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Description: The Leopard

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Spacing and range use in leopards

28 June 2013

The size of the range used by any cat depends on its daily requirements and the density of the prey because the range must contain all the resources that are essential for survival and reproduction. Where these resources are abundant, the ranges of adult male leopards usually do not overlap, or only do so minimally. However, the ranges of adjacent adult female leopards usually overlap to some degree although they will not use the same area at the same time. The range of an adult male leopard will usually overlap with those of several females.

The size of the range of a leopard will vary according to the abundance and geographic distribution of its prey. Consequently, the ranges of leopards in prey-poor regions will be larger than those that occur in regions with abundant prey. In prey-poor regions, leopards will also adapt their social behaviour to show range use overlaps between and within both sexes and hence increase their population density. Nevertheless, two leopards will not occupy the same part of a range at the same time unless it is a male and female that intend to mate. Moreover, the activity of a leopard is related to that of its major prey.

Although leopards are opportunistic hunters that will hunt every prey animal that is encountered, their range size and therefore survival is dependent on the abundance and geographic distribution of their prey. These aspects are a reflection of habitat conditions such as rainfall, ambient temperature and the plant resources that form the food source for herbivorous prey. Consequently, the size and location of any conservation area will affect its ability to support a genetically viable population of leopards provided that they are also genetically heterogeneous.

When a habitat has sufficient natural prey for leopards, the only determining factor for its range size will be inherent spacing behaviour because leopards are by nature solitary animals. Leopards of the Wilpattu National Park in Sri-Lanka live in a prey-rich, tropical environment where the minimum mean range size for an adult male is around 10 km² and 8 km² for a female. These ranges do not overlap within and between the sexes and seem to be the minimum social range sizes of adult leopards. In the forest habitat of Chitwan National Park in southern Nepal and in the prey-rich savannas of Tsavo National Park in Kenya, the Serengeti Plains of Tanzania, the Kruger National Park and the forests of Thailand the adult female leopards all have ranges in that vary from 6 to 18 km², and from 17 to 76 km² in males. In Chitwan National Park the ranges of adult males do not overlap, but elsewhere they do to varying degrees. In the tropical forest of the Taï National Park in the Ivory Coast, the leopards have become primarily active in the day when their primary primate prey animals are active too. However, due to the difficulty in catching prey, their ranges are greater than normal for tropical forests.

As prey becomes less abundant, so range sizes and overlaps increase to allow leopards to survive in prey-poor regions. However, this only happens up to the point where the energy that is being spent on hunting for a kill exceeds the energy that is gained from a kill. This is why the Namib Desert is not suitable as leopard habitat except perhaps along the Kuiseb River Valley where potential prey concentrate around the few water sources. In the Israeli Desert an adult female has a mean range size of 84 km² and a male one of 137 km². In the Russian Far East two adult females had ranges of 33 and 62 km² and a male one of 280 km². In the Kaudam region of Namibia the mean range size for adult males vary from 210 to 1164 km² (mean: 451 km²) as opposed to 183 to 194 km² (mean: 280 km2) for two adult females. In a study in the Waterberg at a time when most of the area was still being used mostly for cattle production, an adult female leopard had a range of 157 km² and a male 303 km².

Leopards do not use all parts of a range evenly but will spend most of their time in core areas of the range. Leopards therefore do not utilise their entire range all the time. Nevertheless, a leopard will patrol its range regularly. In the prey-poor southern Kalahari, this happens every six days and the core area of range of the adult females covers a mean of 29 per cent of the total range as opposed to 23 percent for the adult males. Leopards also do not utilize their entire range at all times. The largest range size and most overlaps of leopards in the world occur in the southern Kalahari which receives a mean annual rainfall of only 188 mm. There, an adult female has a mean range of 1258 km² as opposed to 2104 km² by a male. Moreover, the prey density is low and unevenly distributed in time and space which leads to high variability in the individual range sizes. The mean distance between an adjacent male and a female leopard in the southern Kalahari was 17.4 km and they only made contact for one day in a mean cycle of 35 days.

Wildlife ranchers who regularly see leopard tracks on a ranch often mistakenly assume these tracks to be evidence of a high density of leopards. In reality, the known range sizes of leopards in savanna regions show that the leopards usually include several ranches in their ranges. In the Waterberg region, increased wildlife ranching and hence increased prey abundance, better cover and more water provision over the past few decades in a normally prey-poor and rugged terrain would undoubtedly have decreased the range sizes of leopards and consequently increased their density.

The range use of leopards has obvious conservation implications. The better the quantity and quality of the natural resources on which leopard survival depends, the higher their density will be. In prey-poor regions, adaptations in the social behaviour of leopards will make larger populations possible. For example, the South African portion of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in the southern Kalahari is only 9591 km2 in extent and the total park 37 991 km2. Had the ranges of the leopards not overlapped, the South African portion would only have been able to sustain 11 adult leopards and the entire park 48 leopards. This is less than the 50 breeding adults that is generally accepted as the minimum population size to maintain a genetically viable population. However, because both sexes in the southern Kalahari show range use overlaps within and between the sexes, the South African portion alone can sustain 35 adult leopards as opposed to 171 in the entire park. It is clear that adaptations in social behaviour and the size of a conservation area are important factors in the success of leopard conservation, but especially so in prey-poor arid regions.



Bothma, J du P & M D Bothma 2012. Leopard range size and conservation area size in the southern Kalahari. Koedoe 54(1), Art. #1076, 4 pages. http://dx-doi.org/10.4102/koedoe.v54i1.1076

Bothma, J du P & C Walker 1999. Larger carnivores of the African savannas. Pretoria: J L van Schaik, pp 60 - 91.

Grimbeek, A M 1992. The ecology of the leopard (Panthera pardus) in the Waterberg. MSc thesis, Pretoria: University of Pretoria.

Sunquist, M & F Sunquist 2002. Wild cats of the world. Chicago: Chicago University Press, pp 318 - 342.

By: Prof J du P Bothma


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