Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Big Five - part 2

In my blog last week, I introduced Africa’s Big Five animals – the lion, the leopard, the elephant, the buffalo, and the rhinoceros – so named, apparently, because they were the most dangerous African animals to hunt.

I also wrote about my favourite animal, which happens to be one of The Big Five, namely the elephant.

This time I want to write about the most difficult of The Big Five to see, namely the leopard, which tends to be furtive, shy, and nocturnal (although not always).  It is also very well camouflaged.

Young Southern African leopard

My father first visited South Africa’s famous game parks in 1927 at the tender age of seventeen and, although not a frequent visitor, went quite often.  When we celebrated his 90th birthday, he still had never seen a leopard.  In fact, I ended a movie of his life that I had made by asking what more a man who had accomplished much could ask for at that age – the answer, of course, was to see a leopard.  

I am pleased to report that the following week, when we were continuing the celebrations in the bush, he saw his first, and only one.

Of course, the leopard is of the cat family.  It is found in Africa and South-East Asia and occasionally can be pure black (melanistic), which some people think may be a hunting adaptation. 

Melanistic leopard - often called a panther

It varies substantially in size depending on habitat and availability of prey.  Adult males range from 30 kg (66 lbs) to 90 kgs (200 lbs), with females about 30% lighter.  They are found in almost all habitats, from desert to thick jungle.  And they are not picky eaters – devouring almost any sort of animal, including, on occasion, dung beetles and fish.  However, its preferred prey is a an antelope, such as an impala or gazelle.

Leopard with impala kill

What makes the leopard so special is that it is a brilliant predator.  It is a master stalker; it is beautifully camouflaged; it can hunt well above its own weight; and it is immensely strong, enabling it to pull its victims high into trees for protection against other cats, as well as against hyenas and wild dogs.  It has been known to pull carcasses that weigh more than itself 10 metres (30 feet) up a tree.
It hunts in a variety of ways.  

Impala pulled high into a tree

Time for a nap

Still a way to go.

Over short distances, it runs fast, up to 55 kms/hr (35 mph), it can do a 6-metre long jump (20 feet) and can jump vertically 3 metres (10 feet).  It also sometimes uses its camouflage to lie in wait in a tree and then drop on its victim from above.  It usually kills through a bite to the throat or through suffocation by clamping on a victim’s throat.

Unlike most of its feline cousins, it is a good swimmer and appears to be happy in water – although I have to say, I never seen a leopard swimming.

Unfortunately, in some parts of its range, it is now no longer exists.  Overall, it is classified as Near Threatened – its demise due both to its beautiful skin and to the fact it is quite happy to hunt and eat domestic animals, which tends to provoke retaliation.

In some areas, leopards are highly valued - Namibia

Amongst my friends, spotting a leopard is probably the highlight of any bush visit.  Sometimes, however, it can end up being too much, as some friends found recently when they awoke to find a beautiful male sunning itself outside their front door.  It took quite some time before they could persuade it to find another place to tan.

Stan - Thursday


  1. They are such beautiful creatures. I believe that even the black ones maintain those distinctive markings on their coats, 'black on blacker.' Edinburgh Zoo has a black one that I think is part of a breeding programme. Stan, do they do well in captivity?

  2. Drool. Leopards are my favorite animals. Did I mention that I will be spending January in the bush looking for them. They are so hard to find one needs plenty of time...

  3. Ah, cats. How can one go wrong with a cat? (Well, I suppose one can go wrong by finding one's self on the wrong side of their teeth...) Oh, if only I were King and could grant life, health and bountiful offspring to all of these wonderful animals!

    And now, for the catty comments from Jeff...

  4. Stan, I have a friend who is an avid worldwide nature photographer and of all the photographs, the one she's most proud of is of a leopard she caught unaware at the edge of a river with it's kill (my friend was on a boat I should add:)).

    Sorry, Everett, but it's been a long travel day to Seattle and I'm feeling too pussyl'animals to be catty.

    [Never could quite spell pusillanimous.]