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A Guide to the Leopard - Panthera pardus of South Africa
leopard

The Leopard, Panthera pardus, is the largest spotted cat in Africa, and is a powerful symbol of the wild places of earth: it is solitary, beautiful, graceful, strong, agile and cunning. They are the most widely distributed and successful of the world's large cats, inhabiting more diverse habitats than any mammal, with the exception of man and certain rodents.

Although smaller than a lion, the leopard is often more feared. It is fiercer, braver and very intelligent: a perfectly streamlined killing machine with exceptional hearing, good eyesight and sensitive, extra-long whiskers which help it avoid obstacles in the dark.

The leopard is also a remarkable athlete, capable not only of swimming across rivers, but also of leaping onto rocks up to 3 m high, carrying prey as heavy as itself, as well as hoisting heavy carcasses into the branches of trees.

Habitat

Leopards occur in rainforests, mountain ranges (e.g. Mount Kilimanjaro), temperate forest, open savannah, semi-desert, and bushveld areas with rocky hills where they frequent watercourses and rocky outcrops. Leopards are found in areas such as the Kruger National Park and The Greater St Lucia Wetland Park and the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park

Hunting

Leopards prey on anything from the size of a mouse to a mammal twice their weight - including wildebeest, kudu and young giraffes. Its spotted hide is such a perfect camouflage that it has been copied by armed forces for bush warfare. The leopard is a highly effective hunter, hunting by sight, sound and smell and using of any cover available, such as trees, bush, long grass, and dappled shade, from which to ambush their prey. They will even ambush prey by dropping on to them from the strategically placed branch of a tree!

Leopards are stalkers and pouncers and give a relatively short chase (normally less than 30 m) and kill their prey by throttling, or, less frequently, a bite to the back of the head, which severs the spinal column. Prey is often dragged up into a tree to prevent it being snatched by hyaenas, lions or jackals.

When wounded, cornered, or suddenly disturbed, leopards can become exceedingly dangerous, and there are many cases, particularly among hunters, of people being seriously hurt or killed by leopards.

Habits

Leopards are usually nocturnal, although they are occasionally active by day, and can sometimes be seen during the day lying up in a tree. They shelter during the heat of the day, either in trees, caves, or in the shade of rocks which double as vantage points from which they survey their hunting terrain, as well as avoiding other predators such as lions or spotted hyaenas, or, their most dangerous competitor, another leopard. They are solitary, although breeding pairs will sometimes be seen together, and mothers with cubs may be sighted

Communication

Leopards are normally silent. Their most characteristic vocalisation is a hoarse, rasping cough, repeated at intervals, which has been likened to the sawing of wood: once heard, this sound is not easily forgotten. Two territorial males will often grunt and growl at each other, and female leopards call when they are in oestrus. Leopards have also been known to purr during feeding.

Reproduction

Leopards have no particular breeding season. A female in oestrus will attract attention by calling, and will leave scent marks on trees and bushes: she will also often wander out of her normal home range. Male and females form temporary associations, and several males may mate an oestrus female within a short space of time.

Usually 2 to 3 cubs are born, in caves, hollow trees, holes in the ground, or any suitable, sheltered place. The mother leopard moves her cubs to a new shelter every two or three days, carrying them one at a time in her mouth. Leopard mothers groom their cubs by licking and nibbling at them, and they groom each other and their mother. The cubs stop suckling and start eating meat after about 3 months and at about 10 months they will join their mother on the hunt. Leopard cubs learn by copying their mother's behaviour, and they usually kill their first impala by 11 months, although they can kill small animals like mongooses or rodents from about 4 months. After a year cubs become independent although there may still be affectionate reunions between the mother and her offspring.

Status

Leopards are by no means endangered, although their numbers are much reduced compared with what they once were. They have a long history of conflict with man, largely due to the fact that humans' domestic stock has made many a leopard's meal. 'Problem' leopards have been moved in the past to game reserves, but they have incredible homing instincts, and usually travel long distances to return to the same farm where they were trapped. Although leopards are still fairly widespread, certain leopard populations are being severely impacted upon largely due to the reduction of their habitat.

SIZE: Shoulder height 75 cm, mass (m) 60 kg, (f) 32 kg
COLOUR: Ground colour is off-white to golden, with black spots on the legs, shoulders, head and hindquarters, and irregular, light-centred 'rosettes' scattered profusely over the back and sides.
GESTATION PERIOD: 3 months (90 - 100 days)
POTENTIAL LONGEVITY: 21 years
MOST LIKE: The Cheetah, but leopard more heavily built, has no tear marks from corner of eye to corner of mouth and main body markings are rosettes, rather than solid spots.
HABITAT: A very wide range of habitat tolerance, from rainforest to semi-desert, including savannah, mountainous areas and rocky hills.