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Celebrating International Leopard Day

Celebrating International Leopard Day

At 50-90 kg, leopards are one of the top five giant cats in the world. They are widely spread throughout sub-Saharan Africa and western, southern, eastern, and south-eastern Asia. They can thrive in various habitats, including deserts, semi-deserts, montane regions, savanna grasslands, rainforests, and urban and suburban areas.

Leopards are secretive solitary animals that only meet to breed. When females are in heat, they use scent markings and vocalizations to attract males. After a gestation period of about three months, females produce a litter of one to three cubs. Cubs stay with their mother until they can hunt and establish their territory, usually between one and three years of age.

As ambush predators, leopards rely on their spotted coats for camouflage. They feed on various prey, including impala, warthog, baboons, birds, reptiles, insects, and livestock. They are exceptionally strong and can hoist prey items such as impala (30-75 kg) up a tree to protect their meals from being appropriated by competing predators. 

Conservation status

Despite their wide distribution range, leopards are listed as vulnerable because their numbers are declining. The nine different subspecies have vast differences in abundance and conservation status. The African leopard has the most extensive distribution and is classified as vulnerable, while the Amur, Arabian, and Javan leopard subspecies are critically endangered. 

Threats

1. Habitat loss

Habitat loss and fragmentation make it harder for leopards to find large enough hunting grounds and for dispersing cubs to establish their territories. 

2. Reduced prey

Over the last few decades, large herbivores have been declining worldwide, even in protected areas, due to habitat loss, decreased rainfall, insufficient management and funding of protected areas, and bushmeat poaching. 

3. Human-wildlife conflict

Outside of protected areas, leopards often kill livestock, leading to retaliatory killings by humans. 

4. Unsustainable-harvesting

Leopard populations are also negatively affected by poaching and unsustainable trophy hunting.   

Conservation projects in Southern Africa

There are several leopard conservation projects in southern Africa. The Cape Leopard Trust protects leopards through research and environmental education programmes and prevents leopard livestock predation. In the Cederberg Conservancy, The Cape Leopard Trust reduced retaliatory leopard killings from up to 17 per year before their project started in 2003 to less than five yearly. 

One way they reduce conflict with livestock farmers is by encouraging the use of guardian dogs, such as the Anatolian shepherd, to protect their livestock. Anatolian shepherds are loyal, protective, and strong enough to deter predators such as leopards. This method has also been used in Namibia to reduce conflict with cheetahs. 

Community wildlife conservancy models, implemented in several African countries (Namibia, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Tanzania), develop conservancies in collaboration with local communities where communities manage and benefit from local wildlife through tourism initiatives. 

Population surveys, such as the South Africa Leopard Monitoring Project, use camera traps and software that identify individuals based on their unique coat patterns to estimate leopard numbers, distribution, and movements. Increased surveying and monitoring of leopard populations throughout their range are essential for informing management and legislation decisions (such as hunting quotas), evaluating leopard conservation status, and evaluating the effectiveness of conservation strategies.  

Conclusion

Their secretive nature means that we still have a lot to learn about these animals: the actual extent of their population decline, their habitat and prey preferences, and the best ways to deter them from killing livestock. Can we learn enough about them to stabilize their remaining populations? Let’s get the word out there and support the valiant efforts of those dedicated to saving this enigmatic creature.

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Leopard sighting - Pixie Pan in Pridelands

I want to share Ali Burke’s favourite sighting with you today. As an EcoTraining 55-day Field Guide student, Ali had many big adventures and saw unique places at Pridelands. However, she never expected that this day would make such an impact on her. On the morning of their last day, everyone was excited to jump into the game drive vehicle early, knowing that today would be great. As the morning progressed, they witnessed an incredible leopard sighting! It was Ali’s first time seeing this magnificent creature. What made it even more special was that the leopard, Pixie Pan, had just made a kill and dragged it into a Maroela tree. It was the perfect ending to their time at Pridelands!

References

Balme GA, Batchellor A, De Woronin Britz N, Seymour G, Grover M, Hes L, Macdonald DW, Hunter LTB. 2012. Reproductive success of female leopards Panthera pardus: the importance of top-down processes. Mammal Review. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2907.2012.00219.x

Stein AB, et al. 2016. Panthera pardus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T15954A102421779. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-1.RLTS.T15954A50659089.e

Ripple WJ, Newsome TM, Wolf C, Dirzo R, Everatt KT, Galetti M, Hayward MW, Kerley GIH, Levi T, Lindsey PA, Macdonald DW, Malhi Y, Painter LE, Sandom CJ, Terborgh J, Van Valkenburgh B. 2015. Collapse of the world’s largest herbivores. Science Advances 1: e1400103. https://www.science.org/doi/pdf/10.1126/sciadv.1400103

Scholte P, Pays O, Adam S, Chardonnet B, Fritz H, Mamang J-B, Prins HHT, Renaud P-C, Tadjo P, Moritz M. 2021. Conservation overstretches and long-term decline of wildlife and tourism in the central African savannas. Conservation Biology. 36(2): e13860. https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13860

Cape Leopard Trust. 2024. https://capeleopard.org.za/

Cape Leopard Trust. 2024. Human-Wildlife Conflict. https://capeleopard.org.za/research/conservation/conflict

The Green Times. 2011. Save the Leopard with Anatolian Dogs. The Green Times. https://thegreentimes.co.za/save-the-leopards-with-anatolian-dogs/

The Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre – De Wildt. 2024. Anatolian Sheppard Dog. The Ann Van Dyk Cheetah Centre. https://dewildt.co.za/species/anatolian-sheppard-dog/#:~:text=The%20Anatolians%20have%20reduced%20livestock,to%20the%20cheetah%20conservation%20effort.&text=Anatolian%20Shepherd%20Dogs%20also%20make%20good%20actors.

Wenborn M, Svensson MS, Katupa S, Collinson R, Nijman V. 2022. Lessons on the Community Conservancy Model for Wildlife Protection in Namibia. Journal of Environment and Development. 31(4): 375-394. https://doi.org/10.1177/10704965221121026

Berndt J, Garbett R. 2022. Leopard Monitoring Report – 2021. The Western Soutpansberg. Panthera. 10pp. https://primateandpredatorproject.wordpress.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/western-soutpansberg-leopard-monitoring-report-2021_final.pdf  

About the Author:
Picture of Arista Botha

Arista Botha

Arista Botha is a freelance scientific writer with a background in research. She has a master’s in wildlife conservation physiology and several scientific publications. Arista worked as an associate research officer at the University of the Witwatersrand for five years while registered for a PhD. Instead of completing her PhD and pursuing an academic career, she became a writer. Her key areas of interest include wildlife, ecology, and the conservation of plants and animals.

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