by Cleve Cheney
Figure 1: Leopard are awe-inspiring and impressive animals
General description of the species
Leopard are the smallest of the ‘big’ cats, the other three being lion, tiger and jaguar. Leopard have spots arranged in rosettes. Males weigh 60–80 kg and females 35−45 kg. They have relatively short legs, a long body, long tail and a large head. A leopard can run at about 60 km/h but may attain a charge speed over a short distance of close to 70 km/h. They are extremely powerful animals for their size (Figure 1 and 2).
Behaviour and habits
Leopard are intelligent, shrewd and crafty animals and beautiful to boot. They are real survivors. Supporting this statement is the fact that these animals often live in close proximity to or even within human settlements without people even being aware of their presence. Hunting leopard is not as easy an undertaking as some would lead us to believe. Their suspicious and retiring nature, combined with finely honed senses, makes this species one of the more challenging of predators to hunt. They have excellent hearing and eyesight and a reasonable sense of smell. They will quickly and silently melt away into the undergrowth if they become aware of humans approaching (that is of course if they have not chosen to select man as a prey species), and hunting them on foot is not a realistic proposition – especially if time is a limiting factor.
Figure 2: A big male leopard in prime condition
Another aspect that makes these animals difficult to hunt is that they are, by and large, creatures of the night – they are in their element in the dark. Occasionally they will become active at dusk and may be observed returning to their secretive haunts just before or at daybreak. Although daylight sightings of leopard are not frequent they are also not uncommon. The fortunate wildlife enthusiast or hunter may occasionally find a leopard during the day, resting on some rocky outcrop or suspended atop a tree limb in a state of regal repose (Figure 3).
There are many records of leopard in Africa and India having become man-killers and they can be notoriously dangerous when wounded, as many hunters have discovered to their dismay (Figure 4). According to records of the Zimbabwean department of national parks and wildlife management, leopard account for no less than 86 per cent of recorded injuries sustained to PHs, their clients or trackers, making it one of the most dangerous animals to hunt. Jim Corbett was a well-known professional hunter who wrote a number of books on his exploits in dispatching man-eating leopard and tigers in India (Figure 5).
The average litter size is 2−3 cubs and the young remain with the mother for 18–24 months. They are highly protective of their young. Leopard feed on birds, reptiles, and mammals – from the size of rats and mice to porcupine, warthog, impala and the young of larger antelope. Leopard drink daily when water is available but can survive on moisture obtained from prey animals for a reasonable period. They are solitary except when courting or mating.
Figure 3: Leopard are fond of lying on rocky outcrops or on the branches of large trees.
Figure 5: Jim Corbett became famous for dealing with man-eating leopard and tigers in India.
Figure 4: Hunter Carl Akeley was mauled by a leopard. He managed to kill the leopard (fortunately not a large specimen) with his bare hands!
Hunting the species
Leopard are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN (International Union for Conser-vation of Nature) Red List because popu-lations are declining in large parts of their previous range. They are threatened by habitat loss, pest control and illegal hunting (poaching).
Leopard permits are sometimes issued when a local leopard has become a ‘problem’ and is killing domestic livestock.
Cost to hunt
Prices may vary from country to country. The figures below are an example:
• Zimbabwe and Namibia: $4 700 (trophy fee – not including daily rates and other fees – 14-day hunt)
• Tanzania: $6 000 (trophy fee – not including daily rates – 21-day hunt)
Foreign hunters wishing to export / import a leopard trophy would require a Cites permit if the animal was hunted south of Gabon, Congo, Zaire, Uganda and Kenya. Leopard may not be hunted with a bow in Namibia and South Africa.
Sign and tracking
Leopard will indicate their presence in a number of ways. They can be vocal at times and their hoarse ‘sawing’ grunt (almost always at night) used to advertise territory, will confirm their presence. Other leopard sign include tracks and scats. Leopard tracks are described as ‘paws without claws’. They have five toes on the front feet (including dewclaws) and four on the hind feet. This does not mean they do not have claws. They most decidedly do and they are extremely effective weapons of attack or defence; it is just that when walking normally, the claws are retracted into sheaths and do not register in the track. The spoor is 70−100 mm in length and shows four toes on both front and rear; there is usually no sign of claws (the dewclaws on the front feet sit too high to register in the track). The pad in the print shows three clearly defined lobes along the trailing edge (Figure 6).
Figure 6: Leopard tracks
Leopard tracks show 4 toes in the spoor.
The main pad has a distinctive 3-lobed
Tracks are about 60−80 mm in width 70−100 mm in length.
Rear tracks are slightly narrower.
The size of the track is bigger than that of an adult caracal or serval but much smaller than that of an adult lion. Although very similar to these three species, the leopard track may be distinguished by its size and more rounded shape as compared to lion. If leopard are present in an area, spoor is often found along roads, tracks, dry river beds (Figure 7) and around waterholes, as these animals, like other cats, are not too fond of ‘bundu bashing’, especially in wet grass or undergrowth.
Leopard scat is described as sausage-shaped, segmented and with a tapered end. The diameter is about 20−40 mm. It usually contains a large amount of hair, and undigested bones and hooves are sometimes also present. The colour, when fresh, is olive to light brown, becoming darker at first as it ages and finally turning to creamy white (Figure 8).
Figure 7: Leopard tracks in a dry river bed
Figure 8: Leopard scat
Leopard scat is sausage shaped and tapers on one end.
It is olive green to brown when fresh, becoming darker during the intermediate stage and then whitening with age
Feeding sign is another clue to leopard activity. Prone to kill more than it can immediately consume, leopard often haul their prey up into a tree where it is firmly secured in a convenient fork to keep it away from scavengers and to be returned to at a later time (Figure 9). Claw marks are usually evident on tree trunks into which prey has been hoisted (Figure 10). The power of these cats becomes evident when they haul fairly large species – often weighing more than themselves – up into trees. If prey has been left on the ground, the leopard will hide it by covering it with vegetation.
Other signs of leopard feeding are the following: the prey animal is eaten from the buttocks’ end and the shoulder; internal organs are consumed but the stomach and intestines are discarded and often buried under debris. If driven by hunger, a leopard will eat carrion.
Territorial marking is another sign to be on the lookout for. Leopard make use of urine, combined with scratching with the hind feet, to mark territories (Figure 11). When fresh, the urine gives off a pungent, easily discernible odour and the scratch marks are clearly visible. ASM
Figure 9: A leopard kill (impala) suspended in a marula tree
Figure 10: Leopard claw marks on the trunk of a marula tree
Figure 11: Leopard scent-marking territory
Cheney, CS. 2013. The Comprehensive Guide to Tracking. Safari Press.
Mellon, L. 1975. African Hunter. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York and London.
Robertson, K. 1999. The Perfect Shot. Safari Press.
Robertson, K. 2007. Africa’s Most Dangerous. Safari Press.