A leopard (Panthera pardus) watches from above
The area of the Masai Mara called Leopard Gorge is well named. Nearby watercourses attract an abundance of impalas, warthogs and gazelles. Rocky outcrops and caves provide cover for resting leopards and their young. The fig trees that surround the gorge afford a good view of the terrain, as well as providing a place to stash kills away from scavenging hyenas and offering protection from marauding lions.
At 59kg on average, leopards are the smallest of the big cats within the genus Panthera (which includes lions, tigers and jaguars), but they are also the most adaptable. They use the full terrain of the Mara to their advantage. They are good swimmers, excellent climbers and hunt the widest variety of prey of any of the Mara's major predators. A leopard's diet can include insects, fish and reptiles, as well as grazing animals. They are as happy to scavenge a meal as hunt one. Over 90 leopard prey species have been recorded in sub-Saharan Africa alone.
When they do hunt, they do so with stealth. Leopards are superbly camouflaged hunters that creep to within a few metres of their unsuspecting quarry before lunging, using powerful jaw muscles, to exert a lethal hold.
Leopards are stealthy in other ways, too. They are solitary, elusive creatures, and – despite being the most geographically widespread of the big cats – the hardest to find and film. The leopards of the Mara spend most of the day hidden in trees or caves. Like the lions of the reserve, they usually hunt at night. But unlike lions, they don't have the power or strength in numbers to spend long, hot days lolling in the open.
In fact, lions are one of the main reasons the Mara's leopards can be so tricky to find. Lions have been known to hunt and kill leopards. On previous Big Cat Diaries, Half-Tail narrowly escaped a grizzly fate when two lionesses came upon her and only superb climbing skills saved her life. Hyenas are another threat, and will often steal kills before a leopard has had chance to stash them away. Half-Tail and Chui were even harassed by a troop of delinquent baboons.
Still, leopards have a few tricks of their own, and – again – stealth is chief among them. They hunt, kill and feed quickly and quietly, to avoid drawing undue attention to their presence. Their spots and rosettes can be either round or square to make the very best use of the camouflage available. In different habitats around the world, leopards have evolved darker or paler markings to make the best use of their surroundings. The dark coats of black leopards – also known as panthers – offer better camouflage in forest or mountain terrain.
Leopards are also strong for their size, with short, powerful legs and long, muscular bodies. Males are much bigger than females (up to 50 per cent bigger, in fact) and have been known to kill small giraffes and drag the carcasses into trees. Males also range much further than females. Their territories can extend to 450sq km, though in the prey-rich Mara rarely exceed 76sq km. Females patrol pockets of the Mara between 15 and 18sq km in size.
Adaptability is key to the leopard's survival, in the Mara and elsewhere. They can live in habitats as diverse as rainforests, deserts, mountains and savannahs. Nevertheless, their solitary nature keeps numbers down. In 2005, estimates for the number of leopards in the Mara put the figure at approximately 100 individuals, or around a fifth of the number of lions in the same area.
Did you know?
- Leopards are nocturnal.
- Male leopards are up to 50 per cent larger than females.
- They don't roar as loud as lions, but leopards can also purr.
- King John kept leopards in the Tower of London in the 13th Century.
- Leopards can take prey as large as antelopes, but will also eat dung beetles and other insects.
- They are famously good at climbing up trees, and down – they often descend head first.
- A male leopard can drag a carcass three times its own weight – including small giraffes – six metres up at tree.