Height at shoulder: 70 cm
Weight: 60 – 80 kg
Length: 104cm – 190cm (small female to large male) tail can be an additional 110cm
Distinctive large cat. Most similar other species are the cheetah and the new world Jaguar. Spots on back and upper limbs are multi-colored rosettes, but spots on face and lower limbs are solid black. Eyes are green.
Gestation is 90 – 112 days, with up to 6 young born in a cave or thicket where they remain hidden for 6 weeks. Their eyes open at 1 week, they suckle for 3 months, and they are independent before 2 years when they become sexually mature. The mother will spend up to 36 hours away from young, but will stay within 2km of their hiding spot, which she moves frequently. Once they reach maturity they are almost completely solitary except when breeding and occasional reunions between mothers and daughters.
Where to look for them
One of the best things about looking for leopards is that the best time to see them is exactly the opposite of the best time to see the lions. Whereas lions disappear into the shade and into tall grasses during the heat of the day, leopards prefer to stay cool in the limbs of tall trees. Although their spots can make them difficult to see in the mottled light under the canopy of the tree, look for their tails dangling below the limbs. It is very unlikely to see one of these in the open savannah areas.
What to notice:
- Leopards will carry very heavy kills up into the limbs of trees to consume them undisturbed. They are quite low on the predator hierarchy, and their kills can be taken by a single lion or hyena. In areas where they are the only large predator, the behavior of bringing kills into trees is not as common.
- Leopards hardly ever hunt during the day. In one study in the Serengeti, only three out of 64 daytime attempts were successful.
- Leopards are extremely secretive and are often living close to humans. In 1990, three leopards were found living in the Kampala train station.
Despite international protections, their coats are still very valuable on the black market. They are also killed as a threat to livestock. Three subspecies are endangered, including the Rwenzori subspecies in Uganda.
Broken terrain with thick vegetation to provide stalking cover. They are not found in vast grasslands or other arid areas that do not provide trees or other cover (Kingdon, p. 283)
Remains of one leopard was found in the ice on Kilimanjaro at 5,692 meters! (Estes, p. 366)
Most of Africa, except where it has been exterminated in North Africa and South Africa. (Kingdon, p. 283)
Overall ranges can vary from 9-63 sq. km., but home core areas are much smaller. May cover 25-75km in a night. (Kingdon, p. 283)
Rodents, birds, arthropods, small to medium-large mammals. Will eat almost anything that is easily taken near cover. Individuals occasionally specialize in a “favorite” food. They can take down large antelopes, but rarely kill anything larger than themselves. Can eat up to 17kg of meat at one time. (Kingdon, p. 283)
Insects, domestic stock, fish, reptiles, birds, dassies, dogs, etc. (Walker, p. 96)
Will drink when water is available, but are not dependent. (Walker, p. 96)
In Serengeti, main foods were impala, Thomson’s gazelle, reedbuck and the young of topi, hartebeest, wildebeest and zebra. (Estes, p. 366)
Gestation is 90 – 112 days, with up to 6 young born in a cave or thicket where they remain hidden for 6 weeks. Eyes open at 1 week, suckle for 3 months, independent before 2 years when they become sexually mature. (Kindon, p. 283)
Estrus last 7 days and occurs at 46-day intervals until conception (Estes, p. 368)
Mother will spend up to 36 hours away from young, but will stay within 2km of their hiding spot, which she moves frequently. (Estes, p. 369)
Social Organization and behavior:
Home ranges may overlap. Except when breeding, they are solitary, and females raise young alone. Territorial in core ranges. (Estes, p. 367)
Expert climbers. Can be very dangerous is wounded or disturbed. There may be larger numbers than the current estimate, as they are very secretive. (Walker, p. 96)
Kill prey by biting through the throat and nape of the neck. Large kills are dragged into the fork of a tree to prevent scavengers from getting it. They disembowel the kill first, then feed on the chest, thighs or around the anus. They satisfy most of their moisture requirements through the blood of their kills. (Walker, p. 96)
Bond between mother and offspring is enduring and she will continue to share kills until they are fully self-sufficient. This may explain overlapping female ranges. (Estes, p. 367)
Classic “stalk and ambush” predator, trying to pounce before the prey can react, unlike lions which will chase prey. They will rarely pursue if the pounce is unsuccessful, although they can run up to 60 km/h. (Estes, p. 367)
“Of the 7 large African carnivores, the leopard only outranks the cheetah. Not only the lion but all three hyenas outweigh a leopard and wild dogs, though smaller, operate in packs.” (Estes, p. 368) A solitary hyena can take the kill of a leopard.
Rasping in- and exhalations around sunset (sawing) – generally 13 – 16 strokes in a twelve second period. Scent marking and scratching on trees.
Inactive for most of the day and part of the night, generally lounging on tree limb. Seldom rest in the same place two nights in a row. (Estes, p. 367)
Almost never hunt during the day. In one study in the Serengeti, 61 out of 64 daylight attempts were unsuccessful. (Estes, p. 367)
Will often spray, defecate or scratch at trail intersections. (Kingdon, p. 283)
Scats tapered at one end, turns white in the sun, contains much fur. (Walker, p. 96)
Overall gait is 95-100 cm (Walker, p. 96)
Claws are retractable. Track is round, compact with a light tread (Walker, p. 98)
Despite international protections, their coats are still very valuable on the black market, and it is estimated that 50,000 per year are still poached. They are also killed to prevent them preying on livestock. The Rwenzori subspecies is endangered. (Kingdon, p. 283)
Estes, R. (1991). The Behavior Guide to African Mammals. Berkeley, CA: The University of California Press.
Kingdon, J. (1997). The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Walker, C. (1996). Signs of the Wild: A Field Guide to the Spoor & Signs of the Mammals of Southern Africa. (5th Edition). Cape Town, South Africa: Struik Publishers Ltd.
Photo by Charles Steinberg