The leopard (Panthera pardus) is a member of the Felidae family with a wide range in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa, West Asia, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia to Siberia. It is listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List because it is declining in large parts of its range due to habitat loss and fragmentation, and hunting for trade and pest control. It is regionally extinct in Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuwait, Syria, Libya and Tunisia.
The leopard /ˈlɛpərd/ is the smallest of the four “big cats” in the genus Panthera. Compared to other members of the Felidae, the leopard has relatively short legs and a long body with a large skull. Both leopards and jaguars that are melanistic are known as black panthers.
The species’ success in the wild is in part due to its opportunistic hunting behavior, its adaptability to habitats, its ability to run at speeds approaching 58 kilometres per hour (36 mph), its unequaled ability to climb trees even when carrying a heavy carcass, and its notorious ability for stealth. The leopard consumes virtually any animal that it can hunt down and catch. Its habitat ranges from rainforest to desert terrains.
Leopards show a great diversity in coat color and rosettes patterns. In general, the coat color varies from pale yellow to deep gold or tawny, and is patterned with black rosettes. The head, lower limbs and belly are spotted with solid black. Coat color and patterning are broadly associated with habitat type. Their rosettes are circular in East Africa but tend to be squarer in southern Africa and larger in Asian populations. Their yellow coat tends to be more pale and cream colored in desert populations, more gray in colder climates, and of a darker golden hue in rainforest habitats. Overall, the fur under the belly tends to be lighter coloured and of a softer, downy type. Solid black spots in place of open rosettes are generally seen along the face, limbs and underbelly.
Leopards are agile and stealthy predators. Although they are smaller than other members of the Panthera genus, they are able to take large prey due to their massive skulls that facilitate powerful jaw muscles. Head and body length is usually between 90 and 165 cm (35 and 65 in). The tail reaches 60 to 110 cm (24 to 43 in) long, around the same length as the tiger‘s tail and relatively the longest tail in the Panthera genus (though snow leopards and the much smaller marbled cats are relatively longer tailed). Shoulder height is from 45 to 80 cm (18 to 31 in). The muscles attached to the scapula are exceptionally strong, which enhance their ability to climb trees. They are very diverse in size. Males are about 30% larger than females, weighing 30 to 91 kg (66 to 201 lb) compared to 23 to 60 kg (51 to 132 lb) for females. Large males of up to 91 kg (201 lb) have been documented in Kruger National Park in South Africa; however, males in South Africa’s coastal mountains average 31 kg (68 lb) and the females from the desert-edge in Somalia average 23 to 27 kg (51 to 60 lb). This wide variation in size is thought to result from the quality and availability of prey found in each habitat. The most diminutive leopard subspecies overall is the Arabian leopard (P. p. nimr), from deserts of the Middle East, with adult females of this race weighing as little as 17 kg (37 lb).
Other large subspecies, in which males weigh up to 91 kg (201 lb), are the Sri Lankan leopard (P. p. kotiya) and the Anatolian leopard (P. p. tulliana). Such larger leopards tend to be found in areas which lack tigers and lions, thus putting the leopard at the top of the food chain with no competitive restriction from large prey items. The largest verified leopards weighed 96.5 kg (213 lb) and can reach 190 cm (75 in) in head-and-body length. Larger sizes have been reported but are generally considered unreliable. The leopard’s body is comparatively long, and its legs are short.
Leopards may sometimes be confused with two other large spotted cats, the cheetah, with which it may co-exist in Africa, and the jaguar, a neotropical species that it does not naturally co-exist with. However, the patterns of spots in each are different: the cheetah has simple black spots, evenly spread; the jaguar has small spots inside the polygonal rosettes; while the leopard normally has rounder, smaller rosettes than those of the jaguar. The cheetah has longer legs and a thinner build that makes it look more streamlined and taller but less powerfully built than the leopard. The jaguar is more similar in build to the leopard but is generally larger in size and has a more muscular, bulky appearance.
Spotting the Leopards:
Far from the madding crowd of tourists and safari canters, this is an unchartered leopard terrain, unknown even to the locals. A few dry, parched parched zones of Rajasthan have become thriving spots for leopard sightings. The journey starts from Taalvraksh (arriving from Delhi), which is just 20 kilometers from Sariska Tiger Sanctuary in Rajasthan. Thanks to the territorial tiffs with tigers, a small area of dense forest with little water available, the leopards have found a haven for themselves.
David Attenborough in his book The Life of Mammals speaks about the village of Siana in Jalandar District bordering the Thar Desert. The rocky desert hills of Siana are home to a wide range of wildlife including leopards, such as chinkaras, striped hyenas, desert fox, civet and other jungle cats. Stay in Siana is made comfortable with farm stays serving farm grown food, jungle safaris, village tours showing live carvings of handicrafts by local carpenters.
