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Description: The Leopard

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Hunting behavious of leopards

7 November 2013


Leopards are mostly opportunistic hunters and in locating prey, they mostly depend on vision and the eyes function in a range of light conditions ranging from bright sunlight to almost complete darkness. With its large eyes and pupils a leopard can therefore regulate the amount of light that enters its eyes by dilating the pupils or by contracting them to almost vertical slits. A special light-reflective tapetum lucidum layer beneath the retina increases the sensitivity of the eye to light. Moreover, leopards have binocular vision and can judge distances accurately when pouncing on prey. The whiskers improves the leopard’s awareness of prey in the dark by detecting changes in air flow currents around the prey. When hunting, they are held forward in a fan-like way on either side of the face and are moved forward to form a net in front of the mouth just before contact is made with the prey to detect any dodging behaviour by the prey in the final seconds of the hunt. Small prey animals are enveloped by the whiskers to warn a leopard of any attempts to wriggle free.

www.leopard.tvLeopards seldom follow the assumed ritual of stalking, chasing and killing when hunting and often kill some prey simply by pouncing on them. Leopards will attempt to kill whatever prey they come across, their diet usually reflects the prey animals that are most abundant in a given region. The availability of prey depends on the habitat and habits of prey animals. In Africa south of the Sahara Desert the diet of a leopard includes at least 92 different types of prey. Various types of mammal are most frequently hunted, but leopards also feed on birds, even including vultures.

Much like other types of cat, leopards do develop preferences for a specific type of prey from time to time and become habituated to hunting them. In the southern Kalahari one adult male leopard learned to ambush porcupines as they emerged from their burrows at night. Black-backed jackals also have the habit of following leopards closely while giving a staccato alarm bark. Because a leopard can outrun a black-backed jackal, many jackals are killed by leopards when they turn and charge them. In the Ngorongoro Crater of Tanzania a specific leopard killed 11 black-backed jackals in this way within 21 days. Other smaller carnivores such as the bat-eared fox, silver or Cape fox, genets, mongooses and the termite-eating aardwolf, a hyaenid, are regularly preyed upon. Leopards will also kill the young of African wild dogs, spotted hyaenas, lions and cheetahs. In turn, African wild dogs will pursue a leopard or appropriate its kill, while lions and spotted hyaenas will also rob a leopard of its kill. Sometimes the role is reversed when other carnivores, including black-backed jackals, will kill leopard cubs.

Primates are not common in the diet of most leopards, although a leopard will kill and eat them. In the tropical forests of the Tai National Park of the Ivory Coast the leopards become active by day to hunt the monkeys that are their main food source, but which are active by day, while they also kill chimpanzees. In the Ituri Forest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, primates form 25 per cent of the prey of leopards. In the Meru Betiri Reserve in Java, primates such as leaf and macaque monkeys are the main prey of leopards because most of the ungulates have been eliminated there. Leopards that hunt monkeys as a primary prey may learn to flush them out of a tree by pretending to climb into the tree and catching them when they jump down to escape.

Leopards occasionally kill prey many times larger than themselves, such as an adult eland bull weighing 900 kg or a gemsbok bull weighing 240 kg. This usually happens by chance. However, in most regions leopard hunts and kills track the relative densities of their main ungulate prey. Females with young cubs concentrate on hunting those types of smaller prey that are abundant and easy to kill. In the Kruger National Park, some adult impala rams are forced into marginal habitats by their social behaviour and they are more prone to predation by leopards.

www.leopard.tvWhen stalking, leopards are amazingly adept at camouflage and stealth. They are masters of concealment and will use the smallest cover to their advantage. During stalking, small steps are taken and the belly is held close to the ground while the leopard often freezes for minutes on end to allow the prey to settle down again. In the southern Kalahari, leopards may stalk prey for several km while using vantage points such as dune crests to ensure the location of its prey. However, most stalks are not more than 200 m long. When it is close enough, the prey is usually killed after a short charge from behind suitable cover for not more than 65 m, but the charge distance varies with the type of prey being hunted.

The initial contact usually involves a strike with the claws of an outstretched forepaw which trips the prey. It is then killed by a bite to the back of the neck or head, or strangled by a throat bite. Some prey are dangerous and a case in the southern Kalahari is known of a gemsbok that was shot with the partially decomposed body of a leopard on its long horns.

Small prey may be eaten where it was killed, but larger prey may be carried or dragged to suitable cover. Where, large scavengers are abundant the prey is often taken into a tree to escape losing it. In the Kruger National Park, many more kills are cached in trees than in the southern Kalahari with its fewer large scavengers. When feeding on porcupines, birds or furry prey, the quills, feathers or fur are often plucked out with the incisors to reach the meat. Leopards waste little of a kill and are tidy eaters. However, the stomach, hooves, horns and the front part of the skull with the teeth are usually not eaten, but a leopard will eat carrion.

Leopards are excellent hunters but the killing rate depends on the type of prey. A kill is made at a mean interval of once every 3.3 days, but females with young make kills more often. Fleet-footed and wary prey animals such as a steenbok are the most difficult prey to kill. Leopards may occasionally ambush their prey but this is not common. Eventually, the density and type of prey coupled with the constraints of the environment will determine the hunting strategy of a leopard.



Bothma, J du P and R J Coertze 2004. Motherhood increases hunting success in southern Kalahari leopards. Journal of Mammalogy 85(4): 756 - 760.

Bothma, J du P, N van Rooyen and E A N le Riche 1997. Multivariate analysis of the hunting tactics of Kalahari leopards. Koedoe 40(1): 41 - 56.

Bothma, J du P and C Walker 1999. Larger carnivores of the African savannas. Pretoria: J L van Schaik, pp 61 - 91.

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

article by: Prof J du P Bothma



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