The African leopard (Panthera pardus) is an elegant and powerfully-built predator. It is the most secretive and elusive big cat, and arguably one of the most beautiful members of the entire Panthera genus.
Here are 11 facts about the African leopard that you need to know:
1. Because of its adapted retinas, leopards can see seven times better in the dark than humans.
2. Black leopards are seen infrequently in parts of Africa. The difference in colour is not indicative of a separate sub-species, but rather dominance of the dark-coloured pigment melanin in the skin, and is the opposite of albinism. Talking about the leopard’s physical appearance, there is a large variation in the coat colour and rosette patterns depending on the location of the animal. In East Africa the leopard’s rosettes are more circular, but tend to be more square-shaped in southern Africa. The yellow coat is paler in the desert regions.
3. Portrayed as the most seldom seen, leopards are actually the most widely distributed African big cat. They can be found in a variety of habitats ranging from desert country to equatorial forests, high mountains to coasts. Few can be also spotted on the outskirts of large cities like Pretoria, Harare and Nairobi.
4. Leopards are spectacular hunters! Not only are they quite fast and can run up to 58km/h, but are also famous for their incredible agility and strength to climb trees while dragging a kill that is sometimes heavier than their own body weight. Read about one particularly patient leopard who didn’t quite get the catch she was after.
5. Leopards survive on a variety of prey. For example, in some regions of southern Africa 80% of their diet comprises of rock hyrax. In the Kalahari Desert they are known to favour bat-eared fox. Leopards also eat fish, insects, reptiles, birds, rodents, porcupines, mongoose, baboons, genets and monkeys.
6. How do you tell the difference between a leopard, cheetah and jaguar? Look at the spots! Leopards have rosette spots on the body and solid black spots on the legs, head and sides. There are also no black facial stripes, unlike cheetahs. Compared to jaguars, leopards do not have smaller spots inside the polygonal rosettes.
7. To recognise a male from a female take a look at the difference in size. Males are usually much larger and stockier, and have significantly bigger head and paws compared to females. Male bushveld leopards can weigh up to 90kgs, with female’s around 60kgs. The Cape leopard (not a separate species or sub-species) is much smaller with males around 35kg and females around 20kg. Read more about the Cape leopard here.
8. African leopards mate throughout the year, but a higher sexual activity is recorded during the wet season.
9. Female leopards protect their young cubs by hiding them in lairs. Lairs can be found in a variety of places, including outcrops of granite boulders; old aardvark holes made in the side of termite mounds; or in dense thickets at the bottom of deep galleys. These hiding places serve as a refuge for when the mother is away, as lions and hyenas pose a great threat to the cubs. The mother changes the lair every few days to eliminate the chances of discovery by other predators. Read more about leopards and the challenges of motherhood.
10. Leopards make a variety of sounds, including a territorial hoarse, raspy cough, a contented purr, and a threatened hiss.
11. Even though most photographs show leopards in trees, research reveals that they spend most of their time on the ground. Leopards use trees as the perfect escape point from predators; to keep their kills out of the reach of scavengers; and to get the best vantage point. Read more about leopards in our online magazine feature Leopards: The cats of the shadows