The most secretive and elusive of the large carnivores, the leopard is also the shrewdest. Pound for pound, it is the strongest climber of the larger cats and is capable of killing prey far larger than itself. The coloring of the leopard varies from white to bright golden brown, spotted with black spots and rosettes. The rosettes consist of groups of 5 to 6 spots arranged in a tight ring.
The tail is longer than half the body length measured from head to tail. This fierce animal has small round ears and long whiskers growing from dark spots on the upper lip. The size of the leopard varies considerably. The leopard differs from the cheetah in having shorter legs, and rosette-like spots and is without the cheetah’s black “tear” marks from eye to mouth. According to AWF, spots are circular in East African leopards but square in Southern African leopards.
The leopard ranges in size from 1 to almost 2 metres long, and weighs between 30 – 70 kg. Females are typically around two-thirds the size of males.
Although leopards are shy and elusive, they are actually found all over sub-Saharan Africa. They occupy the grasslands that have trees in which they can hide and sleep during the heat of the day. In South Africa they can be found in the Baviaanskloof Mega-Reserve and Shamwari Game Reserve (which is close to Port Elizabeth) in the Eastern Cape, Kruger National Park in Mpumalanga and Limpopo, Karoo National Park (about two hours from Oudtshoorn, and five hours from Cape Town in the Western Cape), and Phinda Private Game Reserve in KwaZulu Natal are just some of the many parks and reserves that are home to leopard.
Leopard hunt and feed on small animals and medium size antelope. They also favour fish, reptiles and birds to smaller mammals such as rodents, hares and baboons.
Leopards are shy, cunning and very dangerous, especially when wounded. They are very good tree climbers and can pull large prey up a tree to protect it from other predators or scavengers in the vicinity. They return later to feed again. Leopards are basically solitary animals and go out of their way to avoid one another. Each animal has a home range that overlaps with its neighbors; the male’s range is much larger and generally overlaps with those of several females. A leopard usually does not tolerate intrusion into its own range except to mate. Unexpected encounters between leopards can lead to fights.
Leopard breed throughout the year. Number of young is 2 to 3 although more have been recorded. During the first few weeks of the cubs life, the mother will set down roots to stay with her cubs until they are old and strong enough to accompany her. She keeps her young hidden for the first eight weeks in order to protect them from predators, often moving them to new locations if she senses danger. They will get their first taste of meat at 6 or 7 weeks of age and are then taught to hunt. Suckling ceases at about 3 months but they continue to live with their mothers for up to two years. The gestation period is 2.5 months. Life expectancy is 12 to 17 years in the wild. 21 years in captivity.