Leopards (Panthera pardus) are one of the four 'big cats' of the genus Panthera (the others being lion, tiger and jaguar).
Leopards range in size from 1 to almost 2 metres long, and weigh between 30 and 70kg. Females are typically around two-thirds the size of males.
They are astonishingly adaptable and prey on a wide range of species, enabling them to survive in many parts of Southern Africa where other big cats do not exist (including on Table Mountain in Cape Town). This diversified diet is vividly illustrated by this highly unusual picture of a leopard attacking a Nile Crocodile in the Kruger National Park.
They are able to hunt in trees as well as on the ground, and they feed on insects, rodents, fish, and larger game such as antelope. They are excellent climbers, and often protect their larger kills by carrying them up a tree.
Leopards are feared hunters, and have a documented strategy of "doubling-back" having followed prey in order to surprise it with an attack from behind.
Apart from when breeding or with young, they are solitary and highly secretive. Despite its size, this largely nocturnal and arboreal predator is difficult to see in the wild. However, leopards are opportunistic, as illustrated by this image of a leopard attacking an African Rock Python in broad daylight.
A study following one single individual in the Kruger National Park revealed in excess of eighty different prey species, ranging from guineafowl and mice through small snakes up to medium sized antelope such as bushbuck.
Prior to the human-induced changes of the last few hundred years, leopards were the most widely distributed of all felids: they were found through most of Africa (with the exception of the Sahara Desert), as well as parts of Asia Minor and the Middle East, India, Pakistan, China, Siberia, much of mainland South-East Asia, and the islands of Java, Zanzibar, and Sri Lanka.
They remain relatively common in South Africa, and are well distributed throughout the Kruger to Canyons Biosphere.
Most leopards are orange or fawn with black spots, but their coats are very variable. The spots tend to be smaller on the head, larger and have pale centres on the body.
Originally, it was thought that a leopard was a hybrid between a lion and a panther, and the leopard's common name derives from this belief: leo is the Latin for lion, and pard is an old term meaning panther.
In fact, a "black panther" can be any of several species of large felid which happen to have genes for more black pigment than orange-tan pigment, thus producing a pure black coat as opposed to the usual spotted one. There is no distinct black panther species (although there are other panthers e.g., Florida and Eastern).
"Black Panthers", in other words, include darkly furred leopards. A genetic mututation causes to develop a predominantly black fur. A search has been launched to film some of these rare black leopards in Lydenburg.
Leopards, despite their smaller size, are just as capable of killing humans as the larger cats. The leopard of Rudraprayag is claimed to have killed over 125 people and the Panar leopard allegedly killed 400 after being injured by a poacher and thus unable to hunt normal prey. Both were eventually killed by famed big cat hunter and author Jim Corbett.
They are notorious for scalping people when they attack. They will grip their victim with their front paws over the shoulders, whilst tearing backwards on the scalp with their jaws and simultaneously disembowelling the victim with their back feet in a "back-peddling" motion".
Local folklore has it that the best defence in the eventuality of coming too close to a leopard, is to studiously avoid eye contact. Like running, some believe that staring at a leopard triggers the hunting response in the animal.
In general, leopards kill by biting the throat, essentially suffocating their prey.
There are 7 subspecies of leopard (one of them extinct) and several other big cats called leopards which are not the same species, although they are related.
- Check out the Kruger2Canyons.com "Of Kings and Beasts" organised Safari
- Click here to see an amazing sequence of pictures of a Kruger leopard killing a crocodile.
- See our five night Kruger2Canyons Meander Safari taking you to the extremes of the north and south of the Park
- Watch this amazing footage broadcast live on Wild Earth of a leopard killing a duiker.
- Read the Kruger2Canyons.com summary of the importance of the Kruger in preserving mammalian diversity