The beautiful Leopard is at the top of the wishlists of many visitors to South Africa’s wild places, and certainly deserves its position among Africa’s “Big Five“. One of the most adaptable of the large carnivores, their build and colouration is supremely attuned to the environment in which they live. Depending on the harshness of the environment and the size of prey available, the weight of adult males can vary between 20 and 90 kilograms (females weigh slightly less), with a shoulder height ranging between 55 and 80cm.
Leopards have adapted to every habitat on the African continent, from the driest deserts to the tropical rainforest and high mountain ranges. They are just as catholic in their diet, which ranges from insects, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and rodents to large mammals and even other predators (including jackals, spotted hyenas and cheetahs) or carrion, though they normally prefer commonly occurring medium-sized antelope and wild pigs. Though they are not dependent on the availability of surface water they will drink regularly if it is available. Their penchant for storing the carcasses of their prey up high in the branches of trees, where it is inaccessible to competing predators, allows them to feed from the same carcass for up to 6 days.
Solitary by nature, Leopards only associate with others of their kind when mating or when cubs accompany their mother. Adults of both sexes hold territories that may cover enormous areas, depending on the availability of prey, are advertised by their rasping call and marked with urine, scat and scrape marks against prominent trees, and defended viciously, sometimes to the death, against interlopers of the same sex. Male territories are larger and can overlap with the areas of up to six females. Leopards are nocturnal, with most activity occurring from dusk to dawn, resting up in the deep shade of tree canopies, thickets and caves. They love basking in the early morning or late afternoon sun. Leopards can reach a speed of up to 60km/h, but can only maintain it for short bursts and rely on their camouflage and expert stalking skills to get within range of their prey.
Female Leopards usually give birth to 2 or 3 cubs (range from 1 to 6) after a short 3 month gestation at any time of the year. Newborn cubs are kept hidden in caves, among boulders, in thickets and even burrows while the mother is out hunting, until they start accompanying her at the age of about two to four months. Cubs become independent anywhere between 12 and 24 months of age, though only about half of the cubs born reach that age. Lions and spotted hyenas will attack and kill adult Leopards, while even jackals pose a threat to unguarded cubs.
Leopards have a wide distribution in Africa and Asia, but their populations have been reduced and become confined to increasingly isolated pockets over most of that range, leading the IUCN to classify it as “vulnerable” due to the persistent threats of illegal hunting and loss of habitat and prey. In South Africa, Leopards can be found in the mountains of the Western and Eastern Cape, along the Namibian and Botswana borders with the Northern Cape, in the Drakensberg range and northern Kwazulu-Natal, and widely in the North-West, Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces, but their secretive nature makes it virtually impossible to determine their population size, with the EWT estimating the number of leopards occurring in South Africa between 2,800 and 11,600. In our experience, the Kruger National Park, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Mapungubwe National Park, Pilanesberg National Park, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, iSimangaliso Wetland Park (especially the Eastern Shores section) and Ithala Game Reserve presents the best chance of finding these elusive cats on a self-drive safari in South Africa.