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The leopard (Panthera pardus) is a large felid (cat) that inhabits a wide geographical range-from sub-Saharan Africa through the Indian subcontinent till the Russian Far-East. Earlier studies based on physical features claimed that there were 27 leopard subspecies with 14 of them occurring in Asia and four in India. However, recent DNA studies identified 9 leopard subspecies worldwide, of which the subspecies Panthera pardus fusca occupies the Indian subcontinent. Sri Lanka is home to a unique subspecies Panthera pardus kotiya. Africa is thought to be the origin of the species with a migration into Asia and further eastwards, occurring around 170,000 to 300,000 years ago.

The leopard is probably the most successful large cat that still occupies most of its historical range and inhabits diverse habitats ranging from moist tropical forests to deserts. In the Indian subcontinent, it occurs from Kashmir in the north to Sri Lanka in the south and from the Sindh province in the west to the eastern-most states. Its success is partly due to the fact that it is a not as large as the tiger, is very catholic in its diet and is not dependant on free water. However, despite its adaptability, it faces threats throughout its range due to the hunting for its pelt and other body parts, loss of its prey base for meat and shrinking habitat.

The rarest of the leopard subspecies is the Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) that occurs in the easternmost region of its global range. In India, despite its wide range and pockets of what might appear as local abundance, the leopard is listed as a Schedule I species in the Wildlife Protection Act (1972), according it the highest protection status possible in India. Habitat loss and fragmentation are important reasons for their decline. Like other large solitary cats, leopards follow a land tenure system where males and females have their own territories and so need large areas to sustain a breeding population.

Natural History of leopards

Leopards, or panthers as they are also referred interchangeably, belong to the order Carnivora, Family Felidae and subfamily Pantherinae. There is a wide variation in the ground colour of their coat: from grey to ochre with some variants also being black in colour. The latter are usually denizens of moist tropical forests and not a different subspecies. In India, E.P. Gee, states that there are variations in the body size and coat colour depending on the habitat the leopards live in with the animals in drier and more open areas being smaller and lighter coloured.

The length of the body and head varies from 95-150 cm, tail lengths vary from 60 - 95 cms, height at shoulder is about 60 cm and body weight varies from about 25- 90 kgs. Males weigh about 37- 90 kg whereas females usually fall in the 25- 60 kg range. A study conducted in Thailand found the male weights to be around 60 and 70 kg and female weight around 21 kg. In the warmer tropical areas, their breeding does not seem to have seasonal patterns.

The oestrus cycle is every 45 days and lasts for about 7 days. The gestation period is in the range of 84- 105 days. Cubs weigh about 0.5 kgs at birth and their eyes open after 10 days. Litter sizes from the wild have been recorded at 2 - 3. Cubs accompany their mothers from about 4 - 6 months old and remain with their mother till they are about 1.5 - 2 years old. There are instances of siblings staying together for several months before separating. The average age at which the female leopards in the wild reproduce is about 3 years and the males first reproduce on average when 2 - 3 years old.

The mortality rates recorded for sub-adult and younger leopards are much higher than recorded for the adults, with 41% mortality for those under the age of one year. Average annual mortality for subadults (1.5 - 3.5 years of age) estimated for the African leopards is at 32% with the females having a mortality rate of 40% and males 20%. This high rate of mortality for the subadults is thought to be due to poorer hunting success. At the same study site, adult annual mortality averaged 19% (Old males 30%, prime males 17%, old females 17% prime females 10%). In the wild, leopards live upto 10 - 15 years.

Home ranges of leopards

Generally, home ranges of male leopards contain or overlap with the ranges of many females and home ranges of the females are exclusive with little overlap, shared only by a female’s offspring until they become independent. After independence, male subadults are known to disperse across larger distances in search of their territory than the females who could occupy areas close to their maternal range.

