Description and biology

A large member of the cat family, the leopard is known for its light to tawny brown coat patterned with black spots and rosettes, or rings. Unlike those of the jaguar, the rosettes of the leopard never have spots inside them. Some leopards are born with a black coat that still has the characteristic spotting.

Found mainly in southern Asia, these cats are commonly (but incorrectly) called black panthers. An average leopard has a head and body length of 38 to 75 inches (97 to 191 centimeters) and weighs 65 to 155 pounds (30 to 70 kilograms). Its tail can reach a length of up to 3 feet (1 meter).

Leopards are solitary mammals that hunt primarily at night. Their diet includes monkeys and other small mammals, birds, rodents, and insects. Good climbers, leopards often store their dead prey in trees. They cover a home range of about 4 to 20 square miles (10 to 51 square kilometers) in search of food.

Male and female leopards come together only to mate, which can occur at any time during the year. After a gestation (pregnancy) period of 90 to 105 days, a female leopard gives birth to a litter of three to five cubs. She alone cares for the cubs, hiding them until they are six to eight weeks old. The young leopards nurse for several months and may stay with the mother for 18 to 20 months.

Habitat and current distribution

Leopards have the ability to adapt to almost any environment. As long as prey is available, these cats inhabit areas ranging from semidesert to dense rain forest. They are found in Africa south of the Sahara Desert and in southeastern Asia.

Leopards are considered endangered throughout their range. The only exception is the region south of the African countries of Gabon, Congo, Congo Republic, Uganda, and Kenya. Because leopards are more numerous here, they are considered only threatened.

History and conservation measures

Like most spotted cats, the leopard has been a victim of the fur trade. Although global treaties protect the leopard, poachers still hunt the animal to sell on the international market. In Africa, it is legal to hunt leopards for sport.

Contact between humans and leopards has not favored the animals. As more and more of their habitat has been converted to farm and ranch land, leopards have been forced to prey on domestic livestock. In response, farmers and ranchers have actively sought to poison the animals.

Leopards have protection only in national parks, where they are considered a tourist attraction.