The leopard is most easily recognised by its rosette patterned coat and extremely long, darker tail. This large cat is sometimes confused in appearance with the South American Jaguar - the leopard though is less stocky and unlike the jaguar, its rosette markings are generally smaller and have no internal spots. The overall size of the leopard depends very much on the subspecies and location, with the largest animals growing to a length of nearly 5 feet with an additional tail length of some 3 feet - generally the male is between 20-40% larger than the female. The base coloration of the coat also varies greatly depending upon location, ranging from golden/yellow in open grasslands, through yellow/cream in desert areas to deep gold in mountain and forest regions. All black or melanistic leopards, sometimes commonly called ‘Black Panthers’ (see below), are born in the same litter as normally marked cats and also carry the rosette markings, although these are masked by the darkness of the fur. It has been observed that the melantistic leopard is most generally found in the dense, wet forested areas of India and south east Asia, where the coloration advantages the cat in its hunting.

The leopard is a versatile hunter and generally nocturnal in its pursuit of prey - however the increased frequency of hunting found in the female raising young often leads to more opportunist hunting during daylight hours. The type of prey taken by the leopard is again dependant largely upon its locale - in the open grasslands of Africa where roaming herds of large to medium sized herbivores are common the leopard will take young eland and wildebeest, impala and gazelle. However in the same areas the leopard will also take small mammals such as hares and rock hyrax, reptiles and insects. In contrast, in the west and central forested regions of Africa the leopards prey consists mainly of the smaller antelope such as duiker, small monkeys and various rodents such as rats, squirrels and porcupines

Although a strong and competent hunter the leopard is not without threat from other carnivores - because of this the leopard commonly caches its prey high in the boughs of trees away from packs of scavenging hyenas and opportunist lions. It is here that the leopard demonstrates its huge strength - its powerful limb and neck muscles enabling it to carry a fully grown male antelope or even young giraffe, often weighing up to three times its own body weight, high into the tree tops. Direct competition from other large cats such as the lion in Africa and tiger in tropical Asia is common although this is largely overcome by the leopards ability to hunt on a wider prey base than either of its two larger rivals. In Asia the leopard is also advantaged over the tiger by its ability to exist in areas without a plentiful water supply. In some areas where its habitat is close to that of humans the leopard has been known to hunt close to houses, preying on domestic animals, livestock and rodents.

Although no other wild cat has such a wide spread range and diverse prey base as the leopard, it is still under threat in many regions. Once common in all parts of Africa apart from the deserts of the Sahara, it has now gone from most parts of northern Africa, apart from a few widespread areas of the Atlas mountains and is scarce in the extreme west of the continent. Subspecies of the leopard once common in the middle east, P.p.nimr and P.p.jarvisi are now all but extinct, as is the Persian leopard (P.p.saxicolor). In south east Asia and India its numbers have dwindled mainly due to hunting for its prized fur and through loss of natural habit due to the spread of the human population. The Korean Leopard (P.p.orientalis), also known as the Amur Leopard are extremely rare in the wild, suffering extensively from habitat loss.

1997 Andrew Garman

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