Leopard (Panthera pardus) is one of the five extant species in the genus Panthera, a member of the Felidae. The leopard occurs in a wide range in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia. Leopards are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List because leopard populations are threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation, and are declining in large parts of the global range. In Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuwait, Syria, Libya, Tunisia and most likely in Morocco, leopard populations have already been extirpated. Contemporary records suggest that the leopard occurs in only 25% of its historical global range. Leopards are hunted illegally, and their body parts are smuggled in the wildlife trade for medicinal practices and decoration.
Compared to other wild cats, the leopard has relatively short legs and a long body with a large skull. It is similar in appearance to the jaguar, but generally has a smaller, lighter physique. Its fur is marked with rosettes similar to those of the jaguar, but the leopard’s rosettes are generally smaller, more densely packed and without central spots. Both leopards and jaguars that are melanistic are known as black panthers. The leopard is distinguished by its well-camouflaged fur, opportunistic hunting behaviour, broad diet, and strength (which it uses to move heavy carcasses into trees), as well as its ability to adapt to various habitats ranging from rainforest to steppe, including arid and montane areas, and its ability to run at speeds of up to 58 kilometres per hour (36 mph).
Fossil parts dating to the Late Pleistocene were excavated in Europe and Japan.
The common name “leopard” (/ˈlɛpərd/) is a Greek compound of λέων leōn (“lion”) and πάρδος pardos (“male panther”). The name reflects the fact that in antiquity, a leopard was believed to be a hybrid of a lion and a panther. The Greek word is related to Sanskrit पृदाकु pṛdāku(“snake”, “tiger” or “panther”), and probably derives from a Mediterranean language, such as Egyptian. The name was first used in the 13th century. Other vernacular names for the leopard include graupanther, panther and several regional names such as tendwa in India. The term “black panther” refers to leopards with melanistic genes. A term for the leopard used in Old English and later, but now very uncommon, is “pard”.
The scientific name of the leopard is Panthera pardus. The generic name Panthera derives from Latin via Greek πάνθηρ (pánthēr). The term “panther”, whose first recorded use dates back to the 13th century, generally refers to the leopard, and less often to the cougar and the jaguar. Alternative origins suggested for Panthera include an Indo-Iranian word meaning “white-yellow” or “pale”. In Sanskrit, this could have been derived from पाण्डर pāṇḍara (“tiger”), which in turn comes from पुण्डरीक puṇḍárīka (with the same meaning). The specific name pardus is derived from the Greek πάρδος (pardos) (“male panther”).
The leopard is one of the five extant species of the genus Panthera, which also includes the jaguar (P. onca), the lion (P. leo), the snow leopard (P. uncia) and the tiger (P. tigris). This genus, along with the genus Neofelis, forms the subfamily Pantherinae.
The leopard was first described by Swedish zoologist Carl Linnaeus in the 10th edition of Systema Naturae. Linnaeus named the leopard Felis pardus and placed it in the genus Felis along with the domestic cat, the jaguar, the Eurasian lynx, the lion, the ocelot and the tiger. In the 18th and 19th centuries, most naturalists and taxonomists followed his example. In 1816, Lorenz Oken proposed a definition of the genus Panthera, with a subgenus Panthera using F. pardus as a type species. Oken’s classification was not widely accepted, and Felis or Leopardus was used until the early 20th century. In 1916, British zoologist Reginald Innes Pocock accorded Panthera generic rank based on Panthera pardus as the type species.
Following Linnaeus’s first description, 27 leopard subspecies were described by naturalists between 1794 and 1956. Since 1996, only eight subspecies have been considered valid on the basis of mitochondrial analysis. Later analysis revealed a ninth valid subspecies, the Arabian leopard.
Since 2017, the Cat Classification Task Force of the Cat Specialist Group recognizes only eight subspecies. These subspecies are:
3)Sri Lankan Leopard
The leopard’s skin colour varies by climate and habitat from pale yellow to yellowish brown or golden. Leopards living in forests are darker than those in arid habitats. Spots fade toward the white underbelly and the insides and lower parts of the legs. Rosettes are most prominent on the back, flanks and hindquarters. The pattern of the rosettes is unique in each individual. Rosettes are circular in East African leopard populations, and tend to be squarish in Southern African and larger in Asian leopard populations. The fur tends to be grayish tones in colder climates, and to a darker golden hue in rainforest habitats.
