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Leopard

African Leopard in Serengeti, Tanzania

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African Leopard in Serengeti, Tanzania

The Leopard (Panthera pardus) is one of the four 'big cats' of the genus Panthera. 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.
 

Ghost of the Himalayas - The Snow Leopard

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Description

The leopard is the fourth largest of the Panthera "big cats" in the world, behind the tiger, lion and jaguar. The leopard is the fifth largest of all cats with the cougar being slightly larger. Leopards range in size from one to just over two metres (6.5 ft) long, and generally weigh between 30 and 70 kg (65155 lb). Some males may grow over 90 kg (200 lb). Females are typically around two-thirds the size of males. For its size, the leopard is the most powerful feline in the world next to the jaguar. Leopards tend to be the apex predator in areas where bigger competitors do not occur, especially lions and tigers. This explains why the leopards in areas such as the African rainforests or Sri Lanka are larger than leopards elsewhere.

Leopards hunt mostly at night both on the ground and in the trees.

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Leopards hunt mostly at night both on the ground and in the trees.

Most leopards are light tan or fawn with black rosettes, but their coat color is highly variable. There are smaller rosettes and spots on the head.

Distinguishing features

The big cats, especially the spotted cats, are easy to confuse for those who see them in captivity or in photographs. The leopard is closely related to, and appears very similar to, the jaguar; it is less often confused with the cheetah. The ranges, habitats, and activities of the three cats make them easy to distinguish in the wild.

Since wild leopards live only in Africa and Asia while wild jaguars live only in the Americas, there is no possibility of confusing them in the wild. There are also visual markings that set them apart. Leopards do not have the spots within the rosettes that jaguars always have, and the jaguar's spots are larger than the leopard's (see below). The Amur leopard and the North Chinese leopard are occasional exceptions. The leopard is smaller and less stocky than the jaguar, although it is heavier than the cheetah.

Besides appearance, the leopard and jaguar have similar behavior patterns. Jaguars can adapt to a range of habitats from rainforest to ranchlands while leopards are even more adaptable ranging in from deserts and mountains, savanna and woodlands.

Although it is not unusual for a leopard to be mistaken for a cheetah due to their frequently overlapping ranges, they can actually be easily distinguished. The leopard is heavier, stockier, has a larger head in proportion to its body, and has rosettes rather than spots. It also lacks the ring pattern that marks the end of the cheetah's tail and the black, "tear-drop" 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 do not climb trees, except while they are cubs, whereas leopards are excellent climbers. Also, leopards are more active at night (nocturnal), whereas cheetahs are usually diurnal.

Black panthers

A black panther is a melanistic leopard (or melanistic jaguar). These have mutations that cause them to produce more black pigment (eumelanin) than orange-tan pigment (pheomelanin). This results in a chiefly black coat, though the spots of a black panther can still be discerned in certain light as the deposition of pigment is different in the pattern than in the background. There are also white panthers.

Distribution and conservation

Prior to the human-induced changes of the last few hundred years, Leopards were the most widely distributed of all felids other than the domestic cat: they were found in historical times through most of Africa (with the exception of the Sahara Desert) and in many parts of southern Asia. In the Pleistocene leopards also occurred in Europe. Today leopards are still found in many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia Minor, the Middle East, India, Pakistan, China, Siberia, much of mainland South-East Asia, and the islands of Java and Sri Lanka. In some of these areas they are very rare today.

The leopard is doing surprisingly well for a large predator. It is estimated that there are as many as 500,000 leopards worldwide. But like many other big cats, leopards are increasingly under threat of habitat loss and are facing increased hunting pressure. Because of their stealthy habits and camouflage, they can go undetected even in close proximity to human settlements. Despite the leopard's abilities, it is no match for habitat destruction and poachers, and several subspecies are endangered, namely, the Amur, Anatolian, Barbary, North Chinese, and South Arabian leopards.

Snow Leopard resting

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Snow Leopard having a rest

Behaviour and predation

Leopards are infamous for their ability to go undetected. They sometimes live practically among humans and are usually still tough to spot. They are graceful and stealthy. Amongst the big cats they are probably the most accomplished stalkers. They are good, agile climbers and can descend from a tree headfirst. Along 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 behavior 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.

Leopards have difficulty defending kills from large social predators, such as lion or hyena. In areas with large numbers of large predators, they typically store their kills out of reach in trees. Although a leopard caught on the ground will typically try to defend its kill, it will generally find itself outmatched by these predators. If outnumbered, it will abandon its kill and seek safety in trees.

