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the web of life in southern Africa

Panthera pardus (Leopard)

luiperd [Afrikaans]; Leopard [German]; panthère, léopard [French]; chui [Swahili]; ingwe [isiNdebele] [isiXhosa] [isiZulu] [siSwati] [Xitsonga]  [Tshivenda]; nkwe [Sesotho]; nkwe [Setswana]; mdaba, isngwe [Shona]; ngwe [Lozi]; ungwe [Yei]; |Garub [Nama] [Damara]; ngwi [Herero] [Ovambo]

Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Deuterostomia > Chordata > Craniata > Vertebrata (vertebrates)  > Gnathostomata (jawed vertebrates) > Teleostomi (teleost fish) > Osteichthyes (bony fish) > Class: Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish) > Stegocephalia (terrestrial vertebrates) > Reptiliomorpha > Amniota > Synapsida (mammal-like reptiles) > Therapsida > Theriodontia >  Cynodontia > Mammalia (mammals) > Placentalia (placental mammals) > Laurasiatheria > Ferungulata > Ferae > Carnivora > Family: Felidae (cats) > Subfamily: Pantherinae

Panthera pardus (Leopard)

Leopard, Kruger National Park, South Africa. [photo Arno Meintjes ©]

Panthera pardus (Leopard) Panthera pardus (Leopard)

Leopard, Sabi Sands, Kruger National Park, South Africa. [photo Callie de Wet ©]

Leopard, Kruger National Park, South Africa. [photo Callie de Wet ©]

One of the “Big Five” in Africa, leopards are a highly popular tourist attraction in national parks and reserves, which makes them highly prized and an important source of income. Males are solitary and females rear the cubs. Prey is varied, ranging from invertebrates through to medium-sized antelope. Leopards are found in the mountains of the Western Cape but are rarely seen.


The characteristic dark rosette shaped spots on the coat of the back, flanks and upper limbs provide it with excellent camouflage. Males are about 50% larger than females. In South Africa leopards from the mountain ranges of the Cape Province are much smaller than those from the northern part of the country.


Total Body length 160-210 cm, body mass 20 –90 kg (males) and 17 – 60kg (females).

Dental Formula

 I C P M = 30

Distribution and habitat

The leopard is the most widespread member of the cat family with a distribution throughout sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle-East, extending through Asia to China. Widely distributed in southern Africa, although south of the Orange River it only remains in the more mountainous and rugged areas. It is found in a wide range of habitats where there is reasonable cover, from mountainous regions to coastal plains, in both high and low rainfall areas.

General behaviour

Leopards are good climbers, this enables them to escape harassment and competition from other predators such as lions and hyena. Kills are usually hidden in thick vegetation but if there is intense competition from other predators leopards will drag their prey up a tree and store it in the branches.

Male leopards are solitary, while females spend a large part of their lives with their cubs. The home ranges of leopards are extremely variable in size, but generally the availability of suitable prey will affect the territory size. The more food that is available, the smaller the range will be, and the denser the distribution of the animals. Leopards make a rough rasping sound, similar to a rough saw cutting through wood.

Hunting and food

They stalk their prey, relying on concealment before making a short fast dash or pouncing to capture it. They often kill with a bite to the back of the neck.

Food is varied and includes insects, rodents, birds, reptiles and medium sized antelope. Also eats carrion.

Panthera pardus (Leopard)

Leopard feeding on its kill, Kruger National Park, South Africa. [photo Bernard Dupont  ©]

Panthera pardus (Leopard) Panthera pardus (Leopard)

Female cub dining on impala in Sabi Sands, Kruger National Park, South Africa. [photo Callie de Wet ©]

Leopard feeding on slain Vervet Monkey, Kruger National Park, South Africa. [photo Callie de Wet ©]


Gestation period is about 100 days. The female raises her litters of 2-3 cubs alone. The cubs are usually hidden in a cave or rock crevice for the first 6 weeks after birth. They will remain with their mother until they are 18-20 months old, when she will encourage them to leave and will then mate again.

Life span

14 years (up to 20 in captivity)


Numbers are declining in some areas as a result of habitat loss and leopards are trapped and killed in areas where they clash with stock farmers. Leopards are protected in South Africa and a permit has to be obtained from a conservation agency before a farmer has permission to trap or hunt a “problem” leopard. Usually conservation agencies will try to remove a leopard from areas where it is in conflict with farmers and relocate it. When trapped, wounded or threatened the leopard can be extremely dangerous.


  • Leopard (Wikipedia)

  • Cape Leopard Trust. They have been doing interesting research on Cape Leopards using mainly cameras in the bush that are set off by the passing leopard (and other animals). The website shows photos of the different leapards that have been recorded but be warned that the download speed is painly slow.

Text by Denise Hamerton