The leopard is classified as near threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List and is listed on Appendix I of CITES. Several leopard subspecies have been classified separately on the IUCN Red List. The Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis), the Arabian leopard (Panthera pardus nimr) and the Javan leopard (Panthera pardus melas) are classified as Critically Endangered (CR), while the Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya) and the Persian leopard (Panthera pardus saxicolor) are listed as endangered.
GENERAL: Leopards are big light-coloured cats with prominent dark spots, called rosettes. They are powerfully built, and are capable of hauling prey up trees to prevent scavenging or theft by other predators. They can be up to 6 feet long and may weigh up to 79,8 kg (176 pounds).
MALE: The male is generally larger and heavier than the female. The average male leopard weighs 63,1 kg (139 pounds).
FEMALE: The female is smaller in size and on average weighs 37,2 kg (82 pounds).
YOUNG: Leopard cubs are born blind and their eyes only open after a few days – bright blue in colour. The cubs are also born without a clear coat of spots, which only begin to develop after a few days.
REPRODUCTION: Following a 90 to 105 day gestation, one to six kittens are born. The average litter size is two to three cubs. Kittens stay with their mother for 18 to 24 months before venturing on their own.
HABITAT: The leopard is very adaptable and can live in many different areas across the globe. They are found in sub-Saharan Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, southwestern and eastern Turkey, in the Sinai/Judean Desert of Southwest Asia, the Himalayan foothills, India, Russia, China and the islands of Java and Sri Lanka, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). These large cats can live in almost any type of habitat, including rainforests, deserts, woodlands, grassland savannas, forests, mountain habitats, coastal scrubs, shrub lands and swampy areas. In fact, leopards live in more places than any other large cat species.
TRACKS AND NEST
- The track sequence is typical of the cats – with it registering (hind foot on top of front foot) when the animal is walking slowly or stalking. The leopard track is 8 to 10 cm (3,1 – 3,9 inches) in length.
- The male’s tracks are longer and broader than the female’s. The length of the male’s back foot is 9 cm (3,5 inches) while the female’s is approximately 8 cm (3,1 inches).
- The female’s toes are slightly more slender than the male’s.
- No claws show unless the animal is running. Three typical lobes can be found on the back (main) pad of the animal.
- Front track is broader but slightly shorter than the hind track.
- Leopard tracks can be confused with hyena (which has claws) and lion cubs (6 months to 1 year). Lion cub tracks have a more distinct inset in the three lobes at the back of the main pad.
- Leopards are by far the most difficult animal to track and find on foot. They tread very lightly, they are solitary and they move in unpredictable directions – particularly when hunting. When approached they will often crouch in a thicket, allowing the tracker to walk by completely unaware, and not more than five metres away!
- It is virtually impossible to track a leopard, track-for-track, in the Kruger area. Experienced trackers need to use their knowledge of leopard behavior, look for the slightest impression indicating a track, and listen carefully to alarm calls – birds, tree squirrels, vervet monkeys and antelope will all produce an alarm call at the first sight of a leopard.
THREATS: Threats to leopards vary. Leopards are primarily threatened by the fur trade and human encroachment on their habitat.
Habitat loss through logging is a major problem in the Indo-Malaya area. Once dense and diverse forests are transformed into barren and desolate landscapes in order to feed the human demand for wood. In Africa, habitat loss is a serious problem. Every year in an attempt to feed the world’s growing population, more and more leopard habitat is converted into agricultural land. Farmland already covers 38% of the world’s land surface, but this still isn’t enough to meet the demand. Leopards are more tolerant of habitat conversion than other big cat species. Given adequate cover and food supply they are able to live relatively close to human populations. However this brings leopards closer to another threat that they face on a daily basis – persecution.
In populated areas near leopard habitat, farmers often blame leopards for loss of their livestock and by leaving out poisoned carcasses for the leopards, farmers can target them with ease. Inadvertent poisoning can also occur when carcasses are left out for other species. In Asia, killing predators to protect livestock is also common. Even in the more intact, wilder and more densely covered jungle areas, leopards still come into conflict with humans. As the demand for wild meat rises human hunters target the same prey as the leopards, and, as a result, leopards are left with less to eat.
Hunters also target the leopards themselves. Trophy hunting is still legal in some areas, allowing 1 to 3 leopards to be hunted per 1 000 km. This is considered to be sustainable but poor management means in many cases trophy hunting can have negative impacts on leopards. To a select few, the appeal of a leopard head mounted on their living room wall is greater than seeing a magnificent leopard stalking its prey in the wild. Consequently more leopards are hunted than is sustainable. Sometimes the ‘wrong’ leopards are also shot. In Tanzania, it is only legal to shoot male leopards, yet in a three year period this was ignored by some, and tragically 77 females were also shot. It led to a drastic reduction in the number of cubs born and decreased the overall population.
Illegal hunting or poaching is also common throughout the leopard’s range, but particularly in Africa, West Asia and Indo-Malaya. Leopards are commonly caught in gin traps, terrifying metal traps in which a leg is caught by spring operated jaws. In just three years 28 individual leopards were captured and killed by this method within a relatively small area of South Africa. Poachers kill leopards to trade their incredibly valuable skins and teeth. The skins in particular are related to traditional beliefs in sub-Saharan Africa, where they are worn by royals and tribal chiefs. In one particularly shocking recorded incident, one poacher was caught with more than 150 leopard skins.
Because of the variety of threats, some subspecies of leopard are more endangered than others. Two subspecies, the Sri Lankan leopard and the Persian leopard, are classified as Endangered. Three subspecies, the Amur leopard, the Arabian leopard and the Javan leopard are Critically Endangered.
- A female leopard will mate with many of the dominant males near her territory. This helps to minimise the risk of her cubs being killed by one of the rival dominant males, because they will think that the cubs are theirs.
- The cubs are born without a clear coat of spots, the spots begin to develop after a few days.
- Leopard cubs are born blind and are completely dependant on their mothers. Their eyes begin to open after about ten or more days and for the first few months their eyes are bright blue.
- A leopard’s spots are not solid and are called rosettes because of the particular pattern they form.
- Leopard cubs will stay with their mothers for over two years; this is how they learn to hunt and survive on their own.
- There are also black leopards which get confused with panthers, but panthers are completely black whereas black leopards still have rosettes which can be seen from a certain angle.
- Leopards sometimes hunt from trees. They are very opportunistic animals and will hunt any kind of prey they can find from small birds, lizards and mice to eagle chicks and impalas.
- A leopard’s call is called ‘rasping’; it is a rough, deep call that announces its presence which sounds remarkably like a wood saw. This call allows territorial neighbours to keep away from each other, and males and females to find each other.
- Pound for pound, leopards are the strongest big cats.
- It is thought that when leopards are old and preparing to die, they return to the place where they were born.
- These animals growl in aggression, and spit and snarl when they feel threatened.