Conservation status: Lower risk (lc)
African Leopard in Kenya
( Linnaeus, 1758)
Leopards (Panthera pardus) are one of the four ' big cats' of the genus Panthera. They range in size from one to almost two metres long, and weigh between 30 and 70 kg. The leopard is a sexually dimorphic species, with females being typically around two-thirds the size of males.
Most leopards are light tan or fawn with black spots, but their coat colour is highly variable. The spots tend to be smaller on the head, and larger with pale centres on the body.
Originally, it was thought that a leopard was a hybrid between a lion and a panther, and the leopard's common name derives from this belief; leo is the Latin for lion, and pard is an old term meaning panther. In fact, a "panther" can be any of several species of large felid. In North America panther means puma and in South America a panther is a jaguar. Elsewhere in the world a panther is a leopard. Early naturalists distinguished between leopards and panthers not by colour (a common misconception), but by the length of the tail - panthers having longer tails than pards (leopards).
A black panther is a melanistic leopard (or melanistic jaguar). These have mutations that cause them to produce more black pigment ( eumelanin) than orange-tan pigment (pheomelanin). This results in a chiefly black coat, though the spots of a black panther can still be discerned in certain light as the deposition of pigment is different in the pattern than in the background. There are also white panthers.
Despite its size, this largely nocturnal and arboreal predator is difficult to see in the wild. The best location to see leopards in Africa is in the Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve in South Africa, where leopards are habituated to safari vehicles and are seen on a daily basis at very close range. In Asia, perhaps the best site is the Yala National Park in Sri Lanka, which has the world's highest density of wild leopards, but even here sightings are by no means guaranteed because more than half the park is closed off to the public, allowing the animals to thrive. The recently reopened Wilpattu National Park (also in Sri Lanka), is another good destination for leopard watching.
There are between 7-30 subspecies of leopard (one of them extinct) though not all of these are accepted as distinct by all authorities; below is a list of some of the related animals and their latin names.
- African Leopard*, Panthera pardus pardus (lower risk, least concern)
- Amur Leopard*, Panthera pardus orientalis (critically endangered)
- Anatolian Leopard, Panthera pardus tulliana (critically endangered or possibly extinct)
Barbary Leopard, Panthera pardus panthera (critically endangered)
- Indian Leopard*, Panthera pardus fusca (lower risk, least concern)
- Indo-Chinese Leopard*, Panthera pardus delacouri
- Iran Leopard*, Panthera pardus saxicolor
- Java Leopard*, Panthera pardus meas (endangered)
- North China Leopard*, Panthera pardus japonensis (endangered)
- Sinai Leopard, Panthera pardus jarvisi
- South Arabian Leopard, Panthera pardus nimr (critically endangered)
- Sri Lanka Leopard*, Panthera pardus kotiya (endangered)
- Zanzibar Leopard, Panthera pardus adersi (extinct)
As well as spotted leopards and black leopards there are several other rare mutations. One of the most interesting is the King Leopard (see below). Other colour forms include red (erythristic) leopards with chocolate brown markings on a reddish background; buff leopards with orange rosettes on a cream background; pale cream leopards with pale markings and blue eyes, leopards without any distinct rosettes and leopards with striped underparts. In Harmsworth Natural History (1910), R Lydekker wrote of leopards with jaguar-like markings: The typical Indian leopard, as already mentioned, has the rosettes large and extending over most of the fore quarters. In the African leopard, on the other hand, the rosettes are everywhere smaller and more crowded, and on the shoulders and head break up into small solid spots. [...]. In ordinary leopards there are no black dots within the light area enclosed by the rosettes, but in some skins from Siam such dots are present, and thus serve to connect the leopard with the jaguar, in which they are normal.