Leopards are truly opportunistic hunters. They will eat just about any animal. Their diet consists of mostly monkeys, rodents, reptiles, amphibians, birds, fish, wild pigs, and ungulates. In fact, they hunt about 90 different species of animals. Their prey ranges in size from a snack of beetles to enormous adult common eland, which can weigh over a ton. In Africa, mid-sized antelopes provide a majority of the leopard's prey, especially Thomson's gazelles and reedbucks. It stalks its prey silently and at the last minute pounces on its prey and strangles its throat with a quick bite. When it kills animals such as gazelle, it carries them up into the trees to eat it. Leopards are capable of carrying animals up to twice their own weight into the trees.

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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.

Despite its size, this largely nocturnal and arboreal predator is difficult to see in the wild. The best location to see leopards in Africa is in the Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve in South Africa, where leopards are habituated to safari vehicles and are seen on a daily basis at very close range. In Asia, the best site is the Yala National Park in Sri Lanka, which has the world's highest density of wild leopards, but even here sightings are by no means guaranteed because more than half the park is closed off to the public, allowing the animals to thrive. The recently reopened Wilpattu National Park (also in Sri Lanka), is another good destination for leopard watching.

Clouded Leopard Big Cat

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The Clouded Leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) is a medium-sized cat found in Southeast Asia. It has a tan or tawny coat, and is distinctively marked with large, irregularly-shaped, dark-edged ellipses which are said to be shaped like clouds.

Remarkably very little is known about the natural history and behavioural habits of this species in the wild, it is now thought that its primary prey includes arboreal and terrestrial mammals, particularly gibbons, macaques, and civets supplemented by other small mammals, deer, birds, porcupines, and domestic livestock. Clouded Leopards that are held in captivity also eat eggs and some vegetation.

As might be expected from the fact that some of its prey lives in trees, the Clouded Leopard is an excellent climber. Short, flexible legs, large paws, and sharp claws combine to make it very sure-footed in the canopy.

The Clouded Leopard is found only in Southeast Asia and ranges through southern China (at least as far north as Wuyi Shan), the eastern Himalayas, Nepal, northeast India, Bangladesh, and Indochina. It is thought to be extinct in Taiwan.

Because the Clouded Leopard's habits make it difficult to study, reliable estimates of its population do not exist. The World Conservation Union estimates that fewer than 10,000 individuals exist, and warns that the population is declining. Habitat loss due to widespread deforestation and hunting for use in Chinese medicinal preparations are thought to be causing populations of the Clouded Leopard to decline.

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Reproduction

Males 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.

African Leopard Print

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African Leopard Print

Taxonomy

Subspecies

It has been suggested that there may be as many as 30 extant subspecies of the Leopard; however, most of these are questionable.

  • African leopard, Panthera pardus pardus (lower risk, least concern)
  • Caucasus leopard Panthera pardus ciscaucasica (endangered)
  • Anatolian leopard, Panthera pardus tulliana (critically endangered, possibly extinct)
  • Amur leopard, Panthera pardus orientalis (critically endangered)
  • Arabian leopard, Panthera pardus nimr (critically endangered)
  • Barbary leopard, Panthera pardus panthera (critically endangered, possibly extinct)
  • Indian leopard*, Panthera pardus fusca (lower risk)
  • Indo-Chinese leopard*, Panthera pardus delacouri (vulnerable)
  • Java leopard*, Panthera pardus melas (endangered)
  • North China leopard*, Panthera pardus japonensis (vulnerable)
  • Persian leopard or Iranian leopard*, Panthera pardus saxicolor (endangered)
  • Sinai leopard, Panthera pardus jarvisi (critically endangered, possibly extinct)
  • Sri Lanka leopard*, Panthera pardus kotiya (endangered)
  • Zanzibar leopard, Panthera pardus adersi (Probably extinct)

Extinct Subspecies

  • European leopard, Panthera pardus sickenbergi ()

Leopard on tree stump

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Leopard on tree stump

King Leopard

A pseudo-melanistic leopard has a normal background colour, but its excessive markings have coalesced so that its back seems to be an unbroken expanse of black. In some specimens, the area of solid black extends down the flanks and limbs; only a few lateral streaks of golden-brown indicate the presence of normal background colour. Any spots on the flanks and limbs that have not merged into the mass of swirls and stripes are unusually small and discrete, rather than forming rosettes. The face and underparts are paler and dappled like those of ordinary spotted leopards.