Its white-tipped tail is about 60–100 centimetres (24–39 in) long, white underneath and with spots that form incomplete bands toward the tails’s end. Its fur is generally soft and thick, notably softer on the belly than on the back. It tends to grow longer in colder climates. The guard hairs protecting the basal hairs are short (3–4 millimetres (0.12–0.16 in)) in face and head, and increase in length toward the flanks and the belly to about 25–30 millimetres (0.98–1.18 in). Juveniles have woolly fur, and appear dark due to the densely arranged spots.
The leopard is often confused with the cheetah; however, the cheetah is marked with small round spots instead of the larger rosettes. Moreover, the leopard lacks the facial tear streaks characteristic of the cheetah. Other similar species are the clouded leopard and jaguar. The clouded leopard can be told apart by the diffuse “clouds” of spots compared to the smaller and distinct rosettes of the leopard, longer legs and thinner tail. The jaguar has rosettes that typically have spots within them, while those of leopards often do not. Moreover, the jaguar has larger and rounder foot pads and a larger skull.
The leopard is sexually dimorphic, males are larger and heavier than females. It is muscular, with relatively short limbs and a broad head. Males stand 60–70 cm (24–28 in) at the shoulder, while females are 57–64 cm (22–25 in) tall. The head-and-body length is typically between 90 and 190 cm (35 and 75 in). While males weigh 37–90 kg (82–198 lb), females weigh 28–60 kg (62–132 lb). These measurements vary geographically.
Usually, leopards are larger in areas where they are at the top of the food chain, with no competitive restriction from larger predators such as the lion and tiger. Alfred Edward Pease accounted to have seen leopards in North Africa nearly as large as Barbary lions. In 1913, an Algerian newspaper reported of a leopard killed that allegedly measured about 275 cm (108 in). To compare, male lions measure 266–311 cm (105–122 in) from head to end of tail.
The maximum weight of a leopard is about 96 kg (212 lb), recorded in Southern Africa. It was matched by an Indian leopard killed in Himachal Pradesh in 2016 that measured 262 cm (103 in).
The leopard has the largest distribution of all wild cats, occurring widely in Africa as well as eastern and southern Asia, although populations have shown a declining trend, and are fragmented outside of sub-Saharan Africa. Within sub-Saharan Africa, the species is still numerous and even thriving in marginal habitats where other large cats have disappeared, although there is considerable potential for human-leopard conflict due to leopards preying on livestock. Populations in North Africa may be extinct. Data on their distribution in Asia are not consistent. Populations in southwest and central Asia are small and fragmented; in the northeast, they are critically endangered. In the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and China, leopards are still relatively abundant. Of the species as a whole, its numbers are greater than those of other Panthera species, all of which face more acute conservation concerns.
Leopards are exceptionally adaptable, although associated primarily with savanna and rainforest. Populations thrive anywhere in the species range where grasslands, woodlands, and riverine forests remain largely undisturbed. In the Russian Far East, they inhabit temperate forests where winter temperatures reach a low of −25 °C (−13 °F). They are equally adept surviving in some of the world’s most humid rainforests and even semi-arid desert edges.
Leopards in west and central Asia avoid deserts and areas with long snow cover and areas close to urban centres. In India, leopard populations sometimes live quite close to human settlements and even in semi-developed areas. Although occasionally adaptable to human disturbances, leopards require healthy prey populations and appropriate vegetative cover for hunting for prolonged survival and thus rarely linger in heavily developed areas. Due to the leopard’s superlative stealthiness, people often remain unaware that big cats live in nearby areas.
Leopards are active mainly from dusk till dawn and rest for most of the day and for some hours at night in thickets, among rocks or over tree branches. Leopards have been observed walking 1–25 km (0.62–15.53 mi) across their range at night; they may even wander up to 75 km (47 mi) if disturbed. In some regions, they are nocturnal. In western African forests, they have been observed to be largely diurnal and hunting during twilight, when their prey animals are active; activity patterns varies between seasons.
Leopards are known for their ability to climb and have been observed resting on tree branches during the day, dragging their kills up trees and hanging them there, and descending from trees headfirst. They are powerful swimmers, although are not as disposed to swimming as some other big cats, such as the tiger. They are very agile, and can run at over 58 km/h (36 mph), leap over 6 m (20 ft) horizontally, and jump up to 3 m (9.8 ft) vertically.
