// // // //
Advertise with us:
R10 000 pm VAT excl.

Description: The Leopard

HOME » Leopards » Description: The Leopard


30 January 2014


The leopard Panthera pardus is one of the roaring cats of the family Felidae because it has an elastic hyoid ligament in the throat as opposed to an immovable one in the hissing cats. In the mythology of ancient Egypt, cats played a significant role to fight evil and had their own goddess, the cat-headed Mafdet, who is depicted in hieroglyphs with the head of a leopard or a cheetah.

The leopard is not well-known because of its secretive nature but is more abundant than what is generally believed. Pliny the Greek believed the leopard to be a cross between a lion and a panther, hence the Greek name leopardos which is derived from the Latin words leo (lion) and pardos (panther).

Modern cats are not descendants of sabre-toothed or other ancient cats but are a specialized branch of cat development. The roaring cats are believed to be the most recent of all the modern cats, having developed a little more than 2 million years ago. The earliest known ancestor of the roaring cat genus Panthera was Viretailurus schaubi, a large lynx-like cat which occurred 2.1 million years ago in the Rhône River Valley in France. The oldest known leopard fossils have to date been found in the fossil beds of Laetoli in Tanzania where leopards already occurred 2 million years ago. Leopards crossed over land bridges into Europe and Asia from Africa 1.1 million years ago and are believed to have preyed on the australopithecine hunter-gatherer ancestors of modern humans.

www.leopard.tvThe leopard has been described as one of the most fearful of all the modern cats. The name Panthera was created by Oken in 1816 when it was discovered that the leopard and some other large cats such as the lion, jaguar and tiger are not hissing cats after Linnaeus first described the leopard scientifically as a hissing cat Felis pardus in 1758 based on a specimen from Egypt. The leopard in South Africa was originally described as Panthera melanotica by Gunther in 1885 based on what was apparently a melanistic (black) leopard that was collected near Grahamstown, a region where black leopards have been reported to occur over time. Black leopards are like normally coloured leopards except that they have an autosomal recessive coat colour gene. Despite old press reports and recent purported sightings, no black leopard specimens from South Africa are currently known to exist. All the leopards of Africa represent the subspecies Panthera pardus pardus.

There is considerable regional variation in the size and appearance of the leopard, which is the largest spotted cat in Africa. In South Africa, leopards from the interior regions are almost twice the size and weight of those from the mountains of the southern Cape. An adult male leopard in the Kruger National Park has a mean shoulder height of 77 cm and a weight of 58 kg as opposed to 66 cm and 38 kg in a female. The largest known leopard came from the Lowveld and measured 2.92 m from the tip of its nose to the tip of its tail. The general coat colour consists of black rosettes on the body and spots on the limbs against a background that varies from pale yellow to deep orange. The belly is white to off-white and the face has prominent white whiskers that are important to orientate a leopard when moving around in the dark or killing prey.

The dappled coat is ideal camouflage in a woodland environment and individual leopards can be identified from their coat markings. According to the story How a leopard got its spots which appeared in Rudyard Kipling’s children’s storybook Just so stories which was first published in 1902, but was reprinted by Weathervane Books of New York in 1978, leopards at first did not have rosettes and spots but were then daubed with them by an unknown Ethiopian. The Ethiopian then told the leopard that in future it could lie on bare ground and look like a heap of pebbles, or on a leafy branch and look like sunlight sifting through the leaves, or across the centre of a path and look like nothing at all. This attests to the amazing camouflage of a leopard.

www.leopard.tvThe paws have sharp, curved claws that can be up to 30 mm across the curve. The rounded ears and the tail have white tips, and when viewing the skull from the top, an adult male has a more angular and longer skull than an adult female. The leopard is an accomplished climber, even when carrying a heavy prey animal, and is one of the few cats that can descend head-first down a tree trunk. Leopards are agile and can jump gaps of 6 to 8 m.

