Leopard - Panthera pardus

The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) has applied an overall Red List status of vulnerable across all leopard subspecies, though you will see below that some of these are actually classified as Endangered or even Critically Endangered. The Red List status is based on their relatively wide distribution across Africa and Asia, but takes into consideration that their populations have declined and is often fragmented plus the fact that they have completely vanished from parts of their historical home range.

When people are talking about leopards, they mainly think about African leopard as we are most familar with this big cat species being seen when going on safaris. The African leopard is however only one out of 9 different recognised subspecies:

African Leopard (Panthera pardus pardus) - Vulnerable

Amur Leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) - Critically Endangered

Arabian Leopard (Panthera pardus nimr) - Critically Endangered

Indian Leopard (Panthera pardus fusca) - Vulnerable

Indo-Chinese Leopard (Panthera pardus delacouri) - Vulnerable

Javan Leopard (Panthera pardus melas) - Critically Endangered

North Chinese Leopard (Panthera pardus japonensis) - Vulnerable

Persian Leopard (Panthera pardus saxicolor) - Endangered

Sri Lankan Leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya) - Endangered

The IUCN is reassessing the status of the leopards at the moment.

Leopards can be found in a variety of different habitat areas; from deserts and semi-deserts in Namibia and Botswana to montane forests in north-eastern China and the Russian Far East and rainforests in parts of West and Central Afrika or Sri Lanka. The leopard territory goes from flat savannah grassland in Eastern and Southern Africa to mountainous areas with altitudes up to 5,200m in the Himalayas.

In case of prey shortage and habitat loss leopards may be seen on farmland or even in more urban areas, and this appears to have become a more common sight in India in particular. Although leopards are elusive and will try to avoid humans, they are also one of the most adaptable cat species, which has helped them to survive in many areas so far.

There are however severe threats to this big cat species, which are leading to this subspecies declining in numbers across many areas and having disappeared from some parts of its historical range completely. The countries, in which it is believed to have ceased to exist include Gambia and Lesotho
(Africa) as well as Israel, South Korea, Laos and Vietnam (Asia). In many other countries leopards have become regionally extinct.

Threats to the leopards across their entire home range include
  • Percecution as part of the human/wildlife conflict,
  • Poaching for the wildlife and the bushmeat trade,
  • Habitat loss and fragmentation,
  • Prey depletion,
In addition to these threats that are common across many wildlife species, it has also been mentioned
(including on the IUCN web page) that trophy hunting and ceremonial use of leopard skins has contributed to the decline of this big cat species.

Leopards are generally similar in appearance, having a yellowish coat with spots and rosettes. Their coat will however vary in thickness and coloration to adapt to their natural surrounding and climate. The Amur leopard will for example have hair up to 7cm on their tail and lower body during the winter months, when their colour is also lighter. Furthermore, their tail is bushier compared to the one of the African or Indian leopard.

The fur pattern
(the spots and rosettes) is unique to each individual leopard like a finger print is to us. Leopards may appear black, although their coat will never be strictly speaking black (the spots and rosettes are still visible when seen in the right light). The dark coat is caused through a genetic defect called melanism. This means that these leopards have simply too many dark pigments, which makes the coat dark and appear to be black.

All leopard subspecies are solitary and nocturnal, meaning they are living generally on their own
(except when they are mating or having young ones) and they are more active at night-time. Leopards are seen most often during day-time sleeping in trees, but may also be out hunting especially when a leopardess has cubs.

Leopards may breed at any time of the year and give birth to 1-4 cubs after a gestation period of 90-105 days. The survival chance of the young leopards are however generally very small based on their mum not always being able to feed herself and the cubs sufficiently, and the cubs are failing to hunt themselves successfully and/or will not recognise dangers when they separate at the age between 18 and 24 months.

Another characteristic all leopard subspecies have in common is their strength. Leopards drag easily prey species 3 times their own weight up on trees. They do this to protect their food from other predators and scavengers. Their food includes a wide range from antelope and deer species to smaller wildlife species including monkeys, racoon dogs, badgers and even birds, reptiles and invertebrates.

Their home range varies, depending on prey availability, but may generally reach up to 100km2 for a female and up to 300km2 for a male.

A leopard measures between 1.3 and 1.9metres and weighs usually between 30 and 50kgs. Variations, especially in view of the weight may occur in both drections
(lighter or heavier), depending on food availability and also on where the leopards live. Leopards in mountainous areas are generally lighter in weight than leopards in flat grassland areas (e.g. the leopards in the more mountainous Cape Provinces of South Africa weigh less than leopards in the Krüger National Park area - male leopards here may weigh up to 80kgs).

Two cat species, which were not mentioned here but carry 'leopard' in their names are the Snow leopard and Clouded leopard. Neither of these are leopards, but completely separate species. The snow leopard is a big cat
(part of the genus Panthera), but based on the DNA classification and also based on previous morphological definition is a different species compared to the leopard. (more information about the snow leopard will be available on our web page soon).

The clouded leopard is a medium-size cat, which has its own genus

The information about leopards was sourced from the IUCN and National Geographic web pages and is partly based on the work of our wildlife photographer with African and Amur leopard conservation groups.