The leopard is the smallest of the four ‘big’ cats after tiger, lion and jaguar. Their coats can be highly variable but essentially they all have black spots on a pale brown background. Typically the spots are small on their head, increasing in size on their belly and legs. The spots on their back are arranged in rosette patterns.
The big cat pictured above is an Indochinese leopard with a colour variation.
Black leopards are also known as black panthers. The term black panther is used to describe any melanistic colour variant of several species of large cats including leopards, jaguars and in very rare cases, tigers. Melanism is a development of the dark-colored pigment melanin in the skin and is the opposite of albinism. Therefore panthers are not a species in their own right.
Usually if you look closely at the coats of these cats their original markings are visible.
Leopards, the most widespread member of the cat family, are found across Africa, Arabia, Asia and Indonesia. There are nine subspecies including the Indochinese leopard, however very little is known about them.
Female leopards usually only have one or two cubs, though they can have up to six in a litter. The female raises her young by herself, and once weaned she will lead them to food but otherwise does not spend much time with them.
Leopards will hunt what prey they can, usually small to medium-sized mammals such as wild goat, wild sheep, wild pig, deer and occasionally gazelles. They will sometimes attack livestock, particularly wherever the natural prey has been depleted. However they will take prey as small as reptiles and birds. They will also take other carnivores including dogs, and small foxes.
Black leopards are more commonly found in dense forests where it may be more advantageous for animals to blend into their surroundings when hunting. They are more common in the rainforests of South-east Asia.
The most urgent threat is ever-increasing fragmentation of suitable habitat meaning a patchy network of distant and often too small sub-populations. Leopards are also threatened by poaching, depletion of their prey base due to poaching, human disturbance, habitat loss due to deforestation, fire, agricultural expansion, overgrazing, and infrastructure development.
Very little is known about Indochinese leopards making it harder to protect them and their habitats.
Basic assessment of Indochinese leopard numbers and ecology.
Corridors of suitable habitat are urgently needed to link fragmented populations.
Meanwhile, prey depletion is a major concern, leading to the leopard preying on livestock and resulting in human-leopard conflict. Both better livestock protection and increasing the availability of wild prey are needed.
Increasing awareness of the plight of the species within its range so that hunting pressures and retaliation killings are reduced is key to the long-term survival of this species.
Rueben Clements, Malaysia
Malayan tiger, clouded leopard, black leopard
Small worldwide grant