The leopard, Panthera pardus, is a member of the Felidae family and the smallest of the four “big cats” in the genus Panthera, the other three being the tiger, lion, and jaguar. The leopard was once distributed across eastern and southern Asia and Africa, from Siberia to South Africa, but its range of distribution has decreased radically because of hunting and loss of habitat. It is now chiefly found in sub-Saharan Africa; there are also fragmented populations in the Indian subcontinent, Sri Lanka, Indochina, Malaysia, Indonesia, and China. Because of its declining range and population, it is listed as a “Near Threatened” species on the IUCN Red List.
Compared to other members of the Felidae family, the leopard has relatively short legs and a long body with a large skull. It is similar in appearance to the jaguar, but is smaller and more slightly built. Its fur is marked with rosettes similar to those of the jaguar, but the leopard’s rosettes are smaller and more densely packed, and do not usually have central spots as the jaguars do. Both leopards and jaguars that are melanistic (completely black or very dark) are known as black panthers.
The species’ success in the wild is in part due to its opportunistic hunting behavior, its adaptability to habitats, its ability to run at speeds approaching 58 kilometres per hour (36 mph), its unequaled ability to climb trees even when carrying a heavy carcass, and its notorious ability for stealth. The leopard consumes virtually any animal that it can hunt down and catch. Its habitat ranges from rainforest to desert terrains.
These photos were taken in 2002 at the Ngala Private Game Reserve which is adjacent to the famous Kruger National Park in South Africa. Having arrived at the reserve only a couple of hours before we immediately left on the early evening safari in an open land rover and this one one of the first sights we saw – this magnificent leopard in a tree with a kill of a young impala (African antelope) in the next tree. As we sat directly below the tree it allowed me a wonderful opportunity to capture multiple images of this beautiful cat as she lounged, yawned and then casually leapt to the other tree to gnaw away at the impala.