International Leopard Day 2022

Today, May 3rd, 2022, is the annual celebration of International Leopard Day. A day to celebrate leopards (Panthera pardus) while at the same time increasing awareness of their global persecution. Compared to other leopards, the African leopards are the smallest member of the ‘big cat’ family genus panthera (lion, tiger, leopard and jaguar). 

Male leopard, South Luangwa National Park, Zambia
 African Leopard
panthera pardus
Male leopard, South Luangwa National Park, Zambia

Leopards are solitary, shy and elusive. Yet, they are one of the most sought-after animals globally, while at the same time, the most persecuted. Sadly, they are now extinct in many countries, while the remaining leopards live in small, fragmented parts of the world. Sadly, leopards have been long hunted for their unique soft fur and body parts such as teeth, claws, whiskers and tails. Given that a leopard’s fur is soft, it is ideal for rugs, coats, and ceremonial robes.  

A beautiful pair of courting leopards  South Africa

mating leopards

African leopards
A beautiful pair of courting leopards Mala Mala, South Africa

Leopards are large cats and have very powerful long slender bodies, short legs, big paws and broad heads. Their exceptional eyesight and acute hearing make them very successful nocturnal hunters. Leopards have their own home ranges, which they mark with their urine and claw marks. Unlike most cats, leopards like water and are strong swimmers.

Size
  • Weight: 30 – 75 kg
  • Height: 60 – 70 cm (at the shoulder)
  • Length: 90 – 190 cm (head and body)
  • Lifespan: 12 – 15 years in the wild and up to 23 years in captivity
  • Run speed: up to 58 km/h, and leap 6 metres horizontally, and 3 metres vertically
HISTORY

Historically, leopards had a wide distribution across eastern and southern Asia and Africa. From Siberia to South Africa, with fragmented populations in the Indian subcontinent, Sri Lanka, Indochina, Malaysia, Indonesia, and China. However, the range has decreased radically over the years due to overhunting and habitat loss.

World distribution of Leopards, past and present (Map courtesy of IUCN)

Leopard home range past and present
World distribution of Leopards, past and present (Map courtesy of IUCN)
Hunting

Leopards are silent, gifted and opportunistic hunters. They are always ready for an opportunity to hunt. Stealthy and controlled, they will silently stalk their prey and ambush them by getting as close as possible before leaping in on their prey. Once caught, they immediately bite down on the throat and hold tight with their strong jaws to swiftly suffocate their prey. Then, with their incredible strength, the leopard proceeds to drag their kill up into a tree for safekeeping from other predators. Leopards mostly exclusively hunt by night as they can avoid competition with other hunters, such as the lion, cheetah, hyena and wild dogs.

African Leopard on stalking, Mala Mala, South Africa

Stalking African leopard
African Leopard on stalking, Mala Mala, South Africa
Leopard enjoying its kill high up in a tree, Mala Mala, South Africa

International Leopard Day May 3rd 2022
Leopard enjoying its kill high up in a tree, Mala Mala, South Africa.
Reproduction

Mating and breeding occur at any time.  Following a gestation period of around three months, a female will generally birth two to three cubs per litter. Female leopards will give birth in a den, where cubs remain hidden from predators for approximately three months. A cub weighs about 500 – 600 grams at birth, is blind, hairless, and dependent on its mother for survival. By three months of age, cubs will begin to hunt with their mother. Generally speaking, at around 12 – 18 months, cubs are mature enough to live independently.  By two to three years of age, they are ready to reproduce themselves. Unfortunately, mortality is high in the first year of life, and around 50% of cubs don’t survive.

Mating pair of African Leopards, Mala Mala, South Africa
Mating pair of African Leopards, Mala Mala, South Africa
Habitat

Leopards are highly adaptable. They can be found in most habitats, such as swamps, savannahs, snowy mountains, rainforests, and deserts. Leopards spend a lot of time in trees where their spotted coat provides excellent camouflage and the savannah grasses. They live solitary lives apart from when they are mating, and a female is raising cubs.  

