THE MOST ELUSIVE OF THE BIG FIVE
Seeing a leopard in the wild is quite a rare occurrence as these big cats are not only nocturnal but exceptionally shy and spend much of their time in trees. They hunt a large variety of prey, taking advantage of any opportunity for a meal and are quite cunning in their methods. Their dark coloured spots, called rosettes, afford them good camouflage in the dappled shade of the tree branches where they rest during the day. The rosettes are unique to each leopard, just like fingerprints. Lions and hyena frequently try to snatch a leopard’s prey so they will get their kill back to the safety of the trees as quickly as possible. They can carry a carcass that weighs twice their own weight high into the branches.
Leopards are territorial creatures, marking their ranges with “popcorn scented” urine and claw marks. Their territories are extensive and they roam nomadically. The female will settle in one spot after giving birth, though, keeping her cubs hidden for the first two months or so and then moving them from hiding place to hiding place to keep them safe until they are old enough to fend for themselves at about two years old. Leopards are strong swimmers and will happily hunt for fish and crabs. Leopards are found in a variety of habitats from the savannahs of Africa to the mountains of Asia and jungles of South America and they vary in colour depending on where they live. Leopards living in shady jungles are predominantly black (eg Jaguar of South America) whilst those living in snowy mountain environs are almost completely white (Snow Leopard in Central Asia).
Challenges & Solutions
Leopards are very adaptable and they have managed to maintain populations which are estimated at ten times those of other big cats – researchers think that there are about half a million leopards worldwide. When other animals are challenged by the loss of habitat, leopards are able to adapt to their new surroundings and have thrived. Despite this, leopards are still in danger from poachers who kill them for medicinal purposes and their coats. As leopards will eat a variety of prey, livestock is often an easy target resulting in the leopard being killed by the farmer who considers it a pest. More and more leopard are stalking livestock in villages putting them in danger.
The main efforts in leopard conservation are focused on preserving the natural habitats of these shy animals so that they are not forced to prey on livestock in villages. Conservationists are also working to educate people about proper care of their livestock so that they are not easy targets for leopards. A particularly successful measure is encouraging the keeping of livestock in predator-proof bomas at night. Research into the habits of leopards through GPS tracking and observation is also crucial to ensure that leopard populations are effectively managed in the future.