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Leopards Ecology and Behaviour

Leopards are mysterious creatures. They keep themselves to themselves and hunt primarily at night, making them nocturnal, although this does vary from subspecies to subspecies. Because of their solitary nature leopards have home ranges from which they don't tend to stray. The home range of a male can vary from anywhere between 30 and 78km and a female between 15 and 16km. Size of home range depends on the habitat, and the numbers above are only estimates. As lots of research takes place within protected areas, it is thought that figures may be a little bit out. The size of a female's home range decreases when she is accompanied by cubs. The home ranges of males can overlap with the home ranges of several females and females' home ranges overlap with each other. However, male home ranges have never been seen to overlap with that of another male. Leopards frequently move around their home range, rarely staying in one area for more than a few days. Leopards make calls and marks to ensure other leopards know their location.

It is vital that leopards know each other's where abouts when trying to breed. Females are in heat for six or seven days, and in that time they attract males with the smell of their urine. Leopards breed at different times of the year depending on habitat. During this time a male may spend a few days with the female, eating together and making many breeding attempts. Pregnancy lasts around three and a half months and two to four cubs are born in each litter. Seeking privacy and safety for their young, females find a secluded, sheltered spot to give birth, usually in a cave, a hollow tree trunk or in undergrowth. At birth cubs weigh around 500g and are completely dependent on their mother – they can't even see! Their eyes open around a week after birth but their mother keeps them hidden away in the safety of her den for two or three months.

Whilst they are hidden away, their mother will leave, to hunt and feed, sometimes for up to a day and a half. When the cubs are around six weeks old she starts to bring them solid food to supplement her milk. The cubs move on to solid food only at about three months old. When they emerge from their den they are already developed enough to climb trees. A cub's fur is different from the adults - it is thicker and longer and the spots are not as defined, making the cubs look greyer than their adult counterparts. It is thought that leopard cubs are able to survive on their own at one year old, but they will stay with their mothers for a year and a half to two years. Despite this ongoing protection, generally only half of the cubs from a litter will survive to adulthood. Once they reach adulthood, leopards usually live for somewhere between 12 and 17 years, although in captivity they have been known to reach just over 24 years old.

Adult leopards are incredibly successful and opportunistic hunters. Cubs learn to hunt alongside their mothers, starting out with small prey. Leopards hunt in a similar way to all big cats, stalking their prey on the ground. A leopard stalks by keeping its head low and its stomach almost to the ground, bending their already short legs. Although their legs are short they are incredibly muscular, and with their powerful paws and jaw leopards easily overpower their prey. Once within 3 to 10 metres, leopards will pounce on their unsuspecting victim, paralysing it with a bite through the neck. Although hunting normally takes place on the ground, leopards use their uniquely supreme agility to climb trees with their kill. This keeps it safe from wandering lions and hyenas. Storing their kill up the tree ensures their food supply for the near future – this is important in the hugely competitive environment they call home. Its ability to climb with kills marks the true strength of a leopard. Most prey weighs at least as much as the leopard itself and pulling that dead weight up a tree is an amazing display of strength. Unlike humans, leopards are not hindered by the setting of the sun. They safely navigate their hunting at night using their long whiskers to "feel" their path through the darkness of this challenging environment.

Leopards are supremely skilled hunters and will eat almost anything they can catch, but they will also eat anything they can scavenge – anything is better than going hungry! Leopards have been known to steal the kill of other big cats, such as cheetahs, which despite their speed are timid and will run away if faced with a hungry leopard. Leopards favour warm blooded prey such as mammals, but have been known to eat birds, reptiles and even insects. In general a leopard's diet consists mainly of ungulates and smaller monkey species. Yet remarkably, in 2011 a leopard was famously caught on camera attacking a young Nile crocodile. Moreover although an uncommon occurrence, leopards are the only natural predators of chimpanzees and gorillas. Leopards don't necessarily go for the largest prey available as a successful outcome (food!) is more likely when attacking smaller prey. In Africa, the vast majority of prey is medium sized antelope such as impala.

In Asia, medium size deer are the most common prey, with species such as chitals and muntjacs top of the list. Scientists in India recently spent time studying leopard faeces (poo!) and found that the vast majority of a leopards diet in that area is made up of domestic dogs and other domestic animals, such as goats and cattle, rather than their traditional prey of deer. This is concerning, as it means leopards are becoming more dependent on humans for survival, although it isn't clear if this is because humans are depleting their natural prey source, or if it's just easier to eat the domestic animals, whose numbers are constantly rising. Leopards don't need to drink much water – most of the moisture they need comes directly from their prey.