Pic by Dinesh Kumble
One of the most efficient and cunning predators
whose survival is now as precarious as that of the tiger
The leopard without doubt is the most immaculate of all cats. … Just as beautiful as dexterous, just as powerful as agile, just as intelligent as cunning, just as daring as sly, he represents the predator on the highest level.
Indian leopard is one of the 8-9 valid leopard subspecies found throughout the world. Known by the scientific name of Panthera pardus, it is the fourth largest of the four ‘big cats’ of the Panthera genus. At the same time, leopards are also the fifth largest of all cat species. The name ‘Leopard’ has been derived from a combination of two Greek and Latin words leo and pard, ‘leo’ meaning lion and ‘pard’ meaning panther. This name was given to the animal since it was initially believed to be crossbreed of a lion and a panther.
The leopard is one of the most maligned animals, chiefly by sport killers who have suffered from, and resented, his almost uncanny capacity for effective retaliation when wounded. Thus it is often claimed that they are unpredictable and treacherous. However such behaviour of incidents where man is attacked only reflect the leopard’s exceptional capacity for survival. The black panther Bagheera in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book appears to be a noble soul who offers one fat bull he had killed to save little Mowgli’s life.
The largest leopard recorded is 9 ft 1in. in length shot by the Maharaja of Nepal. They are considerably slimmer than the tiger, with an average weight of 120-150 lb, and a 250-lb animal could be considered the maximum. There entire body is one of integrated suppleness and weight for weight no animal can hold a candle to its abilities. Their arboreal capacity is phenomenal and they are as much at home in trees, which they use for caching prey out of reach of other predators and they have the capacity to haul almost double their body-weight up a perpendicular trunk. There is a growing evidence that the leopard’s future survival is as precarious as that of the tiger and throughout its range it is becoming increasingly rare.
These cats have an elongate and muscular body. Their paws are broad and their ears are short. In tropical regions their coats tend to be shorter and sleeker, whereas in colder climates their fur is longer and denser. The coloration varies from the color of straw to grayish to even chestnut. The backs of the ears are black except for a spot either located centrally or near the tips. These appear to other animals as eyes. The throat, chest, belly, and the insides of the limbs are white. The rest of the head, throat, chest, and limbs all have small black spots. The belly has larger black spots, almost like blotches. Region and habitat have an affect on the appearance of leopard. As far as the length of the Indian leopard is concerned, it may be anywhere between one meters and two meters. Their average weight hovers somewhere around 30 kg and 70 kg (65 lbs to 155 lbs). Leopards have an elongated body and muscular body and their head is larger in proportion to their body. The coat of a leopard is covered with rosettes and they can climb trees with effortless ease. The cubs of a leopard have longer and thicker fur than the adults and even their pelage is grayer.
Indian leopards are nocturnal creatures and are considered to be one of the most surreptitious animals. They can easily make themselves undetected, even while living proximate to human settlements. Leopards are very good swimmers, but lead a solitary life. Occasionally, one can find them roaming in a group of 3 to 4 animals. They have an acute sense of hearing, along with sharp eyesight.
Leopards are carnivores and eat almost every animal, ranging from monkeys to reptiles to fish. In fact, it is believed that they hunt from amongst 90 species of animals. Injured, sickly or struggling leopards, with a shortage of prey, may even hunt humans.
The mating season of leopards depends upon the areas they inhabit. For example, the leopards of India mate throughout the year while those in Siberia mate from January to February. Their estrous cycle lasts about 46 days and the female usually remains in heat for 6-7 days. They give birth to 2-3 cubs at a time, out of which 1 or 2 survive in most of the cases. Three months after being born, the cubs start joining their mother in hunts and live with her for the next 18 to 24 months.
Till some centuries back, leopards used to roam around in almost all parts of Africa and southern Asia. However, today, their habitat has been reduced to Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia Minor, the Middle East, India, Pakistan, China, Siberia, much of mainland South-East Asia and the islands of Java and Sri Lanka.
Current Status and Threats
The worldwide population of leopards is considered to be around 50,000. Nevertheless, the population of the ‘Big Cat’ has been decreasing at quite a rapid pace in all the countries, including India. The major reasons for this are their large-scale poaching as well as destruction of their natural habitat by humans. The subspecies that have been declared as endangered are Amur, Anatolian, Barbary, North Chinese and South Arabian Leopards.
The Indian leopard is one of the most successful members of Indian big cats. The animal is distributed throughout the subcontinent, including in the border nations of Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and southern China. Habitat varies from dry deciduous forests, desert ecosystems, tropical rainforests, northern coniferous forests, to near human habitation.ThreatsDespite being the most widespread cat, the Indian leopard has faced several types of threats. The animal shares its habitat with other predators, which include Asiatic lions, Bengal tigers, bears, wolves, hyenas, and wild dogs. These animals may kill leopard cubs if given a chance. In addition, lions and tigers may even attack a full-grown leopard. Apart from its natural enemies, the leopard’s main threat is people. They were also hunted for their prized furs. For years, it has been threatened, due to loss of habitat and poaching. In some parts of India, the animal thrives alongside human populations. There, it may find domestic livestock to make for easy prey, resulting in a man-leopard conflict. These conflicts have increased in recent years due to population growth among humans and, in some areas, leopards. To avoid such problems, India’s Forest Departments regularly set up traps in potential conflict areas. After capturing the animal, they release it in an appropriate habitat, away from human development.
Although most leopards will tend to avoid humans, people are occasionally targeted as prey. Most healthy leopards prefer wild prey to humans, but cats who are injured, sickly or struggling with a shortage of regular prey often turn to hunting people and may become habituated to it. In the most extreme cases, both in India, a leopard dubbed “the Leopard of Rudraprayag” is claimed to have killed over 125 people and the infamous leopard called “Panar Leopard” killed over 400 after being injured by a poacher and thus being made unable to hunt normal prey. The “Leopard of Rudraprayag” and the “Panar Leopard” were both killed by the famed hunter Jim Corbett. Man-eating leopards are considered bold by feline standards and commonly enter human settlements for prey, more so than their lion and tiger counterparts. Kenneth Anderson, who had first hand experience with many man-eating leopards, described them as far more threatening than tigers;
“Although examples of such animals are comparatively rare, when they do occur they depict the panther [leopard] as an engine of destruction quite equal to his far larger cousin, the tiger. Because of his smaller size he can conceal himself in places impossible to a tiger, his need for water is far less, and in veritable demoniac cunning and daring, coupled with the uncanny sense of self preservation and stealthy disappearance when danger threatens, he has no equal…”—Nine Man-Eaters and One Rogue, Chapter II The Spotted Devil of Gummalapur
However because they can subsist on small prey and are less dependent on large prey, leopards are less likely to turn to man-eating than either lions or tigers. However, leopards might be attracted to human settlements by livestock or pets, especially domestic dogs.
A melanistic morph of the leopard occurs particularly in mountainous areas and rain forests. The black color is heritable and caused by only one recessive gene locus. In some regions, for example on the Malayan Peninsula, up to half of all leopards are black. This may be a beneficial mutation that helps them survive in their rainforest habitat. In Africa, black leopards seem to be most common in the Ethiopian Highlands. While they are commonly called black panthers, the term is not applied exclusively to leopards, as it also applies to melanistic jaguars. Black leopards are less successful on the African plains because their coloration makes them stand out. While known as panthers, there are no known cases of melanistic cougars.
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