Focus on Wildlife: 7 wild facts you may not know about leopards!
The leopard is undoubtedly one of the world's most iconic big cats and commonly on the bucket lists of first-time and veteran safari-goers alike.
I have a saying on safari - "A leopard chooses when it wants to be seen." In other words, they are the masters of disguise - if a leopard does not want to be spotted, it will make itself invisible!
Because of their elusive and highly secretive nature, they have become one of the golden tickets when it comes to safari. Here, I've rounded up some of my favourite facts about leopards and discussed each in a little more detail. I've also left my favourite fact to the very end, so make sure you keep reading!
1. They are the ultimate loners!
Very rarely will you see more than one leopard together and, if you do, you have surely won the safari jackpot! These spotted felines are solitary creatures, spending most of their days alone and only coming together to mate, settle territorial disputes or steal food from each other.
While one might assume that being solitary is a limitation for big cats, particularly when it comes to hunting, it is actually the norm. Other close relatives of the leopard, like tigers and jaguars, are also known to be fairly solitary animals and it is lions that are the anomaly here, being the only truly social big cats.
Clearly there is some advantage to being a loner and if we look at the distribution of lions and leopards it becomes more clear. The leopard's solitary nature makes them extremely adaptable, their wide distribution across Africa and Asia testament to the variety of habitat types they can successfully survive in. Lions, on the other hand, are typically found in savanna or grassland environments and can only thrive in areas where there is prey large enough to sustain multiple, hungry pride members.
Which brings me to my next point...
2. Leopards might be living closer to home than you realise...
Leopards are capable of surviving in typically human landscapes, including the outskirts of cities like Johannesburg! All they need is sufficient cover, access to some sort of wild prey and a degree of tolerance from the local people (you might not even know they're there!)
Living in a range of different environments means these felines can't afford to be choosy about what they eat. While the diet of leopards in the Klaserie might consist mostly of impala, this is simply not an option for those inhabiting the mountains of the Western Cape. As such, they have a very generalised diet and will take almost anything they can get their paws on; from small rodents to birds, reptiles, monkeys, porcupines and other mammals up to the size of baby giraffe!
Despite this adaptability, leopards around the world have lost almost 75 percent of their historic range in recent years. While the species is not yet as threatened as some other big cats (like tigers, for example), leopards are facing a multitude of growing threats in the wild.
Many areas of natural habitat are being converted to farmland to sustain a growing human population, and the native herbivores that these leopards typically hunt are being replaced with livestock. Leopards are therefore coming into conflict with these livestock farmers more regularly and the illegal trade in leopard skins and parts is also on the rise.
3. Their whiskers are the longest of any cat species, and with good reason.
Whiskers are a type of modified hair, called vibrissae, that have evolved to be specialized touch organs. These hairs move when the leopard brushes against an object and nerve cells at the base of the hair follicle are stimulated. This sends a message straight to the brain which allows the leopard to paint a mental picture of its environment and the object that the hairs came into contact with. Amazing, huh?
Essentially a leopard’s entire body is covered with these special vibrissae which are constantly feeding the leopard information about the terrain it’s moving through. When it comes to hunting, it is the whiskers around the face that are undoubtedly the most important. If you look closely, you will notice that the length of a leopard's whiskers are far greater than that of a lion's. But, why is that?
Lions are typically group hunters, more often than not having the back-up of the pride should one of them accidentally make more noise than intended, perhaps by brushing past some obtrusive foliage and alerting their prey. Leopards, on the other hand, are solitary hunters and must make extremely calculated movements to make a successful kill or face starvation.
With whiskers roughly the same width as their body, a leopard can afford to keep its eyes locked onto its target while receiving constant feedback as to their exact position in their environment. This includes every branch or blade of grass, every obstacle that might make a sound or give away their location to prey. If it weren't for these sweeping whiskers, the leopard certainly wouldn't be the formidable hunter it is today.
4. They can hoist prey up to one-and-a-half times their own body weight!
Upon finding a herbivore dangling lifelessly from the branches of a tree, there is very little doubt as to how it got there. These magnificent felines are well-known for their propensity to hoist their kills up into trees and away from the hungry mouths of their competitiors, such as hyenas.
