Leopards: the Most Mysterious of Big Cats
Leopards are small but mighty big cats that are found across the globe. Their range extends from sub-Saharan Africa, to patches across the Middle East, throughout tropical Asia West Asia and in parts of Siberia. Leopards are a member of the Felidae family alongside other big cat species such as tigers, lions and jaguars as well as smaller species such as lynxes, ocelots and the familiar domestic cat! Members of the Felidae family stand apart from other carnivores such as bears and wolves because they are obligate carnivores, which means they absolutely have to eat meat to survive, much more meat than any other mammals.
Leopards are renowned for their strength and despite their relatively small size they can kill prey much larger than themselves, climb trees, leap and jump great distances and still run really very fast! Leopards from different parts of the world are different sizes – males can range in size from 30kg to 91kg! When they need to leopards can make plenty of noise, but more often than not they remain silent, blending into their environment to increase their chances of catching their prey and surviving to reproduce. Their beautiful golden spotted coats help them hide away successfully, and subtle changes are seen in the coats of leopards from different regions of the world to increase success. To read more about leopard features like these, click here for Leopard Characteristics.
Sometimes leopards look so different from each other it would be easy to think they were a different species, but this isn't the case. To find out more about this mystery, click on Variant Colouration . More often than not though, the slight differences in size, coat colour and more can be indicative of different subspecies of leopard. These slight differences are all part of what makes them subspecies! The leopards are not different species, because they could all interbreed and produce fertile offspring given the opportunity, but because they are generally isolated from each other they can't interbreed and so are classed as subspecies. It is thought that the modern leopard we know today first evolved in Africa, and then radiated across much of the rest of the world, where it split into subspecies. The different subspecies are as follows:
Leopard,"Panthera pardus pardus" - Found in: Africa
Persian Leopard, "Panthera pardus saxicolor" - Found In: Central Asia
Arabian Leopard, "Panthera pardus nimr" - Found In: Arabia
Javan Leopard, "Panthera pardus melas" - Found In: Java
Indian Leopard,"Panthera pardus fusca" - Found In: Indian Sub-Continent
Sri Lankan Leopard, "Panthera pardus kotiya" - Found In: Sri Lanka
North China Leopard, "Panthera pardus japonensis" - Found In: Northern China
Indochinese Leopard, "Panthera pardus delacouri" - Found In: Southeast Asia And Into Southern China
Amur Leopard, "Panthera pardus orientalis" - Found In: Russian Far East, Korean Peninsula & North-Eastern China
As you can see, many of them are located in vastly diverse areas, with distances between them that would completely prohibit them from interbreeding. These nine subspecies are officially recognised by the IUCN. In the past, as many as 27 subspecies have been suggested, but advances in DNA testing technology in the 1990s has been able to provide a more precise estimate. However, it is still only an estimate, as limited sampling of leopards in some areas may mean that some subspecies have not been analysed yet. The skeleton of two other proposed leopard subspecies, the Anatolian Leopard, Panthera pardus tulliana, and the Balochistan Leopard, Panthera pardus sindica supports the argument for them being different subspecies, but DNA analysis is yet to be performed.
Leopards truly are the most mysterious of all the big cats. Although lots of research has been done, most of what we know about leopards is based on observations of African leopards, so some "facts" might not even be completely accurate for all subspecies. We can only do our best, and no matter how much research we do, we'll probably never know all there is to know about leopards! They're very good at keeping out of our way, and much of their habitat is difficult for humans to access. We do know leopards like to keep themselves to themselves, and have home ranges that they stick to religiously, especially during breeding time, when a female's home range decreases dramatically in an attempt to keep her cubs safe. Cubs often stay with their mothers for their first two years of life, although they are weaned by around three months. Mothers teach their cubs how to hunt, and in general leopards are incredibly successful hunters. Leopards preferentially hunt medium size mammals, but specific prey items vary with range. To read more about the behaviour of leopards, click over to Leopard Behaviour and Ecology.
Sadly, there aren't as many leopards in the wild today as there were even just 100 years ago. Leopards are fighting a hard battle against extinction. They are classified as Near Threatened" on the IUCN Red List. Threats to leopards vary throughout their range, and like many similar stories their plight is the responsibility of humans. In Africa habitat loss and persecution lurk over leopards and leopards around the world also suffer from the effects of trophy hunting. Indirect impacts from humans also account for the conservation status of leopards. Clearance of forest homes for logging, habitat conversion for agriculture and loss of natural prey due to competition with humans all contribute to the problem. Some subspecies struggle with these threats more than others – the Amur leopard population is down to around thirty individuals and as a subspecies is classified by itself as Critically Endangered.
Happily, conservation efforts are in place to protect leopard populations around the world. Trade in leopard parts is highly regulated and primarily illegal. Many leopards occur in protected areas and others in areas popular with tourists, so there are economic incentives to help protect the populations. Research projects are ongoing to try and pinpoint exactly what needs to be done to further protect leopard populations, but the most important thing to do is to try and change attitudes towards leopards. To read more about these efforts, and some more about the threats these majestic creatures face, click Leopards in the Wild Today.