Diet

Leopards are cunning, opportunistic carnivorous hunters. Their diet fluctuates depending on prey availability. A typical diet consists of antelopes, baboons, warthogs, reptiles, gazelles, cheetah cubs, monkeys, snakes, large birds, reptiles, fish, amphibians, wildebeest, and any other available animals. They possess great strength and can climb a tree while carrying their prey, often two to three times their weight and size. This prevents other predators from stealing it.

Shy and elusive, a young leopard cub tries to remain hidden, South Luangwa National Park, Zambia

International Leopard Day May 3rd 2022
Shy and elusive, a young leopard cub tries to remain hidden; in South Luangwa National Park, Zambia.
The nine species of Leopard 
African Leopard (Panthera pardus pardus)

They are some of the biggest and deadliest cats globally. African leopards are one of ‘Africa’s big 5’. Leopards once lived throughout the African Continent. Their habitat is now around 25% of their previous range. Leopards are virtually extinct in North Africa. However, their population is declining due to the commercialised bushmeat trade. The African Leopard is now considered vulnerable. Furthermore, only around 12,000 – 14,000 individuals are left in the wild on the African Continent.

African Leopard with prey hiding in a tree, Mala Mala, South Africa
African Leopard with prey hiding in a tree, Mala Mala, South Africa
Amur Leopard (Panthera pardusorientalis)

Native to southeastern Russia and northeast China. According to WWF data, only around 70 Amur Leopards remain in the wild. In contrast to other species of leopards, these leopards have thick spot-covered coats suitable for survival in their cold climate habitat. Conservation status: Critically endangered.

Amur Leopard (image courtesy of WorldWildlife.org)
Amur Leopard (image courtesy of WorldWildlife.org)
Arabian Leopard (Panthera pardusnimr)

Found in the Arabian Peninsula and the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. With fewer than 50 individuals remaining, they are classified as Critically Endangered (IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered Species). The Arabian leopard is one of the smallest subspecies of leopards. These leopards’ fur ranges from pale yellow to deep golden. Hunting these leopards and their prey in their habitat has led to their decline in numbers. 

Indian Leopard (Panthera pardus fusca)

Found in the Indian subcontinent. Persecuted by humans for their skins and body parts, their numbers have decreased significantly. Recent surveys indicate that around 12,000 to 14,000 leopards exist in the wild today—conservation status: Vulnerable (IUCN).

Indian Leopard (curtesy (bigcatsindia.com)
Indochinese Leopard (Panthera pardus delacouri)

Native to southern China and mainland Southeast Asia. These leopards face the same threats as other leopards, such as habitat loss and poaching for the illegal wildlife trade. In addition, the scarcity of tigers has led to the use of leopard body parts for use in traditional Chinese medicines. This has had a severe impact on the wild Indochinese leopard population. Conservation status: Endangered, with only around 400 individuals remaining in the wild.

Indochinese Leopard (curtesty of WildlifeThailand.com)
Indochinese Leopard (curtesy of WildlifeThailand.com)
Javan Leopard (Panthera pardus melas)

These leopards are endemic to the Indonesian Island of Java. They are black or have an unusual spotted coat due to a recessive phenotype. Threats are due to poaching, habitat loss and human-wildlife conflict. Conservations status: Critically Endangered since only around 250 individuals remain in the wild, all in protected habitats.

Javan Leopard
Javan Leopard (curtesy balisafarimarinepark.com)
North Chinese Leopard (Panthera pardus japonensis)

Native to northern China. The North Chinese leopard has darker orangish fur than other leopards. The rosettes are also darker and more closely spaced.

North Chinese Leopard
North Chinese Leopard (curtesy news.cgtn.com)
Persian Leopard (Panthera pardus ciscaucasica)

Also known as the Caucasian leopard. Native to the Caucasus region of Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, and western Afghanistan. Sadly, only around 871 to 1,290 mature individuals are left in the wild. Consequently, this species is considered endangered (IUCN). Illegal hunting and poisoning are responsible for the 70% decline in numbers, and 18% are killed due to road deaths.