On average, leopards lose about one out of every five kills to other predators. However, hyenas are incapable of tree-climbing and lions can do so, but are more than double the weight of a leopard and are therefore unable to manouevre through the highest and smallest branches.
A study by big cat conservation organisation Panthera found that hoisted kills were 67% less likely to be stolen and documented leopards hoisting prey that were one-and-a-half times their own weight. To put this in perspective, this would be the equivalent of the average adult human hoisting 260 Big Mac burgers up a two-storey building in one go!
Leopards are awe-inpsiring cats and perfectly adapted to their arboreal lifestyles. They have powerfully-built shoulders and forelimbs; sharp, protractile claws; an incredibly high power-to-weight ratio; a mobile backbone and long, slender tail to help balance themselves while climbing.
5. Mating is nothing short of exhausting...
Much like lions, leopards also engage in a rigorous mating schedule. Being solitary animals, males and females first need to find each other in the dense bush which, without the aid of a GPS, is easier said than done! The male will often follow a scent trail left by the female, who marks her territory by spraying urine. She will increase the regularity with which she does this to assist the male in locating her.
While many herbivores only breed at certain times of year, big cats do not have a breeding season. Instead, the female is stimulated to ovulate and release an egg through the act of mating. This is because, unlike humans, leopard females do not produce eggs unless they are needed, as this is considered a waste of energy.
Once stimulated, the days that ensue are nothing short of exhausting for the two felines, who will mate every 15 minutes for up to 5 days. Averaged out, this means a pair may mate up to 250 times! Surely all of this effort has to result in some cubs, right?
While we like to hope that all this repeated courtship is not in vain, it seems leopard females actually have a low chance of conceiving. Studies elsewhere in South Africa have suggested that females may need to go through this entire mating ritual two or three times before they successfully fall pregnant. Phew!
6. Daughters will often inherit a section of their mother's territory.
Male and female cubs are treated quite differently by their mother as they grow towards adulthood and the ever-daunting milestone of independence. Female leopards are solely responsible for parental care, suckling their cubs for the first 3–4 months and then continuing to provide most of their food until the cubs reach independence.
In South Africa, the age that leopard cubs leave their mothers can be anywhere from 7 to 36 months, although most will become independent at around 18 months old. Sons tend to disperse further away from their natal area (genetically speaking, it's not ideal to mate with your mother or sisters) whereas daughters often inherit a portion of their mother’s territory. They will expand this range as they get older and more confident in their environment, which is also necessary for keeping the peace with their mother, who will inevitably want to raise more cubs in the area over the coming years.
By ceding off portions of their territory to their daughters, the hope is that mothers will reach old age with a small community of daughters who can continue her genetic lineage in the area. Of course, the wilderness doesn't always operate according to our models but, simply put, if you have invested 18 months of your time and energy into raising this cub, you want to keep her close to make sure she has the best chance of survival.
7. The urine of male leopards smells like buttered popcorn!
Yes, it is true. Our guides have stopped numerous times on safari to share the movie-theatre aroma with their guests after recognising the distinct scent wafting from a nearby tree or shrub.
Male leopards mark their territory by spraying their urine onto certain landmarks, re-asserting their dominance in the area and sending a strong warning signal to other males to stay away. It also serves to advertise his presence to any females who may be nearby and ready to mate.
Studies of a small Asian mammal called a binturong, whose urine also has a characteristic popcorn-like smell, believe the trait is caused by a chemical compound known as 2-AP. Interestingly, when a popcorn kernel is heated, a chemical reaction occurs between the proteins and sugars that also creates 2-AP.
Although no such study has confirmed the presence of 2-AP in the urine of South African leopards, it has been found in that of their tiger cousins over in India. It is therefore highly likely that this chemical compound is also responsible for the smell on safari that you certainly won't forget in a hurry!
Article written by Elly Gearing with photos courtesy of Nerise Bekker and Elly Gearing.