Sleek, stealthy and spotted, the leopard is one of the most recognizable and beloved of all the big cats.
Their range is fairly large, spreading across Africa and Asia, but many subspecies are endangered, and the species as a whole is considered vulnerable to extinction.
Leopard Range and Habitat
Leopards are adaptable enough to survive in both warm and cold climates. They tend to prefer dense vegetation with rocky landscapes and rivers that flow through forested terrain, but some subspecies make their homes in deserts, rainforests, mountainous areas and savanna grasslands. Some even encroach into urban or suburban environments, particularly in areas where humans have built cities near their preferred habitats.
Places leopards live include China, India, Central Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Northeast Africa. Approximately 66% of the original habitat of leopards in Africa has been lost to human expansion.
The Look of a Leopard
As the smallest member of the genus Panthera, leopards measure from 3 to 6.25 feet long and weigh between 60 and 150 pounds, with males being slightly larger than females. Powerful muscles and a sleek form give these cats the distinctive look of a deadly predator.
Leopards are well-known for their patterns of flower-shaped spots called rosettes. One way to tell a leopard from its close cousin the jaguar is that leopards don’t have dots at the center of each rosette, while jaguars do. Dots on the legs, head, throat and chest tend to be smaller, and the belly often has large solid black spots. Rosettes on a leopard act as a form of camouflage because they visually break up the body outline against a backdrop of vegetation. Leopards living in dark, dense rainforests have a darker coat than leopards living in lighter-toned environments, such as grasslands. In the darkest jungles, leopards may appear almost black, but their spotted pattern can be seen in the right lighting conditions.
The Life of a Leopard
When it comes to babies, litters tend to be small, with just one to three cubs per litter. By about three months after birth, cubs are ready to start following mom around on hunting expeditions to learn the ins and outs of being a leopard. After 13 to 18 months with their mother, young leopards set off on their own.
Solitary and shy, leopards tend to live alone instead of forming prides as some other big cats do. Males mark their territory with urine, feces and scratches on trees to keep other males away. They let a few females share their range but avoid direct contact except during mating season. Leopards tend to be silent most of the time, but they sometimes make this unique raspy barking sound:
Like all of the big cats, leopards are obligate carnivores. This means that they have to eat meat to survive. Leopards both hunt prey and scavenge. They hunt stealthily, sneaking up on prey until they are only a few feet away before lunging into an attack. These agile big cats are excellent swimmers and climbers, and they sometimes stash leftover food in a tree to keep it away from scavengers. In some dry habitats, leopards might only drink once every 10 days.
While these silent, stealthy predators are extremely adaptable, habitat and prey loss are a big danger to their existence in the wild. Fortunately, international conservation efforts are helping ensure a bright future for leopards throughout their large range, ensuring a permanent spot for these big cats in the rainforests, mountains and savannas where they love to roam.