newspapers once reported a story from a Nairobi
suburb, where a leopard was seen and subsequently hunted by police and rangers. The
leopard evaded its hunters for a number of hours, until it was finally shot inside a
This story illustrates the fact that the seemingly rare leopard can not only survive
in the wilderness, but is, on the contrary, a highly adaptable animal, found in stable
populations in a variety of biotopes, ranging from savannas
and forests to mountains and, obviously, cities. It is not really rare, rather not seen
as often as the other big cats, as its habits are secretive.
Leopards mainly move about at night, and spend days resting in shrubs, in trees or on
elevated rocks. It leads a solitary life, and is mainly seen in singles. (If more than
one single is seen in the same spot, it's either a mother with cubs, or a male and a
female meeting temporarily to mate.) It is also well camouflaged and moves stealthily,
and may live close to human populations without being noticed.
Leopards hunt at night. (Should good opportunities to hunt arise during daytime, they
may do so, but it is quite rare.) Their large paws make them good stalkers, and they
hunt by slowly and quietly sneaking very close to their prey, and then leaping upon
The leopard is the second largest cat in Africa (the lion is much bigger), and is sturdy
and strong. It often carries its kill into a tree, where it can eat without being disturbed
by lions or hyaenas, and where it can leave the leftovers until later, out of reach
After eating, it often climbs down the tree to go drinking. Therefore, it may be worthwhile
waiting if you spot an eating leopard; it may soon be on the move. The leopard may climb
down a vertical tree trunk head first. It is also a good swimmer, but prefers not to
enter the water if possible.
Food for leopards
Like all cats, leopards are carnivores. Thomson's gazelles and reedbucks are common
prey, but also impalas and other antelopes up to the size of wildebeest are killed.
The leopard is adaptable not only to biotopes, but also to the food available in these,
and may eat fish, rodents, monkeys, snakes and big birds. It has been observed killing
jackals, domestic dogs and goats, and may also eat carrion.
It is not common for leopards to kill humans, but it does happen, usually when an old
or injured leopard is bereft of its normal hunting capacity and has to try something
new. Man-eating on man-killing leopards don't usually live long, as they are considered
too dangerous to be left alive; hunters and rangers soon hunt it down.
Colour and markings
Due to its camouflage markings, a leopard is hard to spot when resting or hiding in
foliage. It's pale to yellowish-brown (white below), with black spots on legs and head,
and rosettes of black spots on its back and flanks. The tail is spotted, too, but prominently
white on the underside of the tip. The backs of its ears are black with a pale spot.
Colouring and markings may vary locally, and subspecies with unique markings are known,
for example the small-spotted Zanzibar leopard (which may now be extinct). Melanism,
which means darkening or blackening of the normal fur colour, is sometimes seen in leopards,
mainly in forest. Such a black leopard (or jaguar, a big cat found in South America)
is sometimes referred to as a black panther.
Leopards are known to have been killed by lions, crocodiles and packs of African wild
dogs, and may be troubled by other carnivores, such as hyaenas, after making a kill.
Both lions and hyaenas are bigger, and the leopard usually surrenders its prey rather
than fighting for it. Troops of baboons have been seen chasing leopards away.
Humans kill leopards because of the beautiful fur, or to protect livestock or themselves.
Leopards are fairly easy to hunt using dogs, as leopards often escape the dogs into
a tree, where they can easily be shot. When on the ground, leopards prefer using their
habitual routes, and are easy both to track and to trap.
The leopard population had decreased or vanished completely in many areas, due to excessive
hunting and to habitat loss following for example deforestation. The species is not
endangered, though, thanks to the leopard's ability to adapt to different biotopes.
Apart from in Africa, leopards are found in many parts of southern Asia.
Leopards on safaris
Leopards live in most parks,
but are hard to see. In Kenya, Lake
Nakuru is known for frequent leopard observations, and Masai
Mara is quite a good park, too. In Tanzania,
leopards are regularly seen in Serengeti,
especially along the rivers and in kopjes,
which are found throughout the park. Tarangire is also
quite good for seeing leopards.
A typical place where to look for leopards is on horizontal branches in flat-top acacias,
sausage trees or other big trees, or on top of rocks.
The leopard is one of the five mammal species included in the Big
Five, and is an animal most safari-goers want to see.