A pseudo-melanistic leopard has a normal background colour, but its excessive markings have coalesced so that its back seems to be an unbroken expanse of black. In some specimens, the area of solid black extends down the flanks and limbs; only a few lateral streaks of golden-brown indicate the presence of normal background colour. Any spots on the flanks and limbs that have not merged into the mass of swirls and stripes are unusually small and discrete, rather than forming rosettes. The face and underparts are paler and dappled like those of ordinary spotted leopards.
In a paper about panthers and ounces of Asia, Pocock used a photo of a leopard skin from southern India; it had large black-rimmed blotches, each containing a number of dots and it resembled the pattern of a jaguar or clouded leopard. Another of Pocock's leopard skins from southern India had the normal rosettes broken up and fused and so much additional pigment that the animal looked like a black leopard streaked and speckled with yellow.
Most other colour morphs of leopards are known only from paintings or museum specimens. There have been very rare examples where the spots of a normal black leopard have coalesced to give a jet black leopard with no visible markings. Pseudo-melanism (abundism) occurs in leopards. The spots are more densely packed than normal and merge to largely obscure the background colour. They may form swirls and, in some places, solid black areas. Unlike a true black leopard the tawny background colour is visible in places. One pseudo-melanistic leopard had a tawny orange coat with coalescing rosettes and spots, but white belly with normal black spots (like a black-and-tan dog).
In Harmsworth Natural History (1910), R Lydekker described pseudo-melanistic leopard: There is, however, a peculiar dark phase in South Africa, a specimen of which was obtained in 1885 in hilly land covered with scrub-jungle, near Grahamstown. The ground-colour of this animal was a rich tawny, with an orange tinge; but the spots, instead of being of the usual rosette-like form, were nearly all small and solid, like those on the head of an ordinary leopard; while from the top of the head to near the root of the tail the spots became almost confluent, producing the appearance of a broad streak of black running down the back. A second skin had the black area embracing nearly the whole of the back and flanks, without showing any trace of the spots, while in those portions of the skin where the latter remained they were of the same form as in the first specimen. Two other specimens are known; the whole four having been obtained from the Albany district. These dark-coloured South African leopards differ from the black leopards of the northern and eastern parts of Africa and Asia in that while in the latter the rosette-like spots are always retained and clearly visible, in the former the rosettes are lost - as, indeed, is to a considerable extent often the case in ordinary African leopards - and all trace of spots disappears from the blacker portions of the skin.
Another pseudo-melanistic leopard skin was described in 1915 by Holdridge Ozro Collins who had purchased it in 1912. It had been killed in Malabar, India that same year. The wide black portion, which glistens like the sheen of silk velvet, extends from the top of the head to the extremity of the tail entirely free from any white or tawny hairs ... In the tiger, the stripes are black, of a uniform character, upon a tawny background, and they run in parallel lines from the centre of the back to the belly. In this skin, the stripes are almost golden yellow, without the uniformity and parallelism of the tiger characteristics, and they extend along the sides in labyrinthine graceful curls and circles, several inches below the wide shimmering black continuous course of the back. The extreme edges around the legs and belly are white and spotted like the skin of a leopard ... The skin is larger than that of a leopard but smaller than that of a full grown tiger.
In May 1936, the British Natural History Museum exhibited the mounted skin of an unusual Somali leopard. The pelt was richly decorated with an intricate pattern of swirling stripes, blotches, curls and fine-line traceries. This is different than a spotted leopard, but similar to a King Cheetah hence the modern cryptozoology term King Leopard. Between 1885 and 1934, six pseudo-melanistic leopards were recorded in the Albany and Grahamstown districts of South Africa. This indicated a mutation in the local leopard population. Other King Leopards have been recorded from Malabar in southwestern India. Shooting for trophies may have wiped out these populations.