Bera, near Jawai Bandh in western part of Rajasthan, is a large reservoir abuzz with flamingos, geese, cranes, and other migratory birds. Bera is filled with leopards camouflaged amidst huge rocks, numbers larger than Taalvraksh. Travellers have a choice of camps, some luxurious enough to offer private viewing decks. Experienced guides are around to help tourists track wildlife.
Best time to visit the place is in the winter when the gorgeous beasts come out to bask in the winter sun.
The iconic image of a leopard resting on a silent tea branch that we often see in magazines probably depicts the life style of leopards residing besides the Kabini River that snakes through The Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. The Kabini Forest Reserve is the abodes of a wide range of wildlife, especially the leopards. One of the uniqueness of this reserve is the co-residence of three predators – leopards, tigers, and dholes (Indian wild dogs). The leopards spend larger part of their life here on trees, coming down only to hunt. They are so strongly camouflaged on the tea trees that it is not easy to spot them until one gets closer. Taking a boat safari of the reserve, one can spot Asiatic elephants, Indian bison (gaur) spotted deer, and wild boar.
Best time to visit is between October and May.
Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book the forest of Mowgli Land in Pench is immortalized. The state’s southern boundary with Maharastra features the Pench National Park that is famed for Royal Bengal Tigers, though sighting a leopard in this jungle is the best in the nation. The park is also well known for bird watching with over 200 species including the barbets, wagtails, and blue kingfishers.
Also located in Madya Pradesh is the relatively new and lesser known Satpura Tiger Reserve. It is not uncommon for the tiger enthusiasts venturing into the forest see leopards too. The reserve is unique in it’s offering walking and kayaking safaris. The forest clad hills also heavily sought out by nature lovers for the stunning sceneries it offers.
Best time to visit is between November and June.
Jammu and Kashmir:
Snow leopards love their cool habitat up into the Himalayas that they are not at all easy to spot other than their mating season. Wildlife protectionists have formed a few organisations with the core intent of protecting them. They promote and organise ecotourism with active participation of local community. Apart from helping to track the snow leopards, the local community also offers their homes to the tourists to stay and eat.
Best time to visit is February and March, their mating season.
Covering an area of 979 sq kilometers of dense forest, the Yala National Park is one of the most visited and second largest national park in Sri Lanka. This park is attributed to house the densest leopard population in the world. The park is also known for the Asiatic elephants, sloth bears, crocodiles and many other species of wild life. But among the glorious spectacle of wildlife, you’d also witness the tell-tale signs of a lost but then a thriving civilization, dating back to the glory days of Sri Lankan Kings.. The Monastic settlement of Sithulpawwa, an important pilgrim site, is said to have housed 12,000 inhabitants seeking solace, some 2000 years ago. The restored rock Temple, among a series of well-preserved ancient temples offers a glimpse into a glittering past. What is today a pristine wildlife kingdom, Yala was home to a hundreds of tanks, most in dilapidated state today, are testimony to an agri-based civilization. The large, thriving tanks now provide a lifeline to the animal kingdom, especially during dry season.
Occupying more than 9,000 sq kilometers is the South Luangwa National Park Sighting leopards in this park is not a tall order at all. The concentration of animals around the Luangwa River, and its oxbow lagoons, is among the most intense in Africa. The changing seasons add to the Park’s richness, ranging from; dry, bare bushveld in the winter, to a lush, green wonderland in the summer months. There are 60 different animal species and over 400 different bird species in South Luangwa National Park. The only notable exception is the rhino, sadly poached to extinction. With about 400 of Zambia’s 732 species of birds appearing in the Park, including 39 birds of prey and 47 migrant species, there is plenty for the birdwatcher to spot, whatever the season.
Kgalagadi Gemsbok National Park spreads across Botswana and Namibia encompassing a landmass of about 10,000 sq kiometers. This park is estimated to have roughly 2000 cheetahs, 450 lions and about 150 leopards. This park covers several different countries, making up an area of about 2,5 million square kilometers. There are some places in the park where the sand is as deep as 100 meters. One of the greatest attractions of the park is its stunning variety of mammals. Large herds of springbok, gemsbok, red hartebeest, eland, kudu, wildebeest, grey duiker, steenbok, brown hyena, cape, bat-eared fox, meerkat, yellow and slender mongoose to name some.
There are over 264 bird species that have been recorded in the Gemsbok National Park. Weavers are common with as many as 300 birds using one nest, each pair living in an individual chamber. Some weaver’s nests are the size of small rooms and probably weigh more than a ton. They last as long as the tree that they are built in, and get added to and repaired each year. This is one of the most favored places in southern Africa for raptors, as 52 species have been observed in the Gemsbok National Park.
- Supriya Sharma’s article in The Times of India on September 07th, 2014