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Mammals of Southern Africa

Large Mammals   Smaller Mammals 

The "Big 5": Lion LeopardElephant Buffalo Rhino

Information about Leopard and their Habitat, Hunting, Habits, Communication, Reproduction and Status.

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The Leopard 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. Leopards 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.

 
   

Leopards vary in size depending on location: leopards of the western Cape are smaller than those found in the Kruger National Park. It is thought that the woodland leopard is small and dark compared with its counterpart from more open country, but it is difficult to validate this, as size is affected by nutrition.

No two leopards are exactly alike, either in their markings or their background colour, but they do have black spots on the limbs, flanks, hindquarters and head, with rosettes on the remainder of the body. The tail is over half the length of the body, and is either spotted or rosetted. The underparts of both the body and tail are slightly lighter in colour than the upper-parts, as this helps with light deflection in terms of camouflage.

Although smaller than a lion, the sleuthlike 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 body is compactly built and cat-like, the head massive, and the strong, very sharp, curved claws are fully retractile. The 'dew claw', which is the claw of the first digit on the front feet, is used to hold large prey. The claws and first digits on the front feet do not mark in the spoor. 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. Leopards are adept climbers: they climb even smooth barked trees with ease, and move with confidence among swaying branches.

Habitat

 
   

Leopards have a very wide habitat tolerance. They generally occur in rainforests, areas with rocky hills, mountain ranges or temperate forest, but can even occur in semi-desert, where they frequent watercourses and rocky outcrops. In arid regions they are independant of water, deriving sufficient water from the bodies of their prey, as well as tsamma melons, but throughout their range they will drink if water is available.

Leopards reach their highest densities in rainforests, to which they are well adapted, as they are excellent climbers, solitary hunters and are equally at ease by night or day. There is a lack of competition from other large predators in rainforests, and the leopard supplements its diet of buck, forest hogs and similar animals with the large selection of primates and rodents: they also eat birds, reptiles and fish. Leopards also inhabit high altitudes, such as the Virungas, Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro, where their major prey is rodents and hyraxes; arid regions such as the Kalahari desert; as well as regions that are covered in ice and snow during the winter.

Cover in which to lie up safely during the day, and from which to hunt, is essential. Due to their wide habitat tolerance, wide range of prey species, as well as their strength, cunning and incredible hunting prowess, they are the most widely distributed large predator on earth: they are found from the southern parts of the African continent through the Middle East to the Far East, north to Siberia and south to Sri Lanka and Malaysia.

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Hunting

The leopard is unmatched as a predator: leopards prey on anything from the size of a mouse to a mammal twice their weight - including wildebeest and young giraffes: because of this, as well as their secretive, nocturnal habits, they have adapted to a wide range of habitats. Its spotted hide is such a perfect camouflage that it has been copied by armed forces for bush warfare. The camouflage value of the leopard's coat is very apparent when it is lying in dappled shade, as the broken design blends perfectly with the pattern of sunlight and shade. The leopard is a highly effective hunter: they make full use of any cover available, such as trees, bush, long grass, and dappled shade, from which to stalk their prey. They will even ambush prey by dropping on to them from the strategically placed branch of a tree.

 
   

They do not engage in long chases: leopards are stalkers and pouncers, and hunt by sight, sound and smell. When stalking, they crouch with their body held close to the ground and the tail horizontal, while they locate the prey primarily using their acute night vision, freezing whenever the prey looks around alertly: then they burst out with a focused fury. Leopards are totally adapted for hunting: they have close-set eyes for binocular vision, so they can accurately judge distances, and they often observe prey from a high vantage point before beginning their painstaking stalk. They then 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.

The teeth are impressive, and deadly efficient: their canines deliver the killing bite, and tear through rough hide, while the razor sharp molars and rasping tongue make short work of flesh. Prey is often dragged up into a tree to prevent it being snatched by hyaenas, lions or jackals, although in areas such as parts of Namibia where hyaenas have not occurred for decades, leopards do not expend extra energy by hauling the carcass into a tree, and simply eat it on the ground.