There have been very few instances of radio tracking studies on the Indian leopards. One such study was conducted in Nagarhole, Karnataka, India, where two radio collared leopards were seen to have home ranges between 20 - 30 sq km. Home range sizes for leopard studied in Nepal and Sri Lanka vary from 8 - 40 sq km. In Chitwan NP, Nepal, the home rage of an adult female leopard living within the park was 7 sq km and for two adult females living outside the Park, home ranges were 6 and 13 sq km. Schaller’s studies in Kanha NP, India, found that in the center of the Park where tigers were more numerous, leopards were not permanent residents but were common around the villages located at the periphery of the park.

Overall, it appears that commonly, home range sizes vary from about 15 - 50 sq km. Studies from Serengeti NP found a leopard with cub to occupy a home range of 16 sq km. In another region of Serengeti, leopards had larger home ranges of 40 - 60 sq km. In a livestock ranch in Kenya, adult females had home ranges of 17 sq km and 37 sq km was the home range for adult males. In Thailand, females had ranges of 11 - 17 sq km and males have ranges of 27 - 37 sq km. However, home ranges of leopards are seen to vary enormously in different study sites [from 3 sq km to about 1,160 sq km] and are likely to be dependant on the food resources present in the area.

Prey items of leopards

A felid weighing 45 kg requires 1.5 - 2.5 kg/day of food or about 35 gms of meat per kg body weight per day is required. Average prey weight ranges between 5 - 70 kg and usually less than 50 kg with mean prey weight as obtained from scat analysis being 24.6 kg in Zaire. Prey items of leopards are very variable, with a range from small insects, crustaceans to large ungulates. There is a report of an adult male eland (which can weigh 900kg) being taken by a leopard.

Studies in Nagarhole, India, found the range of prey weights to vary from 31 - 175 kgs with the mean prey weight being 38 kg and it was also seen that wild boar were under represented in the leopard diet. Leopard kills in Chitwan NP, Nepal were in the 25 .- 50 kg range with the average prey weight being 28 kgs and on average leopards made their kills in less than once in 6 days. Mean prey weight of leopards in a forest in Zaire was seen to be 25 kg with ungulates and primates being the most common prey items identified from scat analysis.

However, in a study based on scat analysis in the Central African Republic, average prey weight of leopards was much less than reported elsewhere at 7 kgs whereas in Congo it was seen to be 25 kg. Overall, it appears from literature that principal prey items are likely to be related primarily to the available prey base. In some sites, primates form an important component, in others rodents and in yet others medium sized ungulates. However, it does appear that in habitats where wild prey is available in good numbers, the diet of the leopard consists mainly of the wild species.

Incidences of leopards taking livestock, and dogs are quite common in the Indian subcontinent where leopards live in the fringe areas of villages. At the fringes of a village in Bandipur TR, India, a two year study found that 26 % of leopard kill was domestic cattle and dogs with the remaining being wild prey species. In Himachal Pradesh, scat analysis of leopard prey items the Majhatal WLS found a high rate of predation on domestic animals (cattle, dogs and goats in that order) despite an abundant presence of wild prey species.

However, the Sanctuary was also home to about 750 humans (17 villages) who reared livestock. In Chitwan, a comparative study of leopards living inside Chitwan National Park found that the leopard prey consisted of mainly wild species of weight less than 50 kgs while leopards that lived outside the Park fed mainly on domestic prey species under 50 kg. Leopard are also known to feed from dead and rotting carcasses and if disturbed at their kills they are known to return therefore making them more susceptible to being poisoned.

Legal status of the leopard in India

The leopard was accorded full protection by awarding it the Schedule I status in 1983 which gives it the highest protection in India. This would have resulted in better protection for the leopards from hunters who may have killed them for sport however, illegal trade in its body parts is still rampant and with high monetary stakes, greater accessibility and networking, it is the leopard that is increasingly being persecuted for its body parts compared to the tiger. The population estimate for the leopard is India is about 14,000.

*The above information is from the Appendix in Athreya et al. 2004.