Persian Leopard (curtesy of amuraworld.com)
Sri Lankan Leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya)

Native to Sri Lanka in jungles, rainforests and dry monsoon forests. Similar fur to other leopards, but they have close-set rosettes and dark spots. Threats to these leopards are habitat loss and leopard persecution by humans due to human-wildlife conflict, decimating the leopard population throughout Sri Lanka. 

Sri Lankan Leopard
Sri Lankan Leopard (curtesy nationalzoo.com.au)

Clouded leopard and snow leopard

Despite being called leopards, the clouded leopard and the snow leopard are not related to the genus Panthera and are therefore not leopards. In fact, these two species are more closely related to the Siberian Tiger.

clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa)

These leopards are found in forest habitats in Southeast Asia. They are one of the most ancient cats species. Interestingly they are not a true greater cat or a true lesser cat because they cannot purr or roar. They are a separate species of wild cats. Poaching and habitat loss threaten this vulnerable species of cat.  They got their name due to the fact that their brown or yellowish-grey fur and covered with irregular dark stripes, spots and blotches that resemble clouds. Clouded leopards face many challenges in their endangered existence. Deforestation, habitat loss, and hunting for their beautiful fur and body parts for traditional Chinese medicines.

Clouded leopard
Clouded leopard (curtesy of nationalzoo.si.edu)
Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia)

Found throughout high mountain ranges, including the Tibetan Plateau, across the mountains of Central Asia, the Himalayas and the southern Siberian mountains in Russia. This leopard is adapted to the steep, rugged, mountainous, snowy terrain. In addition, their thick coat can be up to 5cm long on their backs and sides and around 12 cm long on their belly. Their tails are long at 80 – 105 cm, which assists in balance and also wrapping around themselves for additional warmth.  Their larger paws enable them to traverse their rugged snowy mountain habitats. Being shy and elusive the snow leopard is referred to as the ‘ghost of the mountains”. Snow leopards are unable to roar or purr.

Conservation status: vulnerable to extinction. They are hunted for rugs because of their beautiful fur, and their body parts are used in traditional Chinese Medicine. This has led to their decline in numbers. In recent years protected areas have been established to safeguard the last remaining snow leopards. 

Snow leopard
Snow leopard (courtesy Getty Images)
threats for all leopards

Humans are the primary threat to all leopards.  

Loss of habitat: human development encroaching into leopard habitats results in smaller leopard habitats, often close to humans and farms. As a result, leopards frequently prey on livestock, and farmers will shoot them on sight in retaliation.

Deforestation: making way for roads that fragments leopards’ habitats.

Bushmeat Trade: This is a significant threat to leopards due to the extensive local and commercial bushmeat trade. In addition, leopards frequently are caught in wire snares, and traps meant for other animals. 

Trophy hunting: significantly contributes to the decline in leopard populations. In addition, leopards are frequently killed for their beautiful skins and body parts.

Young female leopard, Mala Mala, South Africa

World Leopard Day
Mala Mala Game Reserve
South Africa
Young female leopard, Mala Mala, South Africa
CONSERVATION STATUS

It is important to note that all leopard species are under threat. Furthermore, they are near threatened due to their declining global population (IUCN Red List of Threatened Species).

Leopards have been protected under Appendix 1 of the Convention of International Trade and Endangered Species (CITES) since July 1 1975. Furthermore, all commercial and international trade of leopards and their body parts is prohibited globally. However, many leopards live outside these protected areas and are at risk. Many countries, such as North and West Africa, the Middle East, and large parts of Asia, provide restricted areas where leopards can live in safe and protected habitats. Conservation programs and non-government organisations work globally to track leopard populations to protect and monitor their survival. Once identified, any species needing conservation and management to safeguard the leopards are implemented and controlled.

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