|Photo by: Lee Dicks|
Latin Name: Panthera pardus
Weight: Females up to 60 kg. Males up to 90 kg
Lifespan: 20 years
Gestation: 110 days
Habitat and distribution:
The leopard is one of the most adaptable predators in Africa. They are able to survive in many different types of habitats, taking preference to savannah, woodland, riverine vegetation and mountainous regions. They can also be found living close to human settlements where domestic animals may become a source of prey.
The Sabi Sand Game Reserve in South Africa has the highest concentration of leopard in Africa.
The reason for this concentration is the abundance of water and the many river systems both dry and flowing which is ideal for hunting and concealment for themselves and cubs.
Prey is also in abundance and this game reserve.
The leopard population is often affected by the amount of lions within an area.
The more lion the fewer leopards as lion see them as competition and will often try kill them.
Of all predators, the leopard is the most likely to become a man-eater as many of them have established territories close to human settlements, resulting in regular encounters with people.
A leopard is very intelligent in that it will closely observe the daily habits and movements of other animals and even humans, for example a person going down to a river to wash or fetch drinking water at the same place at about the same time every day may become prey as the leopard then knows where and when to hide in order to hunt the expected human.
As with any other predator a leopard does not become a man-eater after tasting human flesh or blood but instead realizes how easy it is to hunt humans as they are weak and very slow, easy to prey on.
Old, slickly or injured leopard may turn to hunting humans as their natural prey may be too difficult to catch.
Unlike lions which are usually found in family groups, the leopard lives a more solitary life. Individuals seen together are most likely to be a mother with cubs, a male and female mating or encounters on the boundaries of their different territories. The collective name for a group of leopard is a “LEAP”.
Both males and females are territorial. The sizes of the different territories vary quite considerably. The males tend to have larger areas up to 100 km² and sometimes more, with several female territories overlapping within.
The size of their territories are influenced by the concentration of others individuals in the area as well as the availability of water and suitable prey species.
Leopard mark their territories by spraying urine onto trees and bushes and periodically return to, to remark, they also advertise their presence within its territory vocally, by making a series of grunts described as the sound of a saw cutting through wood.
Their beautiful colouration consists of dark-brown to black spots, which form the shape of rosettes. The edges of their eyes are lined with a white colour which may aid their nocturnal vision by amplifying light that is reflected off its surroundings.
Along with its superb camouflage, it is a very silent and stealthy predator with a very high success rate in kills made on hunts.
Pound for pound the leopard is the strongest cat in the world, capable of climbing a tree whilst carrying prey that is more than twice its own body weight. If the prey is too large to climb up with, it will often feed on the ground until carcass is light enough to pull up into a tree.
They are very opportunistic hunters, sometimes having 2 or more kills at the same time. The leopard is not fond of eating fur, so before opening a carcass to feed on the softer meat, it plucks out the animal’s hair.
Many young and inexperienced leopards don’t drag their kills up into trees often resulting in lions or hyenas stealing it from them. A carcass strung high up in a tree is a lot safer, allowing the leopard to can come and go as it pleases and feed at leisure. In areas with few scavengers, they will sometimes leave the kill on the ground and cover it grass and leaves or drag it out of sight into thick vegetation.
Of all the large predators in Africa it is the second fastest sprinter after the cheetah, reaching speeds of up to 85 km/hour in just 3 seconds!
The leopards’ diet consists of mainly small to medium sized antelope such as impala, bush buck, steenbok and duiker. They will also prey on kudu, warthog, baboons, vervet monkeys, hares, guinea fowl and francolins. A leopard will even eat insects if it is struggling to hunt for some reason.
Mating takes place at any time of the year. The male locates a female on “heat” by taste testing the urine she leaves behind on the vegetation, after scent-marking her territory. A female that is ready to mate is very vocal, often calling throughout the night to find a possible mating partner.
Once a suitable male is located, the pair may remain together for a week while mating.
The female gives birth to 2 or 3 cubs which she hides in thick vegetation, rocky outcrops or even in caves. Every 3 or 4 days the female moves the cubs as the smell of their urine and faeces becomes very prominent, often attracting unwanted visitors such as lion and hyena that would almost certainly kill the cubs.
Cubs start eating meat at around 6 to 8 weeks of age but still suckle off the female for up 3 or 4 months until weaning. At 12 months of age the cubs keen hunters and by 16 to 18 months they are too large for the mother to feed so she chases them off to be on their own.
Cubs of the same litter that are independent of their mother will often keep together for a few months before parting ways.
Leopard vs. Man & life stock:
Life stock such as sheep and the young from cattle often fall prey to leopard.
This is a loss in income for a farmer which may result in the leopard being destroyed by either shooting or poisoning.
Unfortunately this is only a short term solution as when leopard is removed from its territory a “vacuum” is created, in other words that area is now un-habited and now available for other leopards to move into.
New individuals to the territory may also turn to hunting life stock until they are too are destroyed.
Over a long period of time, as long as decades there may be no leopard left in the area and the farmers’ life stock will be safe.
Another solution is to bate and catch them and relocate them to areas where leopard populations are low and where they pose little or no threat to life stock or humans.
The downside to this method is the high costs involved in the whole process.
Another totally different approach which may prove quite successful is the use of electric collars on both the leopard and life stock.
How it works is when the leopard gets within a certain short distance from the cattle’s collar a signal is emitted to the leopards collar which results in a low voltage shock from the leopard’s collar.
The idea behind this method is to condition the leopard into not wanting to hunt life stock as it then associates the cattle or sheep with pain whenever it gets too close to them.
The ideal outcome would be then to take the collar off the conditioned leopard in hope that it avoids life stock and hunts only its natural prey species.
Leopard attacks on humans:
In September 2003 in the Kruger National Park a Safari guide was attacked in his vehicle while viewing a female leopard on a road between Satara camp and Orpen Gate.
There were a number of vehicles on the sighting which included a couple safari vehicles and tourist vehicles.
The leopard which was walking between the vehicles came up behind the safari guides vehicle.
The guide then turned off the engine and instructed his guests to remain dead still as not to disturb her.
Suddenly and totally unexpectedly the leopard jumped into the vehicle and started biting the guide on his left calf!
One of the guides from another vehicle jumped out and threw a water bottle at her which enough to save the guide as she then stopped and sat down.
The guide was taken to a clinic in Nelspruit for treatment of his wounds.
The leopard was later shot by one of Kruger rangers.
The real reason as to why the leopard attacked the guide may never be known as there are so many different factors that could have caused this incident.
The leopard may have felt threatened by the pure number of vehicles or she might have been injured or ill and so felt vulnerable to the presence of the vehicles
Leopard like many other predators see very well at night but there detailed vision is not quite the same as ours and it is difficult for a leopard to see individual people sitting in a vehicle so out of curiosity the leopard may have jumped into the vehicle only to find herself threatening position and in doing so attacked. As the saying goes “Curiosity killed the cat”.