Leopards in general — and African leopards included — live in more diverse habitats than any other mammal except man and some rodents. African leopards are spread across the entire African continent, living everywhere except the most extreme areas of the Sahara and Namib deserts. They can adapt to grasslands, bush, rugged mountains and arid desert, but truly thrive in rainforest habitat.
Leopards survive in a wide variety of habitats because they’ll eat just about anything and they exploit their environment exceptionally well. Leopards eat birds, snakes, rodents and other small mammals, all kinds of antelope, wild sheep and goats, and livestock. Alone among big cats, leopards will exist in proximity to humans. Very rarely will a leopard prey upon humans, however. Wherever they go, leopards can carve out a niche for themselves and find food. See the African Leopards on exhibit in the African Journey area of the Maryland Zoo.
By day, a leopard rests. It seeks shade, in the branches of a tree if possible, and sleeps or silently watches what’s going on below. Its spotted coat blends seamlessly into the dappled shade of a tree, giving it the uncanny ability to hide in plain sight.
Around twilight, a leopard awakens and begins to hunt or patrol its territory, scent-marking as it goes. Adult males call to advertise their territories – a hard, grunting, barking call that is easily recognized. They want to be sure that other leopards do not trespass. Adult females call when in estrous and ready to mate.
Leopards hunt by ambush. They watch silently for prey, get within feet of their chosen kill, and then charge. Only one in ten leopard attacks ends in success, though. The leopard is built for strength, not speed, so it relies on the elements of surprise and confusion to bring down prey. If a leopard makes a kill, it will gut the animal on the spot but will drag the carcass into the treetops to conceal and guard it from other predators.
As predators at the top of the food chain, leopards impact any ecosystem that they occupy. Within their respective territories, they also make their mark quite literally, in many ways, to announce themselves to fellow leopards. A leopard will visit favorite scratching trees within its territory. It will jump up onto a scratching branch, stretch, sniff first for existing scent marks, and then scratch with its front and back paws and maybe rub its chest along the branch. It’s a way of saying to other leopards “I own this territory.” Both males and females also urine spray to mark territory.
Because leopards can live in close proximity to man and because leopards are opportunistic hunters that will attack livestock, there is longstanding conflict between humans and leopards. African tribal peoples hunted leopards sustainably for countless years, but the advent of modern weapons and poisons along with the increasing density of people and livestock in leopard habitat has pushed the leopard to the point of persecution in many areas. Even so, leopards are not reviled in African cultures. Quite the contrary, they are often revered.
In rainforest habitat, leopards have the advantage of being uncontested by other large predators. In other habitats, they must compete with other large predators such as lions in Africa and tigers in Asia. In Africa, leopards can also fall prey to lions, crocodiles, and wild dogs. People also will kill leopards to defend livestock and to protect against the perceived (although truly minimal) risk of being attacked and killed.
Female leopards give birth to two or three cubs per litter usually only one or two survive to independence. For the first few months, the cubs are completely helpless and their mother keeps them well hidden. They will continue to nurse until they are about 3 months old but will also start to eat solid food at about 2 months. Gradually, through play and by copying their mother, cubs learn to hunt and kill. By their first birthday, cubs are almost full grown and are able to fend for themselves. They will separate from their mother within their second year and pursue a solitary life, although there have been reported cases of mother leopards maintaining affectionate bonds with her cubs well into their adulthoods.
The leopard’s conservation status varies dramatically by habitat. In some places the leopard is critically endangered and in others it is merely threatened. Habitat loss and poaching pose the greatest threats to this magnificent cat.
Fall 2008 Zoogram, “News from the Zoo” spread, p. 4.