Apart from humans and some rodents, leopards occupy more diverse habitats than any other mammal on Earth. While there is only one species of leopard, there are nine subspecies spread across Africa and Asia. Leopards are found in most of sub-Saharan Africa, eastward to the Arabian peninsula, and throughout Southwest Asia to India, China, and Russia’s the Far East.
The northernmost subspecies of leopard is the Amur leopard and it is the rarest cat in the world. Only a few dozen of these survive in the wild and all are thought to roam the far eastern territory of Primorsky Krai, a province of Russia that borders China. While their range formerly extended into China and the Korean peninsula, Amur leopards are now thought to be extinct in those areas.
The Maryland Zoo is home to one female Amur leopard.
“How I live there”
Leopards have adapted to tropical forest, grasslands, steppe, rugged mountains, and desert. These cats exploit any environment well and are opportunistic hunters that will eat just about anything. Typically, the leopard hunts medium-sized mammals such as antelope, wild sheep, goats, and livestock, but will also prey on birds, snakes, rodents, and small mammals.
Amur leopards live much further north than any other sub-species of leopard and have adapted to warm summers and bitterly cold winters. They have longer legs than other leopards, allowing them to walk in deep snow with ease.
By day, a leopard rests, often draped in the branches of a tree. 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 don’t trespass. Adult females call when in estrous and ready to mate. Amur leopards are solitary cats that require large territories to avoid competition for prey. They rarely interact with each other except to breed.
All leopards hunt by ambush. They watch silently for prey, get within feet of their chosen kill, and then charge. Amur leopards reportedly can sprint up to 35 miles per hour and leap more than 19 feet horizontally and 10 feet vertically.
Built for strength more than speed, the leopard relies on elements of surprise and confusion to bring down prey. Only one in ten attacks is successful. If a leopard makes a kill, it will gut the animal on the spot but then usually drags the carcass into the treetops or conceals it in some other way, to guard it against 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 spray urine to mark territory.
“What eats me”
Depending on the habitat type, leopards must compete with other large predators, including lions in Africa and tigers in Asia. Amur leopards prowl the same montane forests as Amur (a.k.a. Siberian) tigers, which are much larger and fearsome competitors.
Amur leopards, like all leopards, are also threatened in various ways by humans. They suffer from illegal poaching and from killings in defense of livestock. They are also pressured by habitat loss, as people continue to clear forest to create agricultural land. The timber industry and the ongoing development of roads, railway lines, and natural gas pipelines continue to reduce Amur leopard habitat further.
Female leopards give birth to two or three cubs per litter. Usually, only 1 or 2 cubs 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 by habitat and by sub-species. The Amur leopard is listed by the IUCN, the world’s leading conservation organization, as critically endangered. Zoos are collaborating internationally through the Amur Leopard GSMP (Global Species Management Plan) to build a sustainable and genetically viable population of Amur leopards in captivity. The Maryland Zoo, now caring for its first Amur leopard, is one of those participating institutions.
Spring 2015 Zoogram, “Stealth and Beauty Survive,” pp. 8-9.