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The leopard (panthera pardus)

The leopard (panthera pardus) : Compared to other wild cats, the leopard has relatively short legs and a long body with a large skull and its fur is marked with rosettes. It is similar in appearance to the known jaguar (Panthera onca), but has a smaller, lighter physique, and it’s resettles are generally smaller, more densely packed and without central spots. Both leopards and jaguars that are melanistic are known as black panthers. The leopard is commonly differentiated by its well camouflaged fur, opportunistic hunting behaviour, broad diet, strength, and ability to adapt to a variety of habitats ranging from rainforest to steppe, including arid and montane areas. It can run at an incredible speed of up to 58 kilometers per hour (36 mph)  

Identity

Leopards are masters of stealth and extremely difficult to trace and locate in the wild. They are light colored with distinctive dark spots that are known as rosettes because they resemble the shape of a rose flower. Note that, black leopards which commonly appear to be almost solid in color because their spots are hard to distinguish.

Characteristics

The leopard’s fur is generally soft and thick, notably softer on the belly than on the back. Its skin colour varies between individuals from pale yellowish to dark golden with dark spots grouped in rosettes. Its belly is whitish and its ringed tail is shorter than its body. Leopard living in arid regions are pale cream, yellowish to ochraceous and rufous in colour, those living in forests and mountains are much darker and deep golden. Spots fade toward the white underbelly and the insides and lower parts of the legs. Rosettes are circular in East African leopard populations, and tend to be squarish in southern African and larger in Asian leopard populations. The pattern of the rosettes is unique in each individual and this pattern is thought to be an adaptation to dense vegetation with patchy shadows, where it serves as camouflage.

Behavior

The leopard is a territorial and solitary animal where by adults associate only in the mating season. For the females, they continue to interact with their offspring even after weaning, and they have been observed sharing kills with their offspring when they cannot obtain any prey. They produce a number of vocalizations, including growls, snarls, meows and purrs. The roaring sequence in leopards consists mainly of grunts, also called “sawing”, as it resembles the sound of sawing wood. Cubs call their mother with an urr-urr sound. The whitish spots on the back of its ears are thought to play a role in communication. It has been hypothesized that the white tips of their tails may function as a “follow me” signal in intraspecific communication. However, no significant association were found between a conspicuous colour of tail patches and behavioural variables in carnivores.  Leopards are active mainly from dusk till dawn and rest for most of the day and for some hours at night in thickets, among rocks or over tree branches. Leopards have been observed walking 1-25 km (0.62-15.53 mi) across their range at night, they may even wander up to 75 km (47 mi) if disturbed and in some regions, they are nocturnal. In western African forests, they have been observed to be largely diurnal and hunting during twilight, when their prey animals are active, activity patterns vary between seasons. Leopards can climb trees very skillfully, often rest on tree branches and descend from trees headfirst. They can run at over 58 km/h (36 mph), leap over 6 m (20 ft) horizontally, and jump up to 3 m (9.8 ft) vertically.

Hunting and diet

The leopard is a carnivore that prefers a medium sized prey with a body mass ranging from 10-40 kg (22-88 Ib). Prey species in this weight range tend to occur in dense habitat and to form small herds. Species that prefer open areas and have well-developed anti-predator strategies are less preferred. More than 100 prey species have been recorded. The most preferred species are impala, bushbuck, common duiker, and chital. Primates preyed upon include white eyelid mangabeys, guenons, and gray langurs. Leopards also kill smaller carnivores like black-backed jackal, bat-eared fox, genet, and genet and cheetah. The leopard depends mainly on its acute senses of hearing and vision for hunting and it primarily hunts at night in most areas. In western African forests and Tsavo national park, they have also been observed hunting by day. They usually hunt on the ground.

Reproduction and life cycle

Mating in leopards varies depending on the region, as the leopards may mate overall year. The estrous cycle lasts about 46 days and the female usually is in the heat for 6 to 7 days and the gestation period lasts for 90 to 105 days. The babies of leopards are called cubs and at 18 to 22 months old, cubs become independent of their mothers. Based on limited data available from the wild, it appears that female snow leopards are ready to have their own cubs by age three. Male snow leopards become sexually mature by age four and captivity, snow leopards have been known to live for as long as 22 years.

Facts about leopards

Below are some of the facts about the famous leopards that you shouldn’t miss out;

Adaptable to their surroundings.

Leopards can live in any type of habitat, which explains why they are found in various parks located in different regions of Uganda. Be it a rainforest, a woodland, savanna grassland, mountains, shrub lands or swampy areas, leopards can thrive in whatever surroundings they are placed in. This sets them apart from other members of the large cat family such as the lion that endeavors to conquer territory near water sources to flourish.

Solitary animals

The fact that leopards are solitary animals is typical of the cat family, the exception being lions that live socially in prides. They will mate 70 to 100 times a day for approximately 6 days and even hunt together during this time. This will be followed by a gestation period of three months and the birth of cubs only 2 or 3 of which will have chances of surviving. After this, the male leopard may retreat back its solitary lifestyle. 

Not picky eaters

The diversity of their carnivorous diet has had a positive impact on their survival in the wild. They can eat almost any vertebrate from reptiles, fish, to warthogs, zebras, antelopes and the wildebeest. However, they have a preference for medium sized animals like antelopes. It is from their prey that they get the water content they need to survive, making it easy for them to spend so many days without a need for water.

The smallest of the large cat family

Their size could have played a role in making them the most agile climbers of all the large cats. Leopard’s habitat is mostly trees to escape midday heat and eat their prey in peace. They grow up to 92 to 190 centimeters (3 to 6.2 feet) with their tail adding about 99 centimeters to their general body length. There is also a variance in the weight of the male and female leopard with the male typically weighing 36 to 75 kg and the female, 21 to 60 kg. The fact that leopards are the smallest in their family has nothing to do with their strength. They can single-handedly carry up to 50 kg of prey up a tree.  

Ambush predators

Leopards stalk their target from a few meters away, waiting in ambush in case the target moves towards their direction. Once the prey is close enough, it kills it in one swift yet ferocious move usually by grabbing the neck and breaking it. For the smaller vertebrates such as rats, a single swat of the paw is sufficient to do the job. The speed of the leopard can go up to 35miles per hour and is quite an advantage in the hunting business of a leopard. Hunting for leopard’s offspring starts at the age of 3 to 4 months and is polished over time. 

Where to find leopards

Leopards have a preference for wooded or rocky habitats unlike cheetahs and thus can be found in virtually all habitats that offer adequate cover being the most common of Africa’s large felines. In Uganda, they are present in most National parks and forest reserves but can be seen most regularly along the Kazinga channel track in Queen Elizabeth National Park.

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