Male leopards vary in length fromfive to eight
feet, including a twenty-eight to thirty-seven
inch tail. They stand eighteen to thirty-two inches
high at the shoulder and weigh from fifty-five to
two hundred pounds, depending on subspecies
and geographic area. The largest leopards tend to
inhabit mountainous terrain and colder regions.
On average, females are 40 percent smaller than
males. Leopard coats are short and sleek in the
tropics and densely furred in colder areas. Their
base color varies from yellow cream in desert areas,
to golden yellow in grasslands, becoming
deep gold in mountains and forests. All leopards
are spotted, with black spots arranged in rosettes
along the back and sides. Unlike jaguars, leopard
rosettes do not have a spot in the center. Leopards
in dark, moist tropical forests of Asia are often
melanistic and are called black panthers; dark
coats may be advantageous in areas of dim light.
The name leopard is also given to two other
species: the snow leopard (Panthera uncia), displaying
cream-colored fur and grayish rosettes,
that inhabits mountainous Central Asia, and the
clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) of Southeast
Asia, carrying grayish fur with cloudlike blotches
on its sides. Both are endangered by overhunting
for their beautiful fur.
Leopard litters average two cubs; weaned at about three months, they soon begin to accompany their mother on hunts. Cubs remain with their mothers eighteen to twenty-four months before leaving to establish their own territories. Adult leopards are solitary hunters. Males sometimes hunt with females shortly after mating but play no role in raising the young. Leopards are stealthy nocturnal or crepuscular hunters, preferring to stalk prey in the dark or half-light. They pursue a wide variety of targets as opportunity offers, including reptiles, rodents, birds, fish, and hoofed animals. Leopards kill by biting their victims' necks, strangling them, or severing their spinal cords with canine teeth. Scissoring carnassial teeth and rasplike papillae soon clean all bones of meat. Where their habitat abuts human settlements, leopards hunt close to houses, sometimes eating pets or livestock, but rarely attacking humans. Leopards are agile climbers; in areas where they face competition from lions or hyenas, leopards carry prey twice their body weight high into trees to discourage scavengers.
Relations with Humans
Leopard populations have been decimated by intensive hunting for their prized fur and through destruction of their habitat by expanding human populations. Originally, leopards had the widest east-west range and greatest habitat tolerance of any feline species. Their range included all of Africa outside the Sahara, as well as the Middle East, India, Indonesia, China, Korea, and eastern Siberia. Leopards are now endangered in much of Asia and virtually extinct in North Africa, the Middle East, China, and Korea. The 114 Amur leopards (Panthera pardus orientalis) currently held in zoos greatly exceed the estimated thirty or fewer still inhabiting the wild. International traffic in leopard skins, though banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, continues to be a problem, yet the leopard is showing greater survival success than its feline competitors in Africa, the lion and the cheetah. Leopards persist in substantial numbers in sub-Saharan Africa, where they are protected. Perhaps 100,000 or more roam the African plains, a number greater than the estimated total population of all other great cats-lions, tigers, jaguars, and mountain lions-combined. However, even where they are valued and guarded as tourist attractions in national parks, illegal hunters continue killing them and farmers on the edge of parks spread poison to protect their cattle and sheep from wandering predators. Wherever human populations press on leopardhabitat, often exaggerated stories of man-eaters arise. One such narrative describes the "Man- Eating Leopard of Rudyaprayag", who was accused of stalking and killing 115 pilgrims en route to a religious shrine in northern India, over a period of eight years, before being hunted down and killed.
Family: Felidae (cats)
Genus and species: Panthera pardus
Geographical location: Found over most of Africa south of the Sahara, in the Middle East and India, north to central Asia, and south to Indonesia
Habitat: Grasslands, forests, mountains, and jungles
Gestational period: 3 to 3.5 months
Life span: About fifteen years in the wild, twenty to twenty-five years in captivity
Special anatomy: Large eyes with excellent night vision; jaws adapted to seizing and gripping prey, teeth designed for tearing and slicing flesh
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