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The leopard, Panthera pardus, is the smallest member of the big cat family that contains lions, tigers and jaguars. Known for its distinctive spotted pattern, the leopard is native to Africa and Asia, and divided into about 30 subspecies. Of the four big cats, leopards are considered to be the most adaptable to a variety of habitats and hunting styles, and despite habitat loss, remains a populous species.
Leopards feature a large skull and powerful jaws, and have a long body. In height, an average adult leopard is between 18-31 inches (45-80 cm). Head and back length usually reach between 3-6 ft (90-191 cm) with a 2-4 ft (60-110 cm) tail. The male leopard weighs considerably more than the female, reaching up to 200 lbs (90 kg) compared to the female’s 132 lbs (60 kg.) At birth, leopards weigh only 1 lb (.5 kg.)
The coloration of leopards is generally tawny or golden brown with dark brown or black irregularly-shaped spots covering most of the body. Some rainforest varieties feature a melanin-variance making them appear completely black. These creatures are often identified as black panthers, but are in truth leopards. At birth, leopards are gray with less defined spots that become more clear as the cubs mature.
Unlike lions, which live in social groups, both male and female leopards are solitary animals. Most male leopards avoid one another’s ranges, as fatal confrontations over prey have been observed when two leopards meet. Female and male leopards have overlapping ranges, but still generally stay apart unless they are mating.
Different subspecies of leopard have different mating procedures, with some being able to mate year-round while others have a specific breeding season. Litters of between one and six cubs are common, but a high mortality rate usually leaves only one or two alive. As cubs are helpless, mother leopards tend to find caves or difficult to access locations in which to give birth, in order to keep the young protected from predators. Cubs open their eyes about two weeks after birth, and begin hunting at three months old. Usually, litters remain with their mothers until age two, when they break off to find their own ranges.
The leopard is carnivorous, and will eat almost anything it can kill. African leopards tend to prey on antelope and monkeys, and Asian varieties often hunt deer. However, leopards have been known to eat bugs, birds, rodents, and occasionally giant African Rock pythons. Some observers have even seen leopards killing and eating crocodiles, although this is believed to be rare as most leopards seek prey that is unlikely to try to eat them.
Leopards are one of the only cats known to swim frequently and are quite dexterous in the water. On land, they are capable of speed bursts of 36 miles per hours (58 kph) and can vertically jump ten feet (3 m.) They are also proficient climbers, and have been observed dragging prey that outweighs them up into trees.
In captivity, leopards have been known to live over 20 years, more than twice their average lifespan in the wild. However, many people believe that big cats should not be kept in zoos or cages, as the small enclosure puts undue stress on an animal used to a gigantic natural range. In Africa, India and Asia several protected reserves exist where tourists may see leopards in their natural environment. Although it should never be forgotten that leopards are wild and unpredictable, some of the animals living in reserves are accustomed to tourists and will approach them.
As highly adaptable and opportunistic hunters, leopards have survived in the wild despite habitat loss. Although their population numbers make them the most numerous of the big cats, leopards face constant threat of poaching for their fur. If you wish to help protect the leopard, several conservation organizations exist that are always in need of donations and volunteers. On a more basic level, to help the species, avoid fur or do not shop in stores where leopard fur is sold.