Powerfully built yet graceful in nature, the Leopard is an animal, unlike many other members of the feline family. Most other cats are known to despise the sight of water, yet this animal is an avid swimmer and will readily jump into a body of water without any hesitation. So unique in its own way, but still very much like its larger cousins, the leopard is considered a keystone species in many ecosystems around the world. This means that without these top predators, all those ecosystems would end up collapsing, and at present, that is a huge issue since most leopards are currently battling through habitat loss and being hunted, and once again, it’s due to humans. But today, the 3rd of March, belongs to these silent majesties, and on this international leopard day, let us make it our duty to ensure that this species gets to see at least one extra sunrise on this earth than they’ll be able to, at the current rate.

The leopard (Panthera pardus) is a large cat closely related to the lion, tiger, and jaguar. An adult of this species weighs anywhere between 50 and 90 kg and has a length of 210 cm, which excludes their roughly 90 cm long tail. It has a shoulder height of about 60 to 70 cm, but it can, however, grow much larger. Most leopards have a light brown coat with distinctive dark spots – rosettes – that resemble roses. Contrary to what meets the eye, black leopards, which appear to be almost solid black in colour, are not a different species from the more familiar light-coloured ones, and upon close inspection, it becomes more clear as these same rosette-like spots can be seen even on their coats. They are more common in Asia than in other parts of the leopard’s range. And leopards in general have an average lifespan of about 10–12 years in the wild.

Figure 2: A black leopard alongside a “normal” one

A solitary, nocturnal animal found mainly around rocky landscapes with dense bush and riverine forests, it is also an agile climber and is frequently seen dragging its kill and storing the remains in the branches of trees. This is done because animals such as lions and hyenas often tend to take away the leopards’ kills.

Pound for pound, the leopard is the strongest climber of all the big cats. Their shoulder blades have special attachment sites for stronger climbing muscles. Leopards also hunt from trees, where their spotted coats provide them the ability to camouflage themselves and go for the kill.

Each individual has a home range that overlaps with its neighbours. Males have a larger range, and a single male’s range will often overlap with the range of several females. Ranges are marked with urine and claw marks.

Figure 3: A leopard gazing at the camera

Even though leopards like to occupy forest areas more often, they are also found residing in deserts and semi-desert regions of southern Africa, arid regions of North Africa, savanna grasslands of east and southern Africa, mountainous environments on Mt. Kenya, and rainforests of West and Central Africa. They even live in some urban and suburban parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

This range, however, has been drastically declining since the 1750s, when the geographic range of the leopard spanned nearly the whole of Africa south of the Sahara, as well as parts of north and northeast Africa, and extended from Central Asia and India to China and Manchuria. But by 2019, the species had lost up to 75% of its former range. Now, just as within Africa, outside of Africa too, this animal is only found in small pockets.

The leopard’s diet mainly consists of any animals it can overpower, from small rodents to waterbuck, but it generally preys on the smaller and medium-sized antelopes and deer. They often attack dogs and seem to enjoy them more, though this can also be due to their lack of access to more traditional prey, due to habitat loss. In Africa, baboons seem to face this fate too. It sometimes hunts livestock and humans, and again, this could be something triggered by human activities.

The circle of life;

After a gestation period of about 2.5 months, a female typically gives birth to a litter of two or three greyish cubs with barely visible spots. They can give birth during any time of the year and once that happens, the mother would abandon her nomadic lifestyle until the cubs are large enough to accompany her. She keeps them hidden for the first eight weeks or so and moves them from one location to the next until they are old enough to start learning to hunt. They start eating meat at around six or seven weeks and stop suckling after about three months. The cubs continue to live with their mothers like this for about two years.

Figure 4: A mother leopard with her two cubs

Same but still different…

There are nine subspecies of leopards spread all throughout the globe, and they are all distinguishable by the unique characteristics of their coats, which range from tawny or light yellow in warm, dry habitats to reddish-orange in dense forests. The rosettes on these coats happen to be circular in east African leopards, but square in southern African leopards.

Under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), P. pardus is classified as a vulnerable species, with the number of leopards worldwide estimated at several hundred thousand individuals. The fortunes of each of the nine recognized leopard subspecies, however, vary greatly. For instance, there are only about 9,800 Indian leopards (P. pardus fusca) left in the wild, though this number is thought to be increasing, while the Sri Lankan leopard (P. pardus kotiya) and the Persian leopard (P. pardus saxicolor) have been named as endangered species.

The primary threat to these, and all leopards, is human activity. Habitat fragmentation, reduced prey base, and human-wildlife conflict have greatly reduced this species’ population throughout most of their range. The commercialized bushmeat trade has caused a collapse of prey populations across large parts of savanna Africa, with an estimated average of a whopping 59% decline in prey populations across 78 protected areas. These big cats have long been hunted for their soft fur — used to make coats and ceremonial robes — as well as for their claws, whiskers, and tails, which are popular as fetishes.

Just as humans have caused the decline of this species, we can also become the reason they are repopularized. It really is up to us humans to protect these marvellous works of nature and give back, maybe just once, after taking so much from nature itself.

Written by:

Leandra Shiyara,

1st Year Undergraduate,

Biological Science Stream,

Faculty of Science,

University of Colombo.

References:

  • leopard | Description, Habitat, & Facts

By The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica Year: 2019 Container: Encyclopædia Britannica URL: https://www.britannica.com/animal/leopard

  • Leopard

By African Wildlife Foundation Year: 2018 Container: African Wildlife Foundation URL: https://www.awf.org/wildlife-conservation/leopard

  • Leopard | National Geographic

By Anon Year: 2010 Container: Animals URL: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/facts/leopard

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