The leopard is widespread in Africa south and north of the Sahara, the Arabian Peninsula, Europe, Asia as far east as Russia and north as Siberia and China, and they are also present south-east in Asia in Vietnam, Thailand. Malaysia and Indonesia. The leopard is the large wild cat with the widest distribution in the world. It inhabits habitats that vary from deep forests that receive well over 2000 mm rain per year to semi-arid regions that receive at least 50 mm of rain, and often occurs in and around cities without being noticed. In Russia it can survive long periods of subfreezing temperatures but avoids deep snow. It occurs from sea level to as high as 5000 m above it, can swim well and at times will play in water. Nevertheless, leopards are independent of surface drinking water and obtain water from metabolic processes and the moisture in the meat of their prey. In habitat choice leopards prefer the absence or low populations of lions and spotted hyaenas.

www.leopard.tvLeopards adapt their activity patterns to that of their prey and can be completely active by day in the forests of the Ivory Coast where their main prey are monkeys that are only active by day. Elsewhere they spend the day in or under dense vegetation or in the burrows of an aardvark or porcupine. They can travel distances of up to 33 km in 24 hours in the southern Kalahari where prey is scarce, moving increasingly longer distances as hunger increases until energy expenditure equals the energy that will be gained from making a kill. Range size in the adult male depends on the range sizes of each of the three to four adult females that share its range. The range size of an adult female is dependent on prey abundance and along the prey-rich area around the Sabie River in the Kruger National Park the ranges of the females vary from 5.6 to 29.9 km² and that of adult males from 16.4 to 96.1 km². In one study in the Waterberg the range size of an adult male was 303 km² and that of a female 157 km². However, in the arid and prey-poor southern Kalahari adult females have a mean range size of 3874 km² as opposed to 7454 km² in adult males.

In regions with abundant prey the ranges of male leopards are often territorial with little overlap, but in prey-poor regions there may be considerable overlap in range use in space but not in time. This helps to maintain viable populations in prey-poor regions. A leopard will patrol its range every four to seven days but it will not use all of its range all the time and will spend most time in a smaller part of its range that is called a core area. Territorial boundaries are mainly marked with urine that is mixed with peri-anal gland secretions and is sprayed on to grass tufts, bushes and tree trunks. These scent marks tell any intruding or dispersing young leopard that such a range is already occupied.

The leopard is a solitary animal and the only group that forms is a female with her young. The typical call is a rasping cough. Leopards become sexually mature when they are 2.5 to three years old and mate year-round. Oestrus lasts seven to 14 days with a mean inter-oestrus period of 45 days (range: 20 to 50 days). Mating usually lasts a day but it can extend to four days. Gestation lasts from 96 to 106 days and cubs that weigh 50 to 60 g at birth are born with closed eyes in burrows or in hollows in trees, thickets, caves or rock piles. The eyes open when the cubs are six to ten days old. Cub mortalities of 40 to 50% occur due to starvation and predation by lions, other leopards and spotted hyaenas, while black-backed jackals will also kill small leopard cubs. Male leopards will occasionally kill young cubs when mating with their mother in what is known as infanticide. The cubs start to eat meat from an age of 72 days, wean when they are four months old and start hunting with their mother when 11 months old. A young leopard becomes independent when it is 12 to 18 months old and can then disperse for distances of more than 100 km to establish an own range in an area that has become vacant. Some 18.5% of the adult leopards in the Kruger National Park die each year.

When hunting, a leopard will spray-urinate every 100 m or so on to grass tufts or bushes to be able to identify areas over which it has hunted recently. The diet is highly variable regionally and known kills vary from small rodents and lizards to an eland bull of 900 kg. Some leopards develop individual prey tastes and a case is known of a female in the Serengeti ecosystem that killed 11 black-backed jackals within three weeks. Leopards seldom kill baboons, but old, sick and injured leopards will occasionally attack humans. A leopard will kill prey once in an interval of three days or so, but will kill again opportunistically even when it has a fresh kill. Most of the hunting occurs after a careful stalk and a short, rapid chase, but ambushes from rocks or trees are known. The most common prey weigh from 20 to 70 kg and the most common killing method is a throat or nape bite. Killed prey may be carried or dragged a considerable distance to suitable cover before feeding, but the stomach, paws and the muzzle portion containing the teeth are often not eaten. Feathers and soft fur are sometimes plucked out with the incisors to get at the meat. The same applies to porcupine quills. The mean hunting success is as low as 12% but it varies with the type of prey while females with young cubs have the greatest hunting success. Where lions and spotted hyaenas are numerous, the leopard more often caches its food in tall trees than elsewhere.



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

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

Malek, J. 1997. The cat in ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press.

Skinner, J D. and C Chimimba (Eds) 2005. The mammals of the South African subregion, third edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 585 - 590.

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

Turner, A 1997. The big cats and their fossil relatives. New York: Columbia University Press.

article by: Prof J du P Bothma


Click here to buy music, videos and images

Advertise with us:
R10 000 pm VAT excl.