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African Leopard

Description

Powerful, graceful and arguably one of the most beautiful of all the large cats, the elusive leopard (Panthera pardus or "Luiperd") is a master of stealth and survival. By far the strongest climber, it can haul prey twice its own body weight up into a tree where it can feast without disturbance from other predators. Male leopards usually measure 80 cm high at the shoulder and weigh between 20 – 90 kg. Females are considerably smaller, weighing between 17 – 60 kg.

Solitary, arboreal and nocturnal, they are difficult to spot but can sometimes be seen sunning themselves from their favourite viewpoint. Their nocturnal lifestyle is probably a reaction to human pressures and hunting. In National Parks, large game reserves and remote areas they can be seen moving about more readily during the day. They like to drape themselves over tree branches or rest in caves to escape the midday heat.

Leopards living in golden grasslands have a light buff or tawny coat that is covered with dark, irregular circles called "rosettes," providing excellent camouflage amongst foliage. In densely forested areas their colouring is much darker, almost black although their spots are still discernible in bright sunlight. Preferring riverine forests and rocky, dense bush, their adaptability has enabled leopards to exist in a wide variety of habitats as increasing human encroachment has forced them away.

In the Cape Province south of the Orange River, they have been largely eradicated by stock farmers except in rugged mountainous areas. The Cape Leopard that lives in the Cape mountain range is much smaller than its big cousins in the Limpopo region. Their diet is probably the contributing factor, consisting mostly of dassies and much smaller prey. Occasionally astonished hikers in the Cederberg mountains have been graced by the rare appearance of a wild leopard joining them at the fireside.

A life of seclusion is the way of the leopard and they tend to avoid one another. Highly territorial, their range overlaps that of their neighbours and they only tolerate a trespasser into its home turf to mate. Leopards mark their territory with urine and leave claw marks on trees. They are constantly on the move within their range and know each others location from these markings and their low, rasping calls.

Females have litters of two or three cubs after a gestation of about 100 days. Leopard cubs are kept hidden for the first 2 months and are suckled for at least 3 months. The mother takes them hunting when they are 4 months old and they may stay together as a family group for up to two years. As cubs are weaned they learn to hunt small animals. Leopards prey on a wide variety of creatures ranging from insects, rodents, birds, fish, dassies, monkeys and baboons to large antelope more than double their own body weight. Efficient and stealthy hunters, they may kill more than their immediate needs and ‘store’ their quarry in trees for several days. Only hyaenas rival the leopard in their readiness to gorge on rotten meat.

Leopards have always endured much hunting pressure from humans - partly for their soft, exquisite fur that was, and unfortunately still is used for ceremonial robes and fashion coats. Other parts of the leopard are used as fetishes and for ‘muthi’ used in traditional healing. Farmers readily try to eradicate them, believing them to be wanton killers of livestock. Leopards are regularly the main target for hunters who view killing as a recreational sport. In some cultures the leopard is revered as a symbol of wisdom.

Status

Leopards have been given a Lower Risk status on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Leopard population figures are estimated at greater than 50,000 mature breeding individuals, but are cause for concern with a declining trend due to hunting and degradation of its habitat and prey base.

When you’re most likely to spot leopards

Leopards are nocturnal, arboreal and secretive, usually hunting well after dusk. It's hard to spot them but sometimes they can be seen basking in the sun atop their favourite rocky vantage points or having a siesta up in a treetop.

Habitat

Leopards occur in a wide variety of habitats, ranging from subtropical forests to deserts. They prefer riverine forests and fairly dense veld, occurring mainly in game reserves and mountainous areas of southern Africa.

Leopard reproduction

During the day they sleep in caves, rock shelters, draped over tree branches or hidden in dense vegetation. Leopards are solitary and highly territorial, living alone except in the case of a female with cubs. Constantly on the move within their own territory, they never spend more than a few days in one spot. Female leopards usually have two or three cubs but can have a litter of up to four. The young cubs are kept hidden in various shelters for the first six weeks, occasionally being moved for safety. They start hunting from the age of five months.


Leopard Conservation Links

Cape Leopard Trust

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