African Leopard

Classified as ‘Near Threatened’ by IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) in 2008, African Leopard (Panthera pardus pardus) occurs across most of sub-Saharan Africa. There is a danger that they may soon qualify for the ‘vulnerable’ status due to habitat loss and fragmentation. They are becoming increasingly rare outside protected areas.

Description

This subspecies exhibits great variation in coat color, depending on the habitat and location. The color of the coat varies from pale yellow to deep gold or tawny, and is patterned with black rosettes while the head, lower limbs and belly are spotted with solid black. Males are larger, averaging 60 kg (132 lb) with 90 kg (200 lb) being the maximum weight attained by a male. Females weigh about 35–40 kg (75–90 lb) on average.

Leopards found in the mountains of Cape Provinces look physically different from those living further north. Their average weight may be only half that of the more northerly leopard.

Between 1996 and 2000, 11 adults were radio-collared on Namibian farmlands. Males weighed 37.5 to 52.3 kg only, and females 24.0 to 33.5 kg.

Distribution and habitat

These leopards used to occur in most of the sub-Saharan Africa, occupying both desert habitat as well as rainforests. They were found in all habitats with annual rainfall above 50 mm (2.0 in), and can penetrate areas with less than this amount of rainfall along river courses. They range exceptionally up to 5,700 m (18,700 ft), have been sighted on high slopes of the Ruwenzori and Virunga volcanoes, and have been observed drinking thermal water 37 °C (98.6 °F) in the Virunga National Park.

They appear to be successful at adapting to altered natural habitat. There were many records of their presence near major cities. In 1980s, they became rare throughout much of West Africa. Now, they remain patchily distributed within historical limits.

In North Africa, a tiny relict population exists in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. These leopards live in a wide range of habitats in African continent, from mountainous forests to grasslands and savannahs, excluding only extremely sandy desert. They are most at risk in areas of semi-desert, where scarce resources often result in conflict with nomadic farmers and their livestock.

Ecology and behavior

Leopards are generally most active between sunset and sunrise. In Kruger National Park, males and females with cubs were relatively more active at night than solitary females. The highest rate of daytime activity was recorded for leopards using thorn thickets during the wet season, when impala also used them.

They have an exceptional ability to adapt to changes in prey availability, and have a very broad spectrum of diet. Small prey are taken when large ungulates are less common. The known prey of leopards ranges from adult elands, which can reach 900 kg (2,000 lb), to dung beetles. In the region of sub-Saharan Africa, at least 92 prey species have been documented in their diet including small to large antelopes, hyraxes, rodents, birds and hares, and arthropods. Normally they focus on locally abundant medium-sized ungulates in the 20 to 80 kilogram (44 to 180 lb) range, but when the prey is scarce they take other prey. Average intervals between ungulate kills range from seven to 12–13 days.

Leopard with a kill in a tree (CCA – 2.0)

Leopards were radio-collared for the first time in the early 1970s in Serengeti National Park. Of their 64 daytime hunts only three were successful. In this woodland area, they preyed mostly on impala, which included both adult and young. They also hunted Thomson’s gazelles in the dry season. Occasionally, they hunted wildebeest, reedbuck, warthog, steenbok, dik-dik, duiker, topi calves, jackal, guinea fowl, hare, and even starling. It has been found that they were not very successful in hunting animals like giraffes, zebras, kongonis, hyrax, mongooses, genets and small birds. Scavenging from the carcasses of large animals made up a small part of their diet. In Central Africa’s tropical rainforest, their food consists of small primates and duikers. Some individual leopards have shown a strong preference for porcupines and pangolins.

Leopards often store their kills in trees, for which great strength is required. There are several examples where these animals have been observed carrying carcasses of young giraffe, weighing up to 125 kg (280 lb) — two to three times the weight of the leopard itself — up to 5.7 m (19 ft) high into the trees.

Reptiles are also part of leopard’s diet. They occasionally take domestic livestock too, especially when other food is scarce. These spotted cats are very stealthy and like to stalk close and run a relatively short distance after their prey. They kill by suffocation, grabbing the prey by the throat and biting down with their powerful jaws. They rarely fight other predators for their food.

Threats

Throughout Africa, major threats to leopards are intense persecution, especially as a revenge for real and perceived livestock loss, habitat destruction, trophy hunting. In Tanzania, where hunting of only males is allowed, females constituted 28.6% of 77 trophies shot between 1995 and 1998. Removing an excessively high number of males may produce harmful effects on the population. Though the males do not provide any parental care to cubs, the presence of the sire allows mothers to raise cubs with a reduced risk of infanticide by foreign males. There are few reliable observations of infanticide in leopards but new males entering the population are likely to kill existing cubs.

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