The leopard depends mainly on its acute senses of hearing and vision for hunting. It primarily hunts at night in most areas. In western African forests and Tsavo National Park, leopards have been also observed hunting by day.
The leopard is a carnivore that prefers medium-sized prey with a body mass ranging from 10–40 kg (22–88 lb). Prey species in this weight range tend to occur in dense habitat and to form small herds. Species that prefer open areas and developed significant anti-predator strategies are less preferred. More than 100 prey species were recorded. Impala, Thomson’s gazelle, duiker, steenbok, bushbuck, warthog, water chevrotain, blue wildebeest, sitatunga, Bates’s pygmy antelope, aardvark, nyala, and kudu are frequently taken in Africa, and chital, muntjac, sambar, four-horned antelope, deer, Nilgiri tahr, gaur and wild boar in Asia. Primate prey species preyed upon include Colobus, Mangabey, Cercopithecus, langur, and less frequently also gorilla and baboon. Small mammals preyed upon include black-backed jackal, Cape fox, African civet, genets, hares, porcupine and rock hyrax. Prey as heavy as a 550 kg (1,210 lb) giraffe is hunted if larger carnivores such as lions or tigers are absent. The largest prey killed by a leopard was reportedly a male eland weighing 900 kg (2,000 lb).
The leopard stalks the prey and tries to approach as close as possible, typically within 5 m (16 ft) to the target, and finally pounces on it and kills it by suffocation. It kills small prey with a bite on the back of the neck, but holds larger animals by the throat and strangles them. It is able to take large prey due to its massive skull and powerful jaw muscles, and is therefore strong enough to drag carcasses heavier than itself up into trees; an individual was seen to haul a young giraffe, weighing nearly 125 kg (276 lb), up 5.7 m (19 ft) into a tree. Kills are cached up to 2 km (6,600 ft) apart. Small prey is eaten immediately, while larger carcasses are dragged over several hundred metres and safely cached in trees, bushes or even caves to be consumed later. The way the kill is stored depends on local topography and individual preferences; while trees are preferred in Kruger National Park, bushes are preferred in the plain terrain of the Kalahari.
Analysis of leopard scat in Taï National Park revealed that primates except chimpanzee and potto are primary leopard prey during the day. In a reserved forest of southern India, species preyed upon by leopard, dhole and striped hyena overlapped considerably.
A study in Wolong National Nature Reserve in southern China demonstrated variation in the leopard’s diet over time; over the course of seven years, the vegetative cover receded, and leopards opportunistically shifted from primarily consuming tufted deer to pursuing bamboo rats and other smaller prey. Average daily consumption rates of 3.5 kg (7.7 lb) were estimated for males and of 2.8 kg (6.2 lb) for females. A study in the southern Kalahari showed that leopards met their water requirements by the bodily fluids of prey and succulent plants; they drink water every two to three days, and feed infrequently on moisture-rich plants such as gemsbok cucumbers (Acanthosicyos naudinianus), tsamma melon (Citrullus lanatus) and Kalahari sour grass (Schmidtia kalahariensis). A few instances of cannibalism have been reported.
Predation on bear cubs has been reported in Asia. Sub-adult giant pandas weighing up to 50 kg (110 lb) may also be vulnerable to predation by leopards.
Leopards must compete for food and shelter with other large predators such as tigers, lions, cheetahs, spotted hyenas, striped hyenas, brown hyenas, up to five species of bear and both African and Asiatic wild dogs. These animals may steal the leopard’s kill, devour its young or even kill adult leopards. Leopards co-exist alongside these other large predators by hunting for different types of prey and by avoiding areas frequented by them. Leopards may also retreat up a tree in the face of direct aggression from other large carnivores but leopards have been seen to either kill or prey on competitors such as black-backed jackal, caracal, African wild cat and the cubs of lions, cheetahs, hyenas, and wild dogs.
Resource partitioning occurs where leopards share their range with tigers. Leopards tend to take smaller prey, usually less than 75 kg (165 lb), where tigers are present. In areas where the leopard is sympatric with the tiger, coexistence is reportedly not the general rule, with leopards being few where tigers are numerous. The mean leopard density decreased significantly (from 9.76 to 2.07 animals per 100 km2) when the mean density of tigers increased (from 3.31 animals/100km2 to 5.81 animals/100km2) from 2004–5 to 2007–8 in the Rajaji National Park in India following the relocation of pastoralists out of the park. There, the two species have high dietary overlap, and an increase in the tiger population resulted in a sharp decrease in the leopard population and a shift in the leopard diet to small prey (from 9% to 36%) and domestic prey (from 6.8% to 31.8%).
In Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, the Bengal tiger coexists with the Indian leopard because there is a large prey biomass, a large proportion of prey is of smaller size, and dense vegetation exists. Here leopards killed prey ranging from less than 25 kg (55 lb) to 100 kg (220 lb) in weight with most kills in the 25–50 kg (55–110 lb) range; tigers killed more prey in the 50–100 kg (110–220 lb) range. There were also differences in the microhabitat preferences of the individual tiger and leopard followed over five months (December to April); the tiger used roads and (except in February) forested areas more frequently, while the leopard used recently burned areas and open areas more frequently. Usually when a tiger began to kill baits at sites formerly frequented by leopards, the leopards would no longer come and hunt there. In the tropical forests of India’s Nagarhole National Park, tigers selected prey weighing more than 176 kg (388 lb), whereas leopards selected prey in the 30–175 kg (66–386 lb) range. In tropical forests, they do not always avoid the larger cats by hunting at different times. With relatively abundant prey and differences in the size of prey selected, tigers and leopards seem to successfully coexist without competitive exclusion or inter-species dominance hierarchies that may be more common to the leopard’s co-existence with the lion in savanna habitats. In areas with high tiger populations, such as in the central parts of India’s Kanha National Park, leopards are not permanent residents, but transients. They were common near villages at the periphery of the park and outside the park.
In the mid-20th century, Northeast Asian leopards were absent or very rarely encountered in the Primorye region of the Russian Far East at places where Siberian tigers roamed. Surveys conducted at the beginning of the 21st century revealed that the range of both species overlaps in this region, especially in protected areas where ungulate densities are high and human disturbance is low.
Occasionally, Nile crocodiles prey on leopards of any age. One large adult leopard was grabbed and consumed by a large crocodile while attempting to hunt along a bank in Kruger National Park. Mugger crocodiles have reportedly killed an adult leopard in India. Lions are occasionally successful in climbing trees and fetching leopard kills. Leopards are also known to kill or prey on lion cubs. In the Kalahari desert, leopards frequently lose kills to the brown hyena, if the leopard is unable to move the kill into a tree. Single brown hyenas have been observed charging at and displacing male leopards from kills. Burmese pythons have reportedly preyed on leopards, and an adult leopard was recovered from the stomach of a 5.5 m (18 ft) specimen.
Two cases of leopards killing cheetahs have been reported in 2014.
In some areas of Africa, troops of large baboon species (potential leopard prey themselves) will kill and sometimes eat leopard cubs if they discover them. George Schaller wrote that he had seen carcasses of a leopard and gorilla, and that both had wounds.
Depending on the region, leopards may mate all year round. In Manchuria and Siberia, they mate during January and February. The estrous cycle lasts about 46 days and the female usually is in heat for 6–7 days. Gestation lasts for 90 to 105 days. Cubs are usually born in a litter of 2–4 cubs. Mortality of cubs is estimated at 41–50% during the first year.
Females give birth in a cave, crevice among boulders, hollow tree, or thicket to make a den. Cubs are born with closed eyes, which open four to nine days after birth. The fur of the young tends to be longer and thicker than that of adults. Their pelage is also more gray in colour with less defined spots. Around three months of age, the young begin to follow the mother on hunts. At one year of age, leopard young can probably fend for themselves, but remain with the mother for 18–24 months.
The average typical life span of a leopard is between 12 and 17 years. The oldest recorded spotted leopard was a female named Roxanne living in captivity at McCarthy’s Wildlife Sanctuary in The Acreage, Palm Beach County, Florida. She died August 8, 2014 at the age of 24 years, 2 months and 13 days. This has been verified by the Guinness World Records. Previously, the oldest recorded leopard was a female named Bertie living in captivity in Warsaw Zoo. She died in December 2010 at the age of 24. The oldest recorded male leopard was Cezar, who reached the age of 23. He also lived at Warsaw Zoo and was Bertie’s lifelong companion. Generation length of the leopard is 9.3 years.