We are very privileged to share our lives at the Jukani Wildlife Sanctuary with Spirit, a black leopard and his two wives Kito and Tess. Spirit loves to appear from nowhere on his big tree log and then to disappear just as suddenly.
The leopard Panthera pardus, is a member of the Felidae family and the smallest of the four "big cats" in the genus Panthera, the other three being the tiger, lion, and jaguar. The leopard was once distributed across eastern and southern Asia and Africa, from Siberia to South Africa, but its range of distribution has decreased radically because of hunting and loss of habitat. It is now chiefly found in sub-Saharan Africa; there are also fragmented populations in the Indian subcontinent, Sri Lanka, Indochina, Malaysia, Indonesia, and China. Because of its declining range and population, it is listed as a "Near Threatened" species on the IUCN Red List.
Compared to other members of the Felidae family, the leopard has relatively short legs and a long body with a large skull. It is similar in appearance to the jaguar, but is smaller and more slightly built. Its fur is marked with rosettes similar to those of the jaguar, but the leopard's rosettes are smaller and more densely packed, and do not usually have central spots as the jaguars do. Both leopards and jaguars that are melanistic (completely black or very dark) are known as black panthers.
The species' success in the wild is in part due to its opportunistic hunting behavior, its adaptability to habitats, its ability to run at speeds approaching 58 kilometres per hour (36 mph), its unequaled ability to climb trees even when carrying a heavy carcass, and its notorious ability for stealth. The leopard consumes virtually any animal that it can hunt down and catch. Its habitat ranges from rainforest to desert terrains.
Leopards show a great diversity in coat color and rosette patterns. Their rosettes are circular in East Africa but tend to be squarer in southern Africa and larger in Asian populations. Their yellow coat tends to more pale and cream colored in desert populations, more gray in colder climates, and of a darker golden hue in rainforest habitats. Overall, the fur under the belly tends to be lighter coloured and of a softer, downy type. Solid black spots in place of open rosettes are generally seen along the face, limbs and underbelly.
Leopards may sometimes be confused with two other large spotted cats, the cheetah, with which it may co-exist in Africa, and the jaguar, a neotropical species that it does not naturally co-exist with. However, the patterns of spots in each are different: the cheetah has simple black spots, evenly spread; the jaguar has small spots inside the polygonal rosettes; while the leopard normally has rounder, smaller rosettes than those of the jaguar. The cheetah has longer legs and a thinner build that makes it look more streamlined and taller but less powerfully built than the leopard. The jaguar is more similar in build to the leopard but is generally larger in size and has a more muscular, bulky appearance.
Distribution and habitat
Leopards have the largest distribution of any wild cat, occurring widely in eastern and central Africa, although populations have shown a declining trend and are fragmented outside of sub-Saharan Africa. Within sub-Saharan Africa, the species is still numerous and even thriving in marginal habitats where other large cats have disappeared. But populations in North Africa may be extinct.
Data on their distribution in Asia are not consistent — populations in southwest and central Asia are small and fragmented; in the northeast, they are critically endangered; but in the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and China, leopards are still relatively abundant. Of the species as a whole, its numbers are greater than those of other Panthera species, all of which face more acute conservation concerns.
Leopards live mainly in grasslands, woodlands, and riverine forests. They are usually associated with savanna and rainforest, but leopards are exceptionally adaptable: in the Russian Far East, they inhabit temperate forests where winter temperatures reach a low of −25 °C (−13 °F).
Distribution of subspecies
Since Carl Linnaeus published his description of leopards in the 10th edition of Systema Naturae in 1758, as many as 27 leopard subspecies were subsequently described by naturalists from 1794 to 1956. In 1996, according to DNA analysis carried out in the 1990s, only eight subspecies are considered valid. Later analysis revealed a ninth valid subspecies, the Arabian leopard (P. p. nimr). Because of limited sampling of African leopards, this number might be an underestimation.
The nine subspecies recognised by IUCN are:
African leopard (P. p. pardus), (Linnaeus, 1758) inhabits sub-Saharan Africa; Indian leopard (P. p. fusca), (Meyer, 1794) inhabits the Indian Subcontinent; Javan leopard (P. p. melas), (Cuvier, 1809) inhabits Java, Indonesia. Arabian leopard (P. p. nimr), (Hemprich and Ehrenberg, 1833) inhabits the Arabian Peninsula; Amur leopard (P. p. orientalis), (Schlegel, 1857) inhabits the Russian Far East, Korean Peninsula and Northeast China; North Chinese leopard (P. p. japonensis), (Gray, 1862) inhabits northern China; Caucasian leopard (P. p. ciscaucasica), (Satunin, 1914), later described as Persian leopard (P. p. saxicolor), (Pocock, 1927) inhabits central Asia: the Caucasus, Turkmenistan and northern Iran; Indochinese leopard (P. p. delacouri), (Pocock, 1930) inhabits mainland Southeast Asia; Sri Lankan leopard (P. p. kotiya), (Deraniyagala, 1956) inhabits Sri Lanka.
Ecology and behaviour
Leopards are elusive, solitary and largely nocturnal. They have primarily been studied in open savanna habitats, which may have biased common descriptions. Activity level varies depending on the habitat and the type of prey that they hunt. Radio-tracking and scat analysis in West Africa showed that rainforest leopards are more likely to be diurnal and crepuscular. Forest leopards are also more specialized in prey selection and exhibit seasonal differences in activity patterns.
