The most beautiful of all big cats, the elusive leopard is also the most accomplished. A marvelous hunter and opportunistic predator, the leopard hunts what others do not and resides where other cannot. With a wide geographic distribution, leopard lives everywhere yet is seen virtually nowhere owing to its supreme stealth and cunning. Smallest of the four big cats of the Panthera genus, leopard – Panthera Pardus, has a weight ranging from 80-150 lbs for the males and 65-100 lbs for the female, subject to subspecies variation.
The word leopard reflects the supposed evolutionary origin of the big cat, with the original belief being that it was a hybrid of lion (leo) and panther (pard). However, the closest resemblance is to the Jaguar, even as the leopard is less stocky and its rosette coat markings are smaller, more numerous and lack internal spots. The rosettes also distinguish it from the spots of the Cheetah. Plus leopard is a more gifted tree climber and a nocturnal hunter, whereas Cheetah prefers the less competitive daytime for his kills.
Coloration is usually tawny yellow with the black rosettes ranging from a circular shape in East African leopard to square in South African Leopard. Melanism is frequently seen with the black leopard often found in dense forests of South East Asia. Called ‘panther’, the black coloration is a result of the merging together of skin markings. Designed for camouflage, leopard’s coat is generally considered as one of the most beautiful in animal kingdom and varies according to the habitat of the great hunter. Its geographical distribution is also used for classification purposes as leopard is segregated into nine modern species (down from a previous thirty), namely the African Leopard, Amur Leopard, Arabian Leopard, Indian Leopard, Indo-Chinese Leopard, Java Leopard, North China Leopard, Persian Leopard and Sri Lankan Leopard. The Snow Leopard, Clouded Leopard and Bornean Clouded Leopard are all considered separate species now (to be discussed later!).
A graceful hunter, leopard epitomizes stealth and predation. Leopard’s ability to go undetected enables it to prey on the most sensitive of animals like gazelles and dogs. The most successful hunter amongst big cats, leopard spares nothing – takes everything as prey from insects to birds, reptiles, monkeys, fish and deer. Its wide prey base supplemented by its ability to survive in diverse environments ensures leopard’s survival beyond the realm of its peers. Despite rare predation by the tiger in India, leopard enjoys greater success since it survives in areas with scarce water. The same is true in Africa where conflicts with lions and hyenas are won by the leopard’s terrific ability to carry prey up to three times its weight into trees, beyond the reach of its competitors. Its tree climbing abilities are the best among cats and alongside a strong swimming ability make it the best hunter in all of Africa, surviving in drought and tough climatic conditions where others perish.
Whilst the prey base is diverse, leopard may at times attack humans. The risks are supplemented in case of disease, eradication of prey animals and habitat encroachment. As man-eaters, leopards are extremely dangerous and very hard to eliminate. Their great stalking ability and cunning makes them the most feared killers amongst men. Many in Africa and India don’t fear the lion and tiger, respectively, as much as they do the leopard that spares nothing and yet is never seen. In fact many hunters maintain the leopard to be ten times as dangerous as a lion or tiger, making it a killer of great notoriety. Whereas other man-eating cats almost never dare to enter human settlements at day time, leopard has been known to take people from inside their houses! The famous Panar Leopard and Rudraprayag Leopard of India are startling examples (more on man-eating later!).
Solitary creatures, leopards come in unison for mating, that may occur seasonally or year-round depending on the individual sub-specie. Two or three cubs are born that the female takes great care to protect and hide, warning intruders into its territory by roaring and hissing (leopard’s growl is slightly different from lion and tiger’s loud roars – I personally find the rumbling growl of the leopard more frightening!). The young are able to hunt at nearly one year of age but may stay with the mother up to one and a half to two years.
Leopard often appears on coat of arms of nations and has great admiration worldwide for its beauty, something that poachers relish as they try to market its splendid fur. Though not vulnerable as a specie yet, leopard is under threat in certain parts of the world, spared only by its adaptability and reclusive nature!