired by the previous male.
Leopards have large eyes, which provide them with binocular vision to determine distance accurately. The large pupils of the eyes allow abundant light to enter, making it possible to see during dark nights. The narrow white line found below the eyes of Leopards helps reflect light into the eyes for improved night vision. A leopard’s night vision is six to eight times better than that of humans. Their eyesight is the most important sense used for hunting. Leopards have an acute sense of hearing and smell, and have long whiskers that can help detect prey in dark spots and also give an indication of the size of the place being investigated to prevent the head and body getting stuck.
With the exception of other primates, most mammals (including leopards) have fewer colour-detecting cones in their eyes than humans, and therefore they probably see fewer colours than we do. However, it is a myth that non-human mammals are ‘colour-blind’ or only see in ‘black and white’, although they probably rely less on colour differentiation than we do.
Large numbers of ‘rods’ (light sensitive cells in the eyes that do not detect colour) allow leopards to easily detect movement and shape, which enables them to identify potential prey or predators at night. Leopard coats have black spots that break up their body outline, making it possible for these predators to blend in with their background or environment and get around without being detected by either prey or potential predators.
Leopards are able to survive in arid environments that receive 50 mm of rain per year, by retaining water from the prey’s blood and by eating desert melons.
Leopards have short, strong legs that enable them to jump to a height greater than 2.5 metres above the ground. The ability of leopards to climb trees at a young age enables them to be safe from lion and hyena attacks. Their large, sharp, retractable claws may be used to trip fleeing prey, used in fights and to climb trees. Leopards are equipped with large jaws and canines that are used to kill their prey and carry or drag it from one place to another. The large head and neck of leopards are vital for hoisting prey weighing up to 125 kg up a tree.
Poorer world without me
Leopards are large predators that play a role in the managing of small predators and prey populations within the ecosystem. These predators are a sign of a healthy, functioning ecosystem because they require large territories and are sensitive to human-induced disturbances, habitat loss and prey reduction.
People and I
Leopards make up an integral part of ecotourism and the hunting industry in South Africa. These animals are part of the ‘Big 5’ that so many tourists want to encounter for an ultimate safari experience in South Africa. The skins of leopards are used for decorative purposes in homes and to create garments worn during traditional ceremonies. Leopards are extremely dangerous when trapped, wounded or threatened and they can and will attack humans in these situations. It is believed that when you encounter a leopard in the wild, the best thing to do to avoid being attacked is to create lots of noise and walk the other way. Several people have said that talking loudly or singing had saved them during an encounter with a leopard.
According to the IUCN Red List (2008), the leopard is Near Threatened. We can look at several leopard subspecies and the category they have been placed in on the IUCN Red List. The African leopard (P. p. pardus) is categorised as Least Concern (LC) by the IUCN Red List. South Africa’s National List of Threatened or Protected Species (2007) gave the leopards a status of Vulnerable and the Convention on the International Trade Endangered Species (CITES) placed it in Appendix I, meaning that commercial trade is prohibited and the export and import of skins and hunting trophies is limited through the quota system.
Leopards are protected under national legislation throughout most of their range. There are several local organisations such as the Cape Leopard Trust and international ones such as Panthera that have taken up the task of protecting leopard populations within South Africa and raising awareness on conserving these magnificent cats. In South Africa, only people with a destruction permit or a CITES tag issued by the local conservation authority have legal permission to kill leopards.
The population of leopards within South Africa is under threat due to habitat loss through agricultural development and human population encroachment in their ranges. The other threats are illegal and legal trade of leopard goods, hunting by humans and poisoning. Leopard skins and canines are widely traded domestically in some central and West African countries where parts are used in traditional rituals and sold openly in villages and cities. Leopards may be hunted and poisoned by humans in defence of their livestock. The trophy hunting of female leopards may have a significant impact on the demographic and population level of leopards within an area. Some people have an irrational fear of leopards and tend to persecute them unnecessarily.
In parts of Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa, where leopard skins are used by members of the South African Shembe Baptist Church during religious celebrations, the Panthera Leopard Programme Coordinators have provided members of the Church with high quality affordable fake leopard fur. This has reduced the demand amongst the members of the church for real leopard skin.
Leopards are closely related to lion (P. leo), tiger (P. tigris) and jaguar (P. onca). These four big cats belong to the genus Panthera, which is found in the family Felideae. The IUCN, based on genetic analysis, recognises nine subspecies of leopards, which are separated by different coat colours and spot size. The nine subspecies are:
- African leopard (P. p. pardus) – widespread over nearly all of sub-Saharan Africa and greater parts of Asia.
- Amur leopard (P. p. orientalis) – found in Siberia, Korea and north-eastern China.
- Arabian leopard (P. p. nimr) – found in the mountainous regions along the Saudi-Arabian Red Sea coast and the coast of South Yemen and Oman.
- Persian leopard (P. p. saxicolor) – found in central Asia.
- Javan leopard (P. p. melas) – found in Java, Indonesia.
- Sri Lankan leopard (P. p. kotiya) – found in Sri Lanka.
- Indian Leopard (P. p. fusca) – found on the India sub-continent.
- Indo-Chinese leopard (P. p. delacourii) – found in southeast Asia to southern China.
- North Chinese leopard (P. p. japonensis) – found in northern China.
Name: Panthera pardus (Linnaeus, 1758)
Species: P. pardus (Linnaeus, 1758)
References and further reading
- Balme, G. Return of the leopard. www.panthera.org.
- Balme, G. & Hunter, L. 2013. Why leopards commit infanticide. Animal Behaviour 86: 791–799. Doi: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2013.07.019.
- Balme, G., Hunter, L. & De Woronin Britz, N. 2012. A case of the offspring adoption in leopards, Panthera pardus. South African Journal of Wildlife Research, 42(1): 63–66.
- Balme, G., Hunter, L. & Slotow, R. 2007. Feeding habitat selection by hunting leopards, Panthera pardus, in a woodland savannah: prey catchability versus abundance. Animal Behaviour Journal, 10: 1016.
- Benfield, E.E. Animals only see black and white (myth busted). http://www.pattyvisioncenters.com/index.php/myth_busters/myth/animals_only_see_black_and_white.
- Carnaby, T. 2006. Beat about the bush. Updated Edition. Jacana, South Africa.
- Friedmann, Y & Traylor-Holzer, K. 2008. Leopard (Panthera pardus) case study.
- Furs for Life Leopard Project. www.panthera.org.
- Hunter, L. & Balme, G. The leopard: The world’s most persecuted big cat. Conservation in Action. Twelfth Vision Annual: 88–94.
- Karma Cats Leopards (Panthera pardus) Fact sheet. 2010. www.karmacats.org.au.
- Stuart, C. & Stuart, T. 2001. Field guide to mammals of southern Africa. Struik, Cape Town.
- Sunquist, M & Sunquist, F. 2002. Wild cats of the World: 9 University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Author: Ntefeleng Lesego Seiphetlho
Harold Porter National Botanical Garden