Among felids, leopards are best described as spotted, medium-sized members of the genus Panthera, which includes all “roaring” cats: lions, tigers, jaguars, snow leopards and leopards. Leopard markings typically consist of solid spots, or clusters of spots called rosettes. In certain parts of their range, particularly southern Asia (India to Malaysia and the island of Java), black or melanistic color phases also occur. On Java, the majority of individuals are black.
The base color of leopards varies widely across their wide range, changing from yellow or orangish to tan or gray. In Africa alone, the following trends of coloration exist: 1) savannah leopards are brownish red in color; 2) desert leopards are pale cream to yellow-brown in color, with those from cooler regions being more gray; 3) rainforest leopards -dark, deep gold in color; 4) high mountain leopards are even darker in color. The same is true for variation in their patterns, and in other regions. These two primary factors, coupled with hair length and body size, are the principal reason some taxonomists have split this species into many, often invalid, subspecies. Male leopards average 150 pounds (68 kilograms) but in India and South Africa, individuals as large as 200 pounds (91 kilograms) are reported. On the average, leopards from populations from Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan are by far the largest with males routinely reaching 200 pounds (91 kilograms). Although up to 27 subspecies are still recognized by some specialists, others have pared this number down to as few as eight; taxonomic research is still ongoing.
The leopard, or panther as it is called in some parts of Asia, is the most widespread member of the family Felidae, if not the entire order Carnivora. Even today, leopards still range from the southern cape mountains of South Africa throughout most countries of Africa south of the Sahara, across the Middle East to Southeast Asia and Java as well as northward to the Russian Far East. Leopards don't live in Sumatra, perhaps because of the presence of tigers and six other species of felids, nor in Borneo, probably because of the absence of a large ungulate prey base. More recently, they have been extirpated in all North African countries except Morocco. Overall, leopards are most common in east, central, and southern Africa and rare elsewhere. See range map
In broad terms, leopards are among the most adaptable of any felid and can live in almost any habitat within their range. In sub-Saharan Africa, leopards live in all habitats with an annual rainfall more than two inches (50 millimeters) and can penetrate areas with less than this amount of rainfall along river courses. Of all African cats, the leopard is the only species that occupies both rain forest and arid desert habitats. Leopards range up to 18,700 feet (5,700 meters) where a carcass was discovered on the rim of Mount Kilimanjaro, and are abundant on the highest slopes of the Ruwenzori and Virunga volcanoes. Most importantly, they continue to occur in well-populated areas such as western Kenya's extensively cultivated districts with more than 58 people per square mile (150 people per square kilometer), little natural habitat and prey, and where 20 years ago they had been considered extirpated.
In North Africa and the Middle East, leopards are believed to be absent from the true desert of the central Arabian peninsula although they are still found near the Dead Sea where annual rainfall is less than a half an inch (12.5 millimeters). Forest and Mediterranean scrub are also suitable habitats for the species in northwest Africa, Iran, and the Caucasus. Throughout the region, they are confined to the more remote montane and rugged foothill areas, ranging up to 5,900 feet (1,800 meters) in Turkmenistan, 9,800 feet (3,000 meters) in Morocco, 8,550 feet (2,600 meters) in Saudi Arabia, and 10,580 feet (3,200 meters) in Iran.
Asia possesses a broad spectrum of environments, and leopards occur in most of them. On the Indian subcontinent, they are found throughout the region with the exception of deserts and the Sunderbans mangroves. The also live on the outskirts of large cities like Islamabad and Mumbai, and are quite common in the hill regions of India. They range throughout most of China and in the Himalayas, where they are share habitats with snow leopards up to 17,000 feet (5,200 meters) although they more commonly live below the tree line. In Indonesia, leopards are still found on Java, one of the world's most densely populated areas in the world. In the Russian Far East, leopards prefer regions of low snowfall populated by oaks and pines.
Leopard can eat an extremely wide range of prey but they show a marked preference for small to medium-sized ungulates such as small antelopes and gazelles, wild goats and sheep, deer, pigs and domestic livestock. In deserts or regions empty of ungulate prey, they seem to survive satisfactorily on birds and reptiles, hyraxes, baboons, monkeys, and domestic dogs. As a result of their diverse palate, leopards survive in surprisingly close proximity to humans.
Like most other cats, leopards are solitary predators that live in exclusive territories. Males' territories are larger and often overlap those of several females. Female leopards mature at three years of age and after a gestation of 90 days, give birth to one to three young. Larger litters are rare. In nature, leopards probably reach ten years of age; in captivity few exceed 20 years.
