The leopard is one of continent's most breathtakingly beautiful big cats and an esteemed member of the Big Five.
Leopards are another of Africa’s larger felines, with the average weight of female African leopards ranging from 30 to 40kg (about 60lb to 90lb), and males about 60kg (130lb). They are easily identified by their spotted coat of fur, stockier build when compared to the cheetah and the typical "Panthera" head shape – similar to that of the lion or jaguar, two other species belonging to the "Panthera" genus. The characteristic spots of a leopard are usually described as rosette shaped, that is, a black outer line with a darker tan color inside the outline – this is in contrast to cheetah spots, which are smaller and solid black. Male and female leopards are not easily distinguished, with the only real prominent difference between the two being their respective sizes and whether or not they are caring for cubs.
Leopards have the greatest range of any African animal – an omen to their adaptability. They are found throughout sub-Saharan Africa, though they prefer areas with higher rainfall for the most part. The main reason for this is that trees and the cover they provide are essential to their hunting strategy, and so, the presence of trees is essential. Having said that, they can be found just about anywhere in southern Africa, along with the coast, in the Drakensberg mountains and most certainly in the Kruger National park as well as its surroundings. The luscious bush found in the southern part of the Kruger National Park is an area where these shy animals have been seen regularly, along with the more mountainous and tree-covered northern parts around the Rest Camps of Letaba and Shingwedzi. Oftentimes, rockky outcrops are a good substitute for trees, and so drier parts, such as the Kalahari desert, are also home to a number of leopards.
Leopards are quite common, as one might expect, and are one of the few sub-Saharan animal species that have not been affected as much by habitat loss and quarrels with people, when compared to other predators and African big cats. Cheetahs, lions and wild dogs are just some of the species that once roamed the length and breadth of the African continent alongside leopards, that are now confined to remote corners and and scattered protected areas. The secretive nature of the lives of leopards has kept them out of harm's way for the most part and has greatly contributed to their survival and adaptiveness to change – they are still widely found on game farms, private reserves and national parks througout Africa. You might not easily come across a leopard, but this is definitely not due to their population, which is estimated at over 700 000 in the whole of Africa – that is 35 times more than the total lion population, and over 100 times more than the overall cheetah population.
Leopards are found in a large range of different habitats and ecosystems, from the Kalahari desert to the rainforests of the Congo, with a variety of sub-species which have small additional adaptations to suit their specific environment. The main thing leopards need is a perrenial or permanent water source, a place to find shelter and enough cover to be able to stalk its prey. They are good tree climbers, and usually sleep in trees. They also drag their prey into the trees with them, preventing hyenas and lions from stealing their kill and ensuring that they can feed unhindred – a strategy that has greatly contributed to their success. In dry areas, this "den" of theirs can take on the form of a rocky hill. Becuase they do not have a whole pride to sustain, leopards are often found where lions are no longer found, and so they have assumed the role of the main predator in many areas of southern Africa.
Leopards are solitary animals, and are almost never found with others of their species. They are also very territorial animals, as solitary species usually are, with territory sizes varying considerably based on the relative abundance of prey in the area. In the Kruger National Park, the average territory size is around 1 square kilometer, for example. Prime territories, such as those near a water source, like a watering hole or river bank, are often heavily contested. The howling sound of leopards can often be heard in the evening in the Kruger National Park, often because two leopards are fighting over a particular territory. Finally, leopards are generally nocturnal hunters, preferring the added advantage the cover of night gives them. They have excpetional night vision, allowing them to better utilize the benefits the night has to offer.
Leopards are very secretive cats. Mothers raise cubs alone; only coming into contact with males for breeding purposes. Mothers may continue to see and socialize with their cubs even after they are not dependent on their mothers for food and shelter – roughly from 22 months of age. Males, on the other hand, only come into contact with other leopards when there is a dispute over territory or prey, or when searching for a mate during mating season. Leopards often vocalize, whether it be to scare off baboons and other pests or to intimidate another leopard. A far more common medium of communication, however, is olfactory scent-marking, where a leopard sprays urine others can then identify by their acute sense of smell. Olfactory scent-marking is used when demarcating territory and when searching for mates.
Males go in search of females during mating season, when females leave their scent for males to find during a week-long period when females are in heat. This strategy is used, because leopards rarely see one another, and would never mate if they had to rely on coincidental encounters. The mating period typically starts in the dry season to ensure cubs are born in the wet season, when food is plentiful. Their mating rituals begin when a male finds a willing female. They then, like lions, mate roughly every 20 minutes for days on end to create the highest possibility of the female leopard being impregnated. If breeding is successful, the mother will carry her litter for 90 to 105 days. Litters are typically made of 1 to 2 llittle cubs, of which both have a good chance of survival.
The biggest enemy leopards in Africa have are lions. Their entire hunting strategy may have evolved around the fact that they would be outcompeted by lions on the open savannah. A 50kg leopard is no match for a 120kg lion, and on top of that, lions organize themselves in prides, which can easily steal food from a leopard. Hyenas, both spotted and brown, pose the same problem for the survival of leopards in regards to obtaining food and keeping it for as long as possible. When faced with the prospect that a lion or hyena might attack or attempt to steal a kill, a leopard turns to the trees. Neither lions nor hyenas are able to climb trees, and, as a result, leopards are the kings and queens of the trees. Large troops of baboons are often a pest to leopards, and may quirrel with over the best tree dwellings, but the size of the leopard always gives it the upper hand in such disputes.
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