The Elusive, beautiful Leopard
Of all Africa’s big cats, leopards are objectively the picture of perfection.
Breathtakingly beautiful, charismatic, powerful, and mysterious.
Each Leopard has its own pattern of rosettes and spots that are as individual and unique as their personalities. Their self-contained grace and nimble frames belie an extraordinary explosive strength and speed when needed and, like most cats, they have an innate ability to look entirely comfortable and at home wherever they happen to be at the time. This applies whether they are draped over the boughs of a marula tree or surveying the area from atop a termite mound, perhaps lounging in a sandy riverbed or, on the odd occasion, nestled in between the cushions of the couches on a lodge deck! Those who have spent time with leopards will tell you that every leopard sighting is unique – defined by the personality of the leopard itself.
Unbeknownst to them, leopards are often number one on a safari-goer’s “want to see” list. As the most elusive of the Big 5, they are the drawcard of a safari experience – extraordinarily photogenic with an innate, and presumably accidental, ability to adopt the most striking poses. There are private game reserves where these big cats have been habituated to the presence of safari vehicles for generations and, as a result, their day-to-day lives have been opened for observation, and we have come to appreciate their unique personalities.
Leopards are by nature territorial and, in theory, solitary unless raising cubs, though it is not uncommon for young leopards to seek out the company of other leopards, driven by curiosity and youthful insouciance. Some territorial males even establish relatively tolerant relationships with the females in their immediate vicinity, though their meetings are usually based around an available meal! The territories of females tend to be smaller than those of the males and the males’ territories often encompass several female territories, allowing them to sire multiple litters of cubs.
Female leopards are the genetic guardians of a region – once old enough, a female will most often establish a territory adjacent to that of her mother, with a minor degree of territorial shuffling as she reaches independence. Males, on the other hand, typically disperse at around 2.5-3 years of age in search of territory (and subsequent breeding rights) of their own and have been recorded moving hundreds of kilometres before establishing themselves. A male that moves into an area and takes over a territory will seek out and kill any existing offspring sired by the erstwhile territorial male; infanticide is one of the leading causes of cub mortality.
Most references to leopards describe them as nocturnal, and while it is undoubtedly true that they are often active at night, it is not uncommon to encounter a leopard moving or even hunting during the day, even in extreme temperatures. They are silent, efficient ambush predators and know exactly how to use their camouflage to best effect, often grabbing their prey before it registers what is happening. Their sheer strength allows them to catch and kill prey larger than themselves and they often stash these heavy carcasses in trees to avoid the attentions of other predators.
As consummate opportunists themselves, they will readily steal from other, smaller predators or munch on scavenged carcasses and there is little that a leopard will not eat. As males can be double the size of the females, they tend to target larger prey on average and have been known to kill (and hoist) giraffe and buffalo calves. Considering that a giraffe calf can weigh more than a 100kg, this is no mean feat! Some leopards develop hunting techniques particularly suited to specific kinds of prey; specialist skills that can be passed on to future.
As mentioned above, one of the leading causes of cub mortality in leopards is male infanticide and to mitigate this, a female will mate with as many males as possible. She will, however, mainly target the dominant male in the area, and ‘target’ is a deliberately chosen word. A female leopard in oestrus is not subtle in communicating her intentions to a receptive male. She has little time for coquettish behaviour; instead, she launches into what can only be described as a full-blown seductive dance which culminates in an artless positioning of her hindquarters in a way that leaves little room for misinterpretation. These lurid displays can continue for up to a week, and at its peak, the pair can mate as regularly as once every two minutes, before eventually limping off in different directions in search of a substantial meal.
Female leopards give birth to their first litter cubs at around 2.5-3 years old, and these cubs are born with their eyes closed and entirely helpless. She will hide them in a suitable den site which can be anything from a hollow beneath tree roots to an abandoned aardvark burrow and, throughout her life, a female may reuse old den sites for subsequent litters. As the cubs grow, she leaves them for longer periods to hunt (and presumably have some space from their needle-sharp teeth and claws) and when the cubs are around two months old, she will start leading them to kills.
Though leopard cubs are competent climbers from an early age, they are still very vulnerable, especially during the times they are left alone; cub mortality before independence can range between 50-90%. Other leopards, competitive predators such as lions and hyenas, baboons, snakes, and birds of prey are all potential threats to young leopards. At a later stage, their curious nature also has the potential to put them more at risk.
The cubs are dependent on their mothers for at least a year, and female offspring spend less time with their mothers at a much younger age than male offspring, who can spend up to 2 years or longer in their natal ranges.
And lastly the only truly predictable aspect of leopard behaviour is its unpredictability, and the Sabi Sand lodges are famous for their leopard sightings
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