Harriet Smith Photography
"For The Love of Africa"
About 28 inches at the shoulder
Up to 140 pounds
15 to 20 years
Bush and riverine forest
Approximately 106 days
|The most secretive and elusive of the large carnivores, the leopard is also the shrewdest. Pound for pound, it is the strongest climber of the large cats and capable of killing prey larger than itself.
Leopards come in a wide variety of coat colors, from a light buff or tawny in warmer, dryer areas to a dark shade in deep forests. The spots, or rosettes, are circular in East African leopards but square in southern African leopards.
Dense bush in rocky surroundings and riverine forest are their favorite habitats, but leopards adapt to many places in both warm and cold climates. Their adaptability, in fact, has helped them survive the loss of habitat to increasing human settlement. Leopards are primarily nocturnal, usually resting during the daytime in trees or thick bush. The spotted coat provides almost perfect camouflage.
When a leopard stalks prey, it keeps a low profile and slinks through the grass or bush until it is close enough to launch an attack. When not hunting, it can move through herds of antelopes without unduly disturbing them by flipping its tail over its back to reveal the white underside, a sign that it is not seeking prey.Leopards are basically solitary and go out of their way to avoid one another. Each animal has a home range that overlaps with its neighbors; the male's range is much larger and generally overlaps with those of several females. A leopard usually does not tolerate intrusion into its own range except to mate. Unexpected encounters between leopards can lead to fights.
The leopard - stealthy, cunning and adaptable - is the ultimate cat, able to live in a wide variety of habitats, from semi-desert to tropical rain forests. Because of this versatility, it is the most numerous of Africa's big cats.
Leopards are nocturnal, hunting by night while spending most the day resting, usually draped on tree limbs or lying in thick undergrowth. As a result they're difficult to see, unless you're lucky enough to spot one resting or sunning itself on a rock or tree limb. Once darkness sets in, they move around intermittently until after dawn.
Adult leopards are solitary and territorial and will only associate long enough to mate. Occupation of a territory is advertised by marking with urine and faeces and clawing the bark of trees.
Although they are solitary animals and do not live in families, leopards nevertheless have strong maternal bonds. Even though the young become independent at about 22 months, the mother may continue to share kills with her offspring until they become totally self-sufficient. Leopards growl and spit with a screaming roar of fury when angry and they purr when content. They announce their presence to other leopards with a rasping or sawing cough. They have a good sense of smell and mark their ranges with urine; they also leave claw marks on trees to warn other leopards to stay away. Leopards continually move about their home ranges, seldom staying in an area for more than two or three days at a time. With marking and calling, they usually know one another's whereabouts. A male will accompany a female in estrus for a week or so before they part and return to solitude.
As they grow, cubs learn to hunt small animals. The leopard is a cunning, stealthy hunter, and its prey ranges from strong-scented carrion, fish, reptiles and birds to mammals such as rodents, hares, hyraxes, warthogs, antelopes, monkeys and baboons.
Generally leopards will eat any warm-blooded prey, from mice and hares to large antelope. But a leopard is the supreme opportunist and will also eat birds, reptiles, rodents and even insects. If living close to people, it will also attack domestic animals and pets such as dogs.
When there are no large predators or vultures in the area, a leopard will leave its kill on the ground covered with loose soil or leaves. Otherwise it will carry its prey up a tree.
Leopards will also scavenge if necessary, stealing kills from cheetahs, lone hyenas and any of the smaller carnivores. Excess food is stored to be eaten later and leopards have been observed killing again before the first carcass is completely eaten.
A female leopard on heat attracts males by the smell of her urine. A male and female may stay together for several days, even sharing food, during which time they mate repeatedly before going their separate ways.
|Caring for the Young
A litter includes two or three cubs, whose coats appear to be smoky gray as the rosettes are not yet clearly delineated. The female abandons her nomadic wandering until the cubs are large enough to accompany her. She keeps them hidden for about the first 8 weeks, giving them meat when they are 6 or 7 weeks old and suckling them for 3 months or longer.
Females are capable of breeding at two years and will produce litters of one to three cubs after a pregnancy lasting about 100 days (three-and-a-half months).
Leopard babies weigh around 500g at birth and their eyes open after a week. For the first two months the mother keeps her cubs hidden in dense bush, rock clefts or hollow tree trunks. The cubs will venture from hiding after six to eight weeks, by which time they can already climb trees.
The mother will leave young cubs for up to 36 hours while hunting and feeding before returning to suckle them. She brings solid food to her cubs when they're about six weeks old.
The cubs are weaned at three months, but will stay with the mother for the first 22 months. Only half the cubs from a litter will on average survive to adulthood.
Leopards have long been preyed upon by man. Their soft, dense, beautiful fur has been used for ceremonial robes and coats. Different parts of the leopard the tail, claws and whiskers are popular as fetishes. These cats have a reputation as wanton killers, but research does not support the claim. In some areas farmers try to exterminate them, while in others leopards are considered symbols of wisdom. Leopards do well in captivity, and some have lived as long as 21 years.
|Hunting and Predator Behavior:
The leopard is classically feline in its hunting behavior, specializing in ambushing and stalking its prey, then pouncing before the victim can react. With its head low, legs bent and belly nearly touching the ground, a leopard will try to stalk to within three to 10 meters before pouncing. If it misses, it will seldom chase its prey.
After a successful pounce, the leopard paralyses its prey with a bite through the back of the neck that damages the spinal cord, then strangles the victim with its powerful jaws.
Usually the kill is then taken by the neck and dragged to safety, away from other predators. Leopards often store their kills in trees, out of the reach of lions and hyenas. This requires great power, but is not a problem for leopards - they are renowned for their strength and can haul a carcass of at least their own weight up the vertical trunk of a tree.
This massive strength means a big adult leopard is capable of killing prey up to the size of an eland - almost 10 times its own weight! Small prey such as mice, rats and small birds are swatted to death with a single paw strike.
|Did you know?
The elegant, powerfully built leopard has a long body, relatively short legs and a broad head. Its tawny coat is covered with dark, irregular circles called "rosettes." Both lions and hyenas will take away a leopard's kill if they can. To prevent this leopards store their larger kills in trees where they can feed on them in relative safety.
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