Although the leopard appears to tolerate habitat modification and occurs in the vicinity of settled areas, they're less dense in these habitats. In Africa and tropical Asia, the fur trade was a major threat to the leopard during the 1960s and 1970s but that threat has collapsed in the face of changing public opinion and the imposition of international trade controls under CITES. In Africa today, leopards remain particularly vulnerable to the dispersal of poison baits, usually in response to livestock depredation. In the southern half of Africa, international sportsmen legally hunt limited numbers as trophies, but those populations appear resilient to those losses and overall African populations are probably the most robust of any continent's.
In Morocco and the Middle East, many populations have become quite small and are increasingly vulnerable to disruption of healthy population dynamics. Sex ratios have become skewed in some Israeli populations, parent/offspring breedings have been documented because of a lack of natural recruitment and adult males occasionally prey on their own young, all factors further pushing some populations into oblivion. The natural ungulate prey base throughout the region has in many places been severely reduced, thus accounting for at least part of the leopard's reputation as a killer of livestock. Although protected officially, leopards continue to be killed opportunistically and there are numerous reports of local people going to extraordinary lengths to kill leopards reported in their vicinity by organizing hunting parties that do not return until the leopard is killed.
In Asia, a depleted wild ungulate prey base threatens leopards. They are, in turn, persecuted when they turn to livestock, and domestic stock has been found to be a major component of leopard diets outside protected areas. Illegal commercial hunting for pelts and for bones for traditional Asian medicines is widespread in the region as well. While habitat loss is still a significant threat, the leopard does well in secondary growth if not otherwise persecuted. In the Russian Far East, leopards face threats from the small population size: father-daughter and sibling matings have been observed on two occasions. Possibly linked to this interbreeding is the drop in litter size observed in this population between 1973 and 1991 from 1.75 to 1.0 young. This may be linked to genetic factors such as declining fertility or merely demographic fluctuation.
The IUCN 2008 Red List lists leopards as near threatened although many individual subspecies or populations are listed in higher categories. Leopards living in the southern half of Africa are listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. All other populations in Africa as well as the Middle East and Asia are listed as endangered. The entire species is regulated in international commerce by CITES on Appendix I.
In 1974, international studbooks were initiated for four subspecies of Asian leopards. At that time, most other leopards held by zoos worldwide were of unknown ancestry, or were presumed to be from populations of Africa or India. As a result, it was common, at least during the 1960s to the 1980s, for some zoos to "collect" rare leopards. In a few instances, some zoos possessed up to three subspecies of studbook-kept leopards in numbers totaling 20 animals. In 1999, a fifth subspecies of leopard was added to the international studbook program. Today, most zoos worldwide maintain but a single subspecies of leopard, often selecting one on the advice of the region's Felid Taxon Advisory Group.
Amur leopards, called Far Eastern leopards in Russia, are one of the rarest subspecies in nature. Their very large, thickly bordered circular markings and rosettes make them easy to identify. Those living in cold climates also have extremely long hair. Originally found in Manchuria, the Korean peninsula and the Primorski Province of the Russian Far East, the last recorded specimen in South Korea was captured in 1969. Recent field studies of the Russian Far East (2001) suggest a population of 40 animals, and similar studies in North Korea (1998) suggest no more than ten leopards remain there. The population living in two adjacent provinces of China numbers only ten to 15 more. All of the Russian population is now found south of Lake Khanka. The IUCN status of this subspecies is critically endangered.
As of July, 2002, the captive population worldwide was 222 Amur leopards. As a result of cage-space surveys in North America, it has become apparent that there is only space to manage one subspecies of leopard. Because the present gene pool of the North American managed population is only 11, coupled with the additional five founders present in European zoos and that more can become potentially available in the future, Amur leopards is the only subspecies being recommended by the AZA Felid TAG for maintenance by North American zoos and private collections. In July, 2002, there were 83 individuals in the PMP population but more spaces are becoming available as other leopards and other medium-sized species of felids are replaced through attrition. In Europe, an EEP has been in place since 1993 and another 139 Amur leopards are maintained, most of which are part of the EEP. Since late 1998, the EEP has been co-coordinated by staff of the London and Moscow Zoos. In the future, a joint EAZA/AZA management program will be developed to make the best use of zoo spaces in North America, Europe and Russia. Living founders are still present in European collections, all acquired from the North Korean population. Previous founders were primarily from Russia and from one additional, over-represented founder who now appears to be representative of the North Chinese population. In the coming years global management programs for Amur leopards will strive to reduce the genetic percentage of this founder from China while increasing the proportion of founders from Russia and North Korea.