|[Note Guidelines] Photographer's Note|
|The leopard (Panthera pardus) is an Old World mammal of the Felidae family and the smallest of the four 'big cats' of the genus Panthera, along with the tiger, lion, and jaguar. Leopards that are melanistic, either all-black or very dark in coloration, are known colloquially as Black Panthers.|
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. There are fragmented populations in the Indian subcontinent, Indochina, Malaysia, and western China. Despite the loss of range and continued population declines, the cat remains a least concern species; its numbers are greater than that of the other Panthera species, all of which face more acute conservation concerns.
The species' success owes in part to its opportunistic hunting behaviour and its adaptability to a variety of habitats. The leopard consumes virtually any animal it can catch and ranges from rainforest to desert. Its ecological role resembles that of the similarly-sized cougar in the Americas. Physically, the spotted cat most closely resembles the jaguar, although it is of lighter build. Graceful and stealthy, leopards are famous for their ability to go undetected. They are good, agile climbers, but cannot 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. Note the white spots on the back of the ears used for communication with cubs when hunting in long grass
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 behaviour is more common. These cats are solitary, avoiding one another. However, three or four 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 opportunistic hunters. Although mid-sized animals are preferred, the leopard will eat anything from dung beetles to 900 kg male giant elands. Their diet consists mostly of ungulates and monkeys, but rodents, reptiles, amphibians, birds and fish are also eaten. In fact, they hunt about 90 different species of animals. A solitary dog 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. In Asia the leopard preys on deer such as chitals and muntjacs as well as various Asian antelopes and Ibex.
The leopard stalks its prey silently and at the last minute pounces on its prey and strangles its throat with a quick bite. Leopards often hide their kills in dense vegetation or take them up trees, and are capable of carrying animals up to three times their own weight this way. Storing carcasses up trees keeps them away from other predators such as spotted hyenas, jackals, tigers and lions, though the latter will occasionally be successful in climbing and fetching the leopard kills.
One survey of nearly 30 research papers found preferred prey weights of 10 to 40 kgs, with 25 kg most preferred. Along with impala and chital, a preference for bushbuck and common duiker was found. Other prey selection factors include a preference for prey in small herds, in dense habitat, and those that afford the predator a low risk of injury.
Leopard resting on a tree
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.
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 three 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.
Social structure and home range
Studies of leopard home range size have tended to focus on protected areas, which may have led to skewed data; as of the mid-1980s, only 13% of the leopard range actually fell within a protected area. In their IUCN survey of the literature, Nowell and Jackson suggest male home territories vary between 30-78 square kilometers, but just 15-16 km² for females. Research in a conservation area in Kenya shows similar territory sizes and sex differential: 32.8 km² ranges for males, on average, and 14 km² for females. In Nepal, somewhat larger male ranges have been found at about 48 km², while female ranges are in-keeping with other research, at 17 km²; female home territories were seen to decrease to just five to seven km² when young cubs were present, while the sexual difference in range size seemed to be in positive proportion to overall increase. However, significant variations in size of home territories have been suggested across the leopard's range. In Namibia, for instance, research that focussed on spatial ecology in farmlands outside of protected areas found ranges that were consistently above 100 km², with some more than 300 km²; admitting that their data were at odds with others', the researchers also suggested little or no sexual variation in the size of territories. Virtually all sources suggest that males do have larger ranges. There seems to be little or no overlap in territory amongst males, although overlap exists between the sexes; one radio-collar analysis in the Ivory Coast found a female home range completely enclosed within a male's.
The leopard is solitary and, aside from mating, interactions between individuals appear to be infrequent. Aggressive enounters have been observed, however. Two of five males studied over a period of a year at a game reserve in South Africa died, both violently. One was initially wounded in a male-male territorial battle over a carcass; taken in by researchers, it was released after a successful convalescence only to be killed by a different male a few months later. A second was killed by another predator, possibly a spotted hyena. A third of the five was badly wounded in intraspecific fighting, but recovered.
Distribution and habitat
As of 1996, the leopard had the largest distribution of any wild cat, although populations before and since have shown a declining trend and are fragmented outside of subsaharan Africa. The IUCN notes that within subsaharan Africa the species is "still numerous and even thriving in marginal habitats" where other large cats have disappeared, but that populations in North Africa may be extinct. In Asia, data on distribution are mixed: populations in Southwest and Central Asia are small and fragmented; in the northeast portion of the range, they are critically endangered; and in Indian, Southeast Asia, and China, the cat is still relatively abundant.
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