The Elusive Leopard
Scientific name: Panthera Pardus
The strikingly gorgeous leopard is stealthy and secretive, staying as far out of the sight of humans as possible. Infamous for the ability to go undetected, it is very difficult and rare to ever spot one in the wild, as he tends to remain elusive up high in the trees or hidden in thick underbrush. Except for the head and legs, the leopard’s body is covered in a light colored coat with distinctive dark spots which are grouped in circles called “rosettes”, because they resemble the shape of a rose.
The name “leopard” was derived from the Greek words for lion (leo) and panther (pardos). They are graceful and massively powerful with long elegant bodies, broad chests, thick necks, short muscular legs, big paws, long tails and long white whiskers, which are stiff and very sensitive. The whiskers help the cat feel their way through thick underbrush in the dark and the tail is just about as long as its entire body, helping with balance and enabling it to make sharp turns quickly. Its head is massively large with high cheekbones and mesmerizing golden or green eyes. Although the leopard is not the largest cat in the wild, what it lacks in size is made up for in superior strength. Serious injuries can be inflicted on on the cat’s enemies using its sharp teeth and claws if challenged. Lions and tigers usually have no interest in engaging in battle against an adult leopard.
Today leopards inhabit regions of Africa, India, Central Asia, Siberia, the Middle East and China. They are very versatile and diverse animals that can adapt easily to all kinds of climates and conditions, living in ranges in semi-desert areas, rocky mountainous areas, tropical rain forests or swamps. There are nine remaining subspecies and four of them are on the Critically Endangered list published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They are the African, Amur, Arabian, Indian, Indo-Chinese, Java, North China, Persian and Sri Lankan Leopards. The Amur leopard that is found in Russia is one of the rarest cats in the world and is on the verge of extinction, with around only 30 left in the wild. Scientists place the mystical Snow Leopard in their own genus because they categorize it as an intermediate cat linking the great cats and the lesser cats.
Leopards are the smallest but most accomplished stalker of the four species belonging to the Big Cat family Felidae which also includes lions, tigers and jaguars. Only these four types of cats have the ability to roar. All other cats such as lynxes, bobcats and cheetahs can purr, but not roar. The four roaring cats are called the “Great Cats” to distinguish them from other large cats, called “Lesser Cats”. The cunning leopard is the ultimate cat and usually considered the top predator in its home range. The physical appearance of this cat is sleek, fascinating and very beautiful. They weigh on average between 130 pounds and 200 pounds and are, pound for pound, the most powerful cats in the world. They are the strongest climbers of all the big cats and also strong swimmers that are very much comfortable in the water, sometimes feeding on fish and crabs. Like house cats, they do not like stepping into water but can swim quite well if necessary. They can also jump up to ten feet straight up into the air.
Leopards mark their territory with urine and feces, as well as clawing the barks of trees. Their call is a distinctive a series of grunts sounding like a wood plank being cut with a saw, tending to occur in the early evening or just before dawn. This call allows territorial neighbors to stay out of their way and also allows males and females to locate one another. They will growl when aggressive then spit and snarl when feeling threatened. Of all the predators in Africa, the leopard is the second fastest sprinter after the cheetah, running up to 40 miles per hour, making up for their short legs with speed and massive power. Their exceptional hearing is more than two times better than that of a human and its vision their six times better, making them superb hunters at night. On average, they live about 12 years in the wild and have been recorded up to age 27 in captivity.
Since adult leopards are such powerful animals they rarely have any predators in the wild, aside from humans. Because they are solitary, they occasionally may be surprised and killed by baboons, pythons, hyenas, lions or wild dogs . Eagles can also be a serious threat to cubs, snatching them up as they try to feed or drink water from watering holes. These cats are nocturnal predators that are most active in the dark, ambushing prey by using slow and cautious movements in the tall grass. They hunt from trees where their spotted coats blend with the foliage of the branches until there is an opportunity to pounce with a deadly vengeance. Prey is paralyzed with a lethal bite to the back of the neck that crushes the spinal cord, strangling the victim with their brutally powerful jaws. The diet of the leopard is very broad ranging from the dung beetle to the adult male eland, which can reach up to 2,000 pounds. The favorite meal choices tend to be antelope, warthog, baboons, hares, and vervet monkeys.
Most time is spent by these cats draped on tree limbs or lying in thick undergrowth to camouflage their spotted coats. They can live without drinking for up to a month, as their need for water is primarily satisfied by the fluids from the prey the eat. Known for an amazing climbing ability, leopards usually drags their kill vertically to a safe place up in the trees to protect it from other predators. They will scavenge when necessary, stealing kills from lone hyenas, cheetahs and other small carnivores. Leopards are not fond of eating fur so before opening the carcass to feed on the meat, they will pluck out the animal’s hair.
Black leopards, commonly called black panthers, appear to be solid in color but when examining them closely you can see the dark rosettes in the coat. The black fur occurs due to color variation and they are not a sub-species. Zoologically speaking, the term panther is synonymous with leopard . Therefore, by strict definition, the term “black panther” refers only to the black leopard. Melanism is caused by a recessive genetic trait that is passed from one generation to the next and is thought by many to be a favorable evolutionary mutation for the species. A black leopard cub can be born if both parents carry the melanistic gene. If both parents are black, the cubs will always be black and quite often a black cub is born along with other fair-colored cubs. Black leopards are most commonly found in dimly lit dense tropical rain forests of South and Southeast Asia, where their dark color gives them greater camouflage.