Leopards are known for their ability in climbing, and have been observed resting on tree branches during the day, dragging their kills up trees and hanging them there, and descending from trees headfirst. They are powerful swimmers, although not as strong as some other big cats, such as the tiger. They are very agile, and can run at over 58 kilometres per hour (36 mph), leap over 6 metres (20 ft) horizontally, and jump up to 3 metres (9.8 ft) vertically. They produce a number of vocalizations, including grunts, roars, growls, meows, and "sawing" sounds.
Social structure and home range
Home ranges of male leopards vary between 30 km2 (12 sq mi) and 78 km2 (30 sq mi), and of females between 15 to 16 km2 (5.8 to 6.2 sq mi). Virtually all sources suggest that males do have larger home ranges. There seems to be little or no overlap in territory among males, although overlap exists between the sexes; one radio-collar analysis in the Ivory Coast found a female home range completely enclosed within a male's.
Research in a conservation area in Kenya showed similar territory sizes and sex differential: 32.8 km2 (12.7 sq mi) average ranges for males, and 14 km2 (5.4 sq mi) for females.
In Nepal, somewhat larger male ranges have been found at about 48 km2 (19 sq mi), while female ranges at 17 km2 (6.6 sq mi); female home ranges decreased to 5 to 7 km2 (1.9 to 2.7 sq mi) when young cubs were present, while the sexual difference in range size seemed to be in positive proportion to overall increase.
Studies of leopard home range size have tended to focus on protected areas, which may have led to skewed data; as of the mid-1980s, only 13% of the leopard range actually fell within a protected area. However, significant variations in the size of home ranges have been suggested across the leopard's range. Research in Namibia that focused on spatial ecology in farmlands outside of protected areas revealed ranges that were consistently above 100 km2 (39 sq mi) with some more than 300 km2 (120 sq mi). Admitting that their data were at odds with others, the researchers found little or no sexual variation in the size of territories.
Hunting and diet
Leopards are versatile, opportunistic hunters, and have a very broad diet. They feed on a greater diversity of prey than other members of the Panthera species, and will eat anything from dung beetles to 900 kg (2,000 lb) male giant elands. Their diet consists mostly of ungulates and monkeys, but they also eat rodents, reptiles, amphibians, insects, birds (like the Vulturine Guineafowl), fish and sometimes smaller predators (such as bat-eared foxes, martens, and jackals).
Interspecific predatory relationships
Leopards must compete for food and shelter with other large predators such as lions, tigers, spotted hyenas, and both African and Asiatic wild dogs. These animals may steal the leopard's kill, devour its young or even kill adult leopards, although lions are most likely to kill and not eat young leopards if they are discovered. In some areas of Africa, troops of large baboon species (potentially leopard prey themselves) will kill and sometimes eat leopard young if they discover them.
Reproduction and life cycle
Depending on the region, leopards may mate all year round. In Manchuria and Siberia, they mate during January and February. The estrous cycle lasts about 46 days and the female usually is in heat for 6–7 days. Gestation lasts for 90 to 105 days. Cubs are usually born in a litter of 2–4 cubs. But mortality of cubs is estimated at 41–50% during the first year.
Females give birth in a cave, crevice among boulders, hollow tree, or thicket to make a den. Cubs are born with closed eyes, which open four to nine days after birth. The fur of the young tends to be longer and thicker than that of adults. Their pelage is also more gray in color with less defined spots. Around three months of age, the young begin to follow the mother on hunts. At one year of age, leopard young can probably fend for themselves, but remain with the mother for 18–24 months.
Crossbreeding between leopards and other members of the genus Panthera has been documented, resulting in hybrids. A cross between a lioness and a male leopard is known as a leopon (or a lipard if the sex of the parents is reversed). Crossbreeding between jaguars and leopards in captivity has also been documented. A cross between a female leopard and a male jaguar is referred to as a jagupard, the reverse is known a leguar; however, a crosses between either have also been called lepjags.
Whether born to a female puma mated to a male leopard, or to a male puma mated to a female leopard, pumapards inherit a form of dwarfism. Those reported grew to only half the size of the parents. They have a puma-like long body (proportional to the limbs, but nevertheless shorter than either parent), but short legs. The coat is variously described as sandy, tawny or greyish with brown, chestnut or faded rosettes.
Leopards and humans
Leopards have been known to humans throughout history, and have featured in the art, mythology, and folklore of many countries where they have historically occurred, such as ancient Greece, Persia, and Rome, as well as some where they have not existed for several millennia, such as England. The modern use of the leopard as an emblem for sport or a coat of arms is much more restricted to Africa, though numerous products worldwide have used the name.
Leopard domestication has also been recorded – several leopards were kept in a menagerie established by King John at the Tower of London in the 13th century; around 1235, three of these animals were given to Henry III by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.
Park reserves in several countries operate wildlife touring programs that allow visitors to observe leopards in their natural habitat. The Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve in South Africa is one such establishment that offers safari ventures. Sri Lanka offers two leopard habitats, Yala National Park and Wilpattu National Park, where wildlife tours are available. In India, leopards can be seen in the Madhya Pradesh and Uttarakhand national parks.
While luxury establishments may boast the fact that wild animals can be seen at close range on a daily basis, the leopard's camouflage and propensity to hide and stalk prey make leopard sightings rare. For example, in Sri Lanka's Yala National Park, leopards have been ranked by visitors to be among the least visible of all animals in the park despite their high concentration in the reserve.
Did you know?
Aggressive encounters have been observed. Two of five males studied over a period of a year at a game reserve in South Africa died, both violently. One was initially wounded in a male–male territorial battle over a carcass; taken in by researchers, it was released after a successful convalescence only to be killed by a different male a few months later. A second was killed by another predator, possibly a spotted hyena. A third of the five was badly wounded in intraspecific fighting, but recovered.