The Leopard (Panthera pardus) is an Old World mammal of the Felidae family and one of the four 'big cats' of the genus Panthera, along with the tiger (P. tigris), the lion (P. leo) and the jaguar (P. onca). Once distributed across southern Eurasia and Africa from Korea to South Africa and Spain, it has disappeared from much of its former range and now chiefly occurs in subsaharan Africa, as well as fragmented populations in India, Indochina, Malaysia and western China. Leopards which are melanistic, either all-black or very dark in coloration, are known as Black Panthers.
This spotted cat most closely resembles the jaguar physically, although it is of lighter build. Males can grow to weigh 91 kg (200 lb) and the females can weigh 60 kg (132 lb). However, in parts of their range where larger cats (i.e. the Lion in Africa and the Tiger in Asia) are absent, leopards may grow considerably larger. Certain subspecies, such as the now possibly extinct Anatolian Leopard, are known to reach almost jaguar sized proportions at times.
Etymology: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 Greek and Latin word for lion (Greek leon, λέων) and pard is an old term meaning panther. In fact, a "panther" can be any of several species of large felid. In North America, panther means cougar and in South America a panther is a jaguar. Elsewhere in the world a panther is a leopard. Early naturalists distinguished between leopards and panthers not by colour (a common misconception), but by the length of the tail — panthers having longer tails than leopards. It was one of the many species originally described, as Felis pardus, by Linnaeus in his 18th century work, Systema Naturae. The generic component of its scientific designation, Panthera pardus, is often presumed to derive from Greek pan- ("all") and ther ("beast"), but this may be a folk etymology. Although it came into English through the classical languages, panthera is probably of East Asian origin, meaning "the yellowish animal," or "whitish-yellow".
Description:Although it is common for a leopard to be mistaken for a cheetah due to their spots, they can actually be easily distinguished. The leopard has a heavier, stockier body and has a larger head in proportion to its body, and has rosettes rather than dots. Leopards also lack the black "tear-streak" markings that run from the inner corners of the cheetah's eyes to the corners of its mouth. Additionally, cheetahs run much faster than leopards do and generally do not climb trees, whereas leopards are excellent climbers. Also, leopards are more active at night searching for their prey (nocturnal), whereas cheetahs are usually diurnal.
Black Panthers:Particularly in mountainous areas and rain forests occurs a melanistic morph of the leopard, the black panther. The black colour is heritable and caused by only one recessive gene locus. In some regions, for example on the Malayan Peninsula up to 50% of all leopards are black. In Africa black leopards seem to be most common in the Ethiopian Highlands.
Behavior:Leopards are famous for their ability to go undetected. They sometimes live practically among humans and are usually still tough to spot. They are graceful and stealthy. Among the big cats they are probably the most accomplished stalkers. They are good, agile climbers, but can not get down from a tree headfirst, because they do not have the ankle flexibility — the only two cats that do are the Margay and the Clouded Leopard.
Female leopard viewed from behind. Note the white spots on the back of the ears used for communication with cubs when hunting in long grassAlong with climbing, they are strong swimmers but not as fond of water as tigers; for example, leopards will not normally lie in water. They are mainly nocturnal but can be seen at any time of day and will even hunt during daytime on overcast days. In regions where they are hunted, nocturnal behaviour is more common. These cats are solitary, avoiding one another. However, 3 or 4 are sometimes seen together. Hearing and eyesight are the strongest of these cats' senses and are extremely acute. Olfaction is relied upon as well, but not for hunting. When making a threat, leopards stretch their backs, depress their ribcages between their shoulder blades so they stick out, and lower their heads (similar to domestic cats). During the day they may lie in bush, on rocks, or in a tree with their tails hanging below the treetops and giving them away.
Diet and hunting:Leopards are truly opportunistic hunters. They will eat just about any animal. Their diet consists mostly of ungulates and monkeys, but rodents, reptiles, amphibians, birds, fish, are also eaten. In fact, they hunt about 90 different species of animals. A solitary dog, itself a formidable predator, is a potential prey for leopards, although a pack of dogs can tree or drive off a leopard. In Africa, mid-sized antelopes provide a majority of the leopard's prey, especially Impala and Thomson's gazelles. Leopards are known to take animals up to the size of an adult eland. In Asia the leopard preys on deer such as chitals and muntjacs as well as various Asian antelopes and Ibex. It stalks its prey silently and at the last minute pounces on its prey and strangles its throat with a quick bite. Leopards are capable of carrying animals up to three times their own weight into the trees.
Leopard resting on a tree:Because of their wide range, leopards face competition with a variety of other predators notably lions, tigers, crocodiles, hyenas and various species of wild dogs. Leopards avoid direct competition by hunting at different times of the day and avoiding areas frequented by them. Also in areas with large numbers of large predators, they typically store their kills out of reach in trees. Contrary to popular belief however, leopards don't always store their food in trees. Many if not most kills are dragged and hidden in dense vegetation.
Although most leopards will tend to avoid humans, people are occasionally targeted as prey. Most healthy leopards prefer wild prey to humans, but cats who are injured, sickly or struggling with a shortage of regular prey often turn to hunting people and may become habituated to it. In the most extreme cases, both in India, a leopard dubbed "the Leopard of Rudraprayag" is claimed to have killed over 125 people and the infamous leopardess called "Panar Leopard" killed over 400 after being injured by a poacher and thus being made unable to hunt normal prey. The "Leopard of Rudraprayag" and the "Panar Leopard" were both killed by the legendary hunter Jim Corbett. Man-eating leopards are considered bold and commonly enter human settlements for prey, moreso than their lion and tiger counterparts. However because they can subsist on small prey and are less dependent on large prey, leopards are less likely to turn to man-eating than either lions or tigers.
Reproduction: A male may follow a female who catches his attention. Eventually fighting for reproductive rights can take place. Depending on the region, leopards may mate all year round (India and Africa) or seasonally during January to February (Manchuria and Siberia). The estrous cycle lasts about 46 days and the female usually is in heat for 6–7 days. Cubs are usually born in a litter of 2–3, but infant mortality is high and mothers are not commonly seen with more than 1–2 cubs. The pregnant females find a cave, crevice among boulders, hollow tree, or thicket to give birth and make a den. Cubs open their eyes after a period of 10 days. The fur of the young tends to be longer and thicker than that of adults. Their pelage is also more gray in color with less defined spots. Around 3 months the infants begin to follow the mother out on hunts. At one year of age leopard young can probably fend for themselves but they remain with the mother for 18–24 months.
Hemalkasha, Alapalli Forest, Gadchiroli, Maharashtra, India.
courtesy: Prakash Amte.
photo: SANJIB GANGULY