A leopard sleeping in a tree © Getty Images

A leopard sleeping in a tree © Getty Images

What are leopards?

Leopards are mammals, and members of the cat family. They are in the group of cats called the 'big cats'.

There are about 20 different sub-species (breeds, or kinds) of leopard, such as Persian leopard and snow leopard.

Habitat and distribution (where they are found)

Leopards live in quite a variety of habitats, such as rainforests, cliffs, swampy forests and rocky mountain areas right up to the snow line. They are found in parts of Africa, the Middle East and in Asia.

Appearance and habits

A black leopard has black fur. Look closely to see the black spots. © Getty Images

A black leopard has black fur. Look closely to see the black spots. © Getty Images

Leopards are about 2 metres long from the nose to the tip of the tail. Their coats are golden-yellow with black rosette markings. The markings are not only on the fur, but on the skin as well. Black leopards, sometimes incorrectly called black panthers, have black fur and black rosette markings that can be seen faintly when the cat is in strong sunlight.

Male leopards weigh from 45-76 kg, and are heavier than females, which weigh from 34-62kg.

Leopards have good eyesight and excellent hearing. These senses help locate prey. Leopards have 32 teeth, 4 of which are long, pointed canine teeth. Canine teeth are used to kill prey. Other teeth are for cutting flesh and grinding bone.

The leopard's sharp claws move in and out of its paws (retractable claws), and are for fighting, for holding prey and for marking trees in the leopard's territory.

Leopards are strong enough to drag their prey up a tree away from other animals

Leopards are strong enough to drag their prey up a tree away from other animals

Leopards are the strongest of all the big cats, and are able to drag prey up into a tree. It is also an excellent swimmer. The leopard is capable of running just under 65 kilometres per hour for brief periods. It can leap more than 6 metres horizontally, and 3 metres up. A leopard's tail, which helps it keep its balance when running and climbing, is about a metre long.

Hunting and Diet

Leopards eat meat. Animals that eat meat are known as carnivores. Leopards stalk their prey.  They get as close as possible and then race at the animal from behind, pouncing on it and biting the neck or throat. When the prey is dead, the leopard drags it up into a tree and eats it. They hunt and eat mostly at night.

A leopard cub in long grass © Getty Images

A leopard cub in long grass © Getty Images

Life Cycle

When it is time to mate, females attract males with their scent. Males usually leave the females after mating. After mating, the female is pregnant for about 100 days. She gives birth to 2 or 3 cubs.

The cubs are born with their markings and with their eyes shut. They suckle milk from their mother for up to 1 year. From about 6 weeks of age the female feeds them meat which she has chewed and swallowed and then brought back up into her mouth (regurgitated). Young leopards learn to hunt by playing with each other and by watching their mother hunt from when they are about 6 months old. From about 1 year of age, the cubs hunt with their mother. Cubs leave their mother to find a territory of their own when they are about 2 years old.  Leopards live mostly on their own and in the wild can live for up to 12 years.

Conservation Status and Threats

A leopard in a tree ©Getty

A leopard in a tree ©Getty

Leopards are in danger from floods, forest fires and from humans who hunt them for their fur or because the leopards prey on their farm animals. Leopards are a protected species in many countries.

Some kinds of leopard (the Arabian, the Amur, the North African leopard and Anatolian leopards) are considered to be Critically Endangered.  

Some kinds of leopard (the Caucasus, the Sri Lankan, the North Chinese and the Javan leopards) are considered to be Endangered.

All other leopards are classified as Least Concern, meaning they are not endangered.

What is a panther?

While both leopards and jaguars have golden yellow fur with black spotty markings, there are some leopards and jaguars with black fur and black markings. A black leopard or jaguar is often called a ‘black panther’. However there is no separate breed of  wild cat called panther. The word 'panthera' is part of the leopard's scientific name, which is possibly why it is called panther.

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