In a paper about panthers and ounces of Asia, Pocock used a photo of a leopard skin from southern India; it had large black-rimmed blotches, each containing a number of dots and it resembled the pattern of a jaguar or clouded leopard. Another of Pocock's leopard skins from southern India had the normal rosettes broken up and fused and so much additional pigment that the animal looked like a black leopard streaked and speckled with yellow.

Most other colour morphs of leopards are known only from paintings or museum specimens. There have been very rare examples where the spots of a normal black leopard have coalesced to give a jet black leopard with no visible markings. Pseudo-melanism (abundism) occurs in leopards. The spots are more densely packed than normal and merge to largely obscure the background colour. They may form swirls and, in some places, solid black areas. Unlike a true black leopard the tawny background colour is visible in places. One pseudo-melanistic leopard had a tawny orange coat with coalescing rosettes and spots, but white belly with normal black spots (like a black-and-tan dog).

In Harmsworth Natural History (1910), R. Lydekker described pseudo-melanistic leopard: There is, however, a peculiar dark phase in South Africa, a specimen of which was obtained in 1885 in hilly land covered with scrub-jungle, near Grahamstown. The ground-colour of this animal was a rich tawny, with an orange tinge; but the spots, instead of being of the usual rosette-like form, were nearly all small and solid, like those on the head of an ordinary leopard; while from the top of the head to near the root of the tail the spots became almost confluent, producing the appearance of a broad streak of black running down the back. A second skin had the black area embracing nearly the whole of the back and flanks, without showing any trace of the spots, while in those portions of the skin where the latter remained they were of the same form as in the first specimen. Two other specimens are known; the whole four having been obtained from the Albany district. These dark-coloured South African leopards differ from the black leopards of the northern and eastern parts of Africa and Asia in that while in the latter the rosette-like spots are always retained and clearly visible, in the former the rosettes are lost - as, indeed, is to a considerable extent often the case in ordinary African leopards - and all trace of spots disappears from the blacker portions of the skin.

Another pseudo-melanistic leopard skin was described in 1915 by Holdridge Ozro Collins who had purchased it in 1912. It had been killed in Malabar, India that same year. The wide black portion, which glistens like the sheen of silk velvet, extends from the top of the head to the extremity of the tail entirely free from any white or tawny hairs ... In the tiger, the stripes are black, of a uniform character, upon a tawny background, and they run in parallel lines from the centre of the back to the belly. In this skin, the stripes are almost golden yellow, without the uniformity and parallelism of the tiger characteristics, and they extend along the sides in labyrinthine graceful curls and circles, several inches below the wide shimmering black continuous course of the back. The extreme edges around the legs and belly are white and spotted like the skin of a leopard ... The skin is larger than that of a leopard but smaller than that of a full grown tiger.

In May 1936, the British Natural History Museum exhibited the mounted skin of an unusual Somali leopard. The pelt was richly decorated with an intricate pattern of swirling stripes, blotches, curls and fine-line traceries. This is different from a spotted leopard, but similar to a King Cheetah hence the modern cryptozoology term King Leopard. Between 1885 and 1934, six pseudo-melanistic leopards were recorded in the Albany and Grahamstown districts of South Africa. This indicated a mutation in the local leopard population. Other King Leopards have been recorded from Malabar in south-western India. Shooting for trophies may have wiped out these populations.

Heraldry

Particularly in medieval heraldry, the "leopard" was a name used for what is now almost invariably termed the lion passant guardant.

In media

  • The zany movie Bringing Up Baby (1939) gives title billing to a leopard whose misadventures create madcap comedy for stars Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn; the movie is one of the American Film Institute's "100 Greatest (American) Films".
  • In the 1999 Tarzan movie by Disney, a vicious leopard, Sabor, was Tarzan's natural and mortal enemy, although the Mangani name for leopards established in the books is "Sheeta".
  • In Passion in the Desert (1997), a French soldier (played by British actor Ben Daniels) while lost in Egypt during Napoleon's Egyptian campaign stumbles upon a leopard and develops a strange relationship with the animal[2].

North China Leopard

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North China Leopard (Panthera pardus japonensis)

References and Notes

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Comments

why do people use leopard skin for coats ?

(Reply > vanity and lack of concern for wild creatures)


 

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