Combining opportunism, stealth and speed, the leopard is a fearsome predator. The distinctive coat of this species provides excellent camouflage and enables the leopard to conceal itself in the undergrowth or among rocks. It has exceptionally acute vision and hearing, and it is able move slowly and silently, frequently stalking to within metres of its prey without being detected (2) (3). The leopard is also capable of moving extremely quickly and, when in pursuit of prey or fleeing from danger, it may run at speeds of more than 60 kilometres an hour (3). Although the leopard does most of its hunting on the ground, it is an exceptionally agile climber, and will frequently store large kills in trees (3) (8). This habit is more common in areas where other large carnivores are also present (8).
When hunting, the leopard first locates its prey from a vantage point, such as a tree, rock or ridge, or at places where prey may go to feed or drink (7). It takes a wide variety of prey species, ranging from arthropods, reptiles, small birds and small- to medium-sized mammals, to large mammals such as antelope (1) (2) (3) (5) (8). There have even been several observations of a leopard killing a young giraffe, estimated to weigh up to three times the leopard’s body weight (8).
A large prey item, such as an adult antelope, may be enough to provide the leopard with enough food for two weeks, although the leopard will usually make a kill about every three days. A female with cubs may hunt twice as often as other leopards (5).
The leopard breeds throughout most of the year in most of Africa and India, while in the northern parts of Asia, breeding takes place mostly between December and February. In South Africa, the leopard breeds in the dry season, between July and October (3).
Usually, the female leopard produces a litter of two or three cubs after a gestation period of 90 to 105 days (5) (8), although in some cases up to six young may be born (2) (3) (5). The female may use a cave, thicket, hollow tree, abandoned burrow or a rock pile as a den (3), and the young remain hidden there until they are able to follow the female at around six to eight weeks old (2). Sometimes, the cubs may be moved between dens as they grow older (3).
The leopard cubs are weaned after three months, although they stay with the female for up to two years (2) (3) (5). The young cubs learn to hunt by playing, stalking and pouncing on a variety of objects from leaves and sticks to siblings (2). The leopard reaches sexual maturity at around two years old, and while adult males are almost entirely solitary, the female may spend nearly half of its life caring for young cubs (2).
The leopard has a fairly large home range, and will travel widely to visit each part of its range at regular intervals. This species communicates mainly by scent, using urine, secretions and faeces to scent mark along commonly used routes and at conspicuous places along trails and territory boundaries (3).