The leopard is smallest of the big cats. It is a highly competent generalist. It has adapted to a wide range of habitat conditions and prey items. This is because it has the widest distribution of any felid on the planet. It’s range extends from hot Senegal on the west coast of Africa to the cold east coast of Russia – see maps and list of countries.
The famous irregular, rosetted leopard spots are the perfect compromise camouflage as it is highly effective under various types of terrain. Its prey ranges from impala and bushbuck to snakes, rodents, birds and beetles. It will kill cheetah but be killed by the tiger and lion.
Its scientific name is Panthera pardus (Linnaeus, 1758). The Amur leopard is a subspecies.
Photo: copyright Tony Yeomans
The leopard can be confused with the jaguar. However, the leopard is usually smaller. The leopard is relatively stocky and strong in appearance. It is the largest spotted cat on the African continent. There is a large disparity of weight and size between the sexes. There is also a difference between the skulls of both sexes. Weights vary over the wide range and is between 17-70 kgs. The coat texture and base color also varies over its range. In India it is soft and in Nepal it is coarser.
The ground color varies between tawny orange to a gray yellow. The rosettes cover a large part of the body. The rosetted spots become solid on the lower limbs and the undersides are white. The ear flaps are black and white. Leopards can be melanistic (black)
The limbs are long and strong. The leopard is a highly skilled tree climber. This is a skill it uses to escape dogs, lions and tigers. The leopard is frightened of the tiger.
As can be seen the distribution is wide but becoming fragmented. The above map is still accurate at 2011. Note: it will become more fragmented and shrink over time. Check the IUCN Red ListTM site for modern versions. The famous Amur leopard occupies the region in the far east of Russia. At 2011 it is surprising to see a small population in Israel (not marked on this map).
I have a page on habitat that contains a large version of the above map and more. This wild cat species is found in almost all habitat types (except true desert) as can be expected across such a wide distribution. Its stealth allows it to survive where cover is inadequate for some other wild cats. The leopard is often near human settlements. You might have seen leopards inside villages where they are sometimes caught and killed by people. The only limitations to habitat is prey availability, lack of water and cover (a minimum of a few scrubs will suffice).
Prey – Ecology – Social
Once again the leopard demonstrates its extreme adaptability and generalist approach. It feeds on the widest variety of prey items from insects to large ungulates (3x its weight). Its wide range of prey items (90 items in sub-Saharan Africa) means that the presence of tigers and lions, which are sympatric in certain parts of its range, does not have a negative impact on prey availability.
Around human settlements it will prey on domestic dogs and cats. It is known to have a taste for dogs. It will prey on livestock and sometimes kill without eating livestock (surplus killing).
A list of prey would be too long but includes: rodents, hares, antelope, warthog, zebras, jackals, porcupines, birds, reptiles and monkeys. It will eat grass too.
It approaches with stealth, attacks fast and knocks prey over with a forepaw. The kill is made with a throat bite for large prey and to the back of the neck or head for smaller prey. The leopard usually hunts on the ground but rarely jumps on prey from a tree. They hunt during the day or night but where there are predators of the leopard (people, tigers and lions) they hunt at night. They favour nocturnal hunting.
They are solitary. You will see females with young and
courting and mating but that is as far as it goes on the social front. Territorial tenure is typical of wild cat species. The male has a home range that is larger than and encompasses female ranges.
Females come into heat at anytime of the year. Probability of conception on mating is estimated at 65%. Gestation is about 96 days. Litter size is 1-3 usually. Cubs nurse until 4 months of age. At about 5-8 months of age cubs can hunt and have canine teeth at 7-8 months of age.
IUCN Red List assess this cat species survivability in the wild as Near Threatened. Population is decreasing. Main threats are: habitat loss, habitat conversion, relalation for livestock kills, trophy hunting, persecution (poisoning) – see much more and some detail on threats.
- Wild Cats of the World ISBN-13:978-0-226-77999-7
- IUCN Red List™
- Header picture by Hiasinho (Flickr)