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Description: The Leopard

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The activity patterns of leopards

19 July 2013

The basic requirement of any organism is to survive, and to do that it has to reproduce and have food and water. These requirements provide the stimulus for activity. Because leopards occur in diverse environments they must adapt their activity patterns to that of their prey and the environment in which they live.

When a leopard moves around in pitch darkness, the whiskers are used as sensors to detect changes in air currents and avoid solid objects. Leopards are stealthy and may come close to humans and their structures without being detected. In 1990, for example, three leopards were found to be living in an abandoned steam engine in the middle of Kampala in Uganda, while Nairobi leopards from the adjacent Nairobi National Park often visit the city at night. Night-time visits by leopards to our own cities such as Cape Town and Pretoria are also known and domestic dogs that disappear for no obvious reason my have become prey to them.

Despite being generally regarded as nocturnal animals, leopards are active in the day if their prey is active then. Moreover, leopards are also more active in the day where lions do not occur. In the Kalahari, female leopards spend most of the day in the summer under thick vegetation or in aardvark burrows because the open sand surface can reach temperatures of 70° C at mid-day. Males are too large for aardvark burrows and they shelter under thick vegetation where it is cool and where they remain undetected while still seeing all that happens around them. Leopards that are disturbed at rest will not flee more than 0.5 to 1.0 km away, often only around 100 m, before coming to rest again.

Although leopards in the Kalahari are mostly active at night, their activity peaks at sunset and just before sunrise. They also usually rest at around midnight. In the bushveld there is some degree of activity during the day but most of the kills are made between sunset and sunrise. Even when leopards rest by day they will still move around to a limited degree to find better shelter or shade. Leopards that are disturbed at a kill will return to it later.

Leopards usually stay in specific ranges although males may go on exploratory visits far outside their range. Normally, a leopard will patrol its range every six to 17 days to counter any insurgents. However, young and dispersing leopards that only move through the ranges of other males in search of an own range are not harassed. A young male searching for a place to establish his own range can move more than 100 km away from the place where it was born but a young dispersing female usually stays close to it.

When adult leopards move around they can do so at up to 6 km per hour. In the Kalahari, the mean, annual distance moved by adult males in 24 hours is 16.9 km, that for females without cubs is 15.1 km and for females with cubs 9.0 km. In the bushveld where prey is abundant, such as in Tsavo National Park in Kenia and in the Kruger National Park, leopards only move 2 to 5 km in 24 hours, with the males moving twice as far as the females. Even when a leopard is active, it will often sit or lie down to rest and scan the environment. The longest distance that an adult male leopard in the Kalahari has been known to move in 24 hours is 33 km and 27 km by a female. Rain and wind seldom affect the movements of leopards and wind direction is not a factor in hunting. In bushveld with abundant prey leopards are usually from 1.7 to 4.2 km apart, but in the prey-poor Kalahari where the ranges are huge they are a mean of 17.4 km apart.

While a leopard moves around, it marks its range with urine that contains chemical substances from glandular secretions. In the Kalahari, this happens at a mean rate of 8.2 times every 10 km in adult males, 5.5 times in adult females without cubs and only 1.2 times in adult females with cubs who do not wish to advertise their presence and that of their cubs.

As in all mammals, leopards are dependent on water but they can live without free water because they use the moisture in the meat of their prey. Moreover, up to 10 per cent of their water requirements is satisfied by producing metabolic water as a by-product of the digestion of their food. When water is available in the Kalahari male and female leopards without cubs visit such waterholes every two to three days. However, this may often not be done in a need for water but because prey animals congregate at such waterholes.

Hunger seems to motivate leopards to remain active up to a point where the energy that is being gained from a kill becomes less than the energy that is expended to make the kill. Therefore, within limits, leopards will move increasingly longer distances to hunt the more hungry they are. In the Kalahari, adult male leopards that had eaten on a given day moved a mean distance of 10.1 km in 24 hours but those that had been without food for a day moved a mean of 14.2 km. However, males that had not eaten for two days moved a mean of 20.0 km in 24 hours and those that had not eaten for three or more days one of 21.0 km. During a drought in the Kalahari when prey was scarce, one adult male kept on increasing the distance that he moved in 24 hours in unsuccessful attempts to make a kill. He later became so hungry that he also started moving around by day and later stepped on grass tufts to avoid the hot sand that was burning his paws.

On cool, cloudy days leopards are more active than on hot, sunny ones although their activity can be independent of weather such as wind and rain. In cool weather, the leopards of the Kalahari move longer distances than during hot weather. There, leopards moved a mean distance of 29.0 km in 24 hours when the minimum temperature of the air was at or below freezing point, 19.1 km when it was from 1 to 15° C and 15.2 km when it was 16° C or more.

The urine of an adult female leopard in oestrus contains pheromones and this urine is sprayed on objects such as gras tufts or bushes as the leopard moves around to attract males. In one incidence this attracted an adult male from as far as 17 km away to mate. Snow leopards move around with open mouths to detect such chemical signals better. The pheromones are secreted by glands, have a long endurance and are effective at low concentrations.



Bailey, T N 1990. The African leopard: ecology and behaviour of the solitary felid. New York: Columbia University Press.

Bothma, J du P 1998. Carnivore ecology in arid lands. Berlin: Springer.

Bothma, J du P & C Walker 1999. Larger Carnivores of the African savannas. Pretoria: J L van Schaik.

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

By: Prof J du P Bothma


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