Leopards are highly successful predators that hunt a wider variety of African prey than do other big cats from Africa, often feeding on insects, rodents, fish (as do domestic cats, animals with similar hunting techniques) as well as such larger game as antelope. Like domestic cats, but unlike the other great cats, they are known to jump from perches onto prey animals. Large size with the efficiency of the smaller cats makes them extremely dangerous to humans and dogs. Dogs in leopard country should be caged for protection from leopards. In much of its range in Africa leopards compete with animals such as the Spotted Hyena, wild dogs and the lion for prey, and it is not uncommon for them to be chased away from their own kills by other top predators.
Like domestic cats, leopards usually hunt at night or at dawn or dusk. They will stalk their prey before making a short run to catch it. They kill mostly by suffocation, by holding onto the animal's throat, though with smaller animals they may break the neck. Some leopards will carry their prey up a tree to avoid losing it to lions and hyenas. They have been observed carrying prey up to three times their own body weight into trees, demonstrating their great strength and power. Opportunistic hunters, leopards will hunt at any time of day or night if they come across suitable prey. Quite often they can make more than one kill in a day, in which case they cache the first kill while stalking their next victim.
In Africa, the traditional way to hunt leopards is to place a freshly killed animal carcass near the edge of a clearing as bait. The bait is put out at dusk in an area where leopards are known to live and hunt. Upon the arrival of the leopard, one or more spotlights are used to illuminate the beast, and it is shot in the most humane way possible.
The big cats, especially the spotted cats, are easy to confuse for those who see them in captivity or in photographs. The leopard is closely related to, and appears very similar to, the jaguar; it is less often confused with the cheetah. The ranges, habitats, and activities of the three cats make them easy to distinguish in the wild.
Since wild leopards live only in Africa and Asia and wild jaguars live only in the Americas, there is no possibility of confusing them in the wild. There are also visual markings that set them apart. Leopards do not have the spots within the rosettes that jaguars always have, and the jaguar's spots are larger than the leopard's (see the photographs in jaguar). The Amur leopard and the North Chinese leopard are occasional exceptions. The leopard is smaller and less stocky than the jaguar, although it is more heavyset than the cheetah.
Besides appearance, the leopard and jaguar have similar behaviour patterns. Jaguars can adapt to a range of habitats from rainforest to ranchlands while leopards are even more adaptable ranging in from deserts and mountains, savanna and woodlands. The jaguar is native to the Americas, while the leopard is native to Asia and Africa.
The cheetah, although its range overlaps extensively with that of the leopard, is easily distinguished. The leopard is heavier, stockier, has a larger head in proportion to the body, and has rosettes rather than spots. The cheetah tends to run rather fast and goes much more quickly than the leopard. The cheetah also has dark 'teardrop'-like markings running down the sides of its face, whereas the leopard does not. Cheetahs are usually diurnal, while leopards are more active at night ( nocturnal); cheetahs are also exclusively terrestrial (except when young), while leopards often climb trees.
Distribution and conservation
Prior to the human-induced changes of the last few hundred years, Leopards were the most widely distributed of all felids other than the domestic cat: they were found through most of Africa (with the exception of the Sahara Desert), as well as parts of Asia Minor and the Middle East, India, Pakistan, China, Siberia, much of mainland South-East Asia, and the islands of Java, Zanzibar, and Sri Lanka.
The leopard is doing surprisingly well for a large predator. It is estimated that there are as many as 500,000 leopards in Sub-Saharan Africa alone. But like many other big cats, leopards are increasingly under threat of habitat loss and are facing increased hunting pressure. Because of their stealthy habits and camouflage, they can go undetected even in close proximity to human settlements. Despite the leopard's abilities, it is no match for habitat destruction and poachers, and several subspecies are endangered, namely, the Amur, Anatolian, Barbary, North Chinese, and South Arabian leopards.
- Leopard was the common name for the VK1602 light tank from Germany during World War II.
- The Leopard tank was another German-designed main battle tank that first entered service in 1965. It was replaced by the Leopard 2.
- Leopard is also the codename for the 10.5 version of Apple Computer's Mac OS X operating system, following Cheetah, Puma, Jaguar, Panther and Tiger.