Leopards also kill small prey, such as mice or birds, by swatting them with a paw. Certain prey may be disembowelled and the entrails buried, and birds will usually be carefully plucked before eating: leopards seem to dislike fur and feathers, and get rid of them by shaking their head vigorously; they often also pluck out a section of fur from a mammal carcass with their teeth before eating. Leopards often kill more than they require immediately, and hide their kill either in a tree or a hole, returning later to finish it. They will scavenge carcasses if available.

The predator isn't always the victor: adult wildebeest, zebra, giraffe, sable antelope and gemsbok have all successfully driven off leopards while protecting their young, and while leopards can attack baboon at night, they usually don't attempt it during the day, as the rest of the baboon troop usually come to the defense of their troop member, and drive off the leopard, or rip it to pieces. It is a common myth that baboons and bushpigs form the major prey of leopards: while these animals are eaten by leopards, they usually form a small percentage of their diet.

Leopards do not tolerate other predators very well, and often chase competing species. There are records of leopards killing cheetah and hanging them up in trees without feeding on them, and also of leopards eating other leopards that have been killed in territorial desputes.

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.

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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: in arid regions they often crawl into disused aardvark burrows for shade. Trees and rocks 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. Leopards are sometimes spotted basking in the early morning sun.

 
   

Unlike other large predators, they are not found only in game parks, and many still roam in the wild, usually on or near farmland. Leopards are territorial, and defend their territories against individuals of the same sex. Males and females mark their territories by spraying urine and by leaving warning clawmarks on tree trunks at the edges of their territories.

Despite these avoidance mechanisms that have been developed, fighting among male leopards is fairly common, and can be severe. The home ranges of female leopards are smaller than those of the males, and male home ranges can overlap with that of more than one female. In areas of prey abundance, where there is a high density of leopards, the territories of males may overlap considerably, and in such cases the leopards usually actively avoid contact, using the 'common area' at different times. The size of the territory depends on the habitat, and ultimately on the amount of food available within that habitat and particular area. Leopards move at a slow, casual walk, which can quickly turn into either a bounding gallop or a brisk trot if necessity demands it.

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. This rasping call is usually given by male leopards in order to advertise their territories: it will be answered by another leopard, if there is one in the vacinity, and will then be repeated between them as they move. Leopards have individualistic, distinctive calls, and it is probably advantageous for solitary animals such as leopards to recognize one another from a distance, via vocalisations, as they generally avoid each other. 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.

The methods leopards use to mark their territories (discussed above under 'Habits'), are also vital methods of intra-specific communication.

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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 an eostrus female may be mated by several males 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: they are led to the kill to eat until about 10 months, when they join the 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. The mother may bring dead or live prey to her cubs, which they attempt to pounce on, and learn to manipulate with their claws. When moving with cubs the mother leopard's tail is curved upwards, showing the whitish underside which may act as a guide to the young in the tall grass. Predation on leopard cubs, particularly by other leopards and spotted hyaenas, is very common, and it is rare for more than one or two cubs from a litter to survive to independance. Cubs become independant after a year, although siblings often remain together for a few more months, and some cubs do remain with their mothers for almost two years. After cubs have become independant, affectionate reunions between mother and cubs can still occur.

Status

 
   

Leopards are by no means endangered, although, in common with many other large mammals, 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. Once leopards have eaten domestic stock and become aware of the ease with which they can kill it, they tend to return for more. '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.

It is also unwise to bring new leopards into other leopards' territories: this is probably another reason why the newcomers do not remain long in their new homes. In addition, there are genetic differences associated with different areas, and moving leopards around may not be a good idea genetically: the solution now is to rather shoot leopards that habitually eat domestic animals. Although leopards are still fairly widespread, certain leopard populations are being severely impacted upon, not only by irate farmers and pelt hunters, but largely due to the reduction of their habitat, and some countries have conservation strategies in place for leopards, in order to maintain genetically viable leopard populations in different localities.

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