The elusive catMarch 2019
Incredibly stealthy, powerful and amazingly beautiful, the leopard seems to have no flaws. They can however be difficult to spot on safari. None the less we have had some incredible sightings over the last few weeks. Thus the inspiration needed for this blog. Most of the sightings have come from the newest member of our team Ranger Rowan. He would put it down to skill, Pierre and me obviously putting it down to beginners luck. Even a potential mystical power that might lie in Rowan’s beard has been mentioned. Whatever the case may be it has ensured a lot of excitement and banter at the lodge. Enough about the ranger disputes though and back to the leopards.
These cats are survivors. Found in a wide array of habitats feeding on whatever is most common in an area. They are excellent stalkers, approaching to within 5 – 10 meters before pouncing. Often they will also attack from above, surprising unwary prey beneath a tree. Although they would prefer small to medium sized antelope they can make use of a wide variety of food sources such as stranded fish, rodents, reptiles, porcupine, aardvark and many more. They will also scavenge from smaller predators like cheetah should the opportunity present itself. Leopards are excellent climbers and in areas where one finds dense populations of lions or hyenas, leopards will hoist their prey (sometimes even as heavy as their own bodies – males at about 90 kg and females at about 60kg) into a tree. Hyenas don’t climb trees and lions are very clumsy when they attempt it. Where there are few scavengers leopards will eat on the ground.
The beautiful pattern on their coats is unique to each animal. Leopards do not have spots like a cheetah, but rather rosettes. Their coats allow them to melt away into their surroundings often seemingly vanishing right before your eyes. This is crucial to their survival as it facilitates them with hunting as well as helping them to hide from their own enemies.
A Leopard’s senses are remarkable and they will combine them to locate and take down prey. They prefer to hunt under the cover of darkness as they have excellent night vision. Possessing a high number of rod cells (for black and white detection) in the retina makes it easier to see at night. They also possess a tapetum lucidum behind the retina of their eyes. This reflects light back onto the retina a second time to increase the stimulation of light sensitive cells and thus improving their vision in the dark.
Leopards are solitary animals except when females are accompanied by cubs. Males and Females defend same – sex exclusive territories. They will use urine to mark, but only males spray. Leopards also possess cheek glands which they use to transfer olfactory messages by rubbing their faces on overhanging vegetation on pathways and territory boundaries. Scrape marks are also visual beacons to intruders. Leopard go to great lengths in trying to avoid each other as confrontation might lead to injury, and injury can lead to an inability to hunt. The Males will have larger territories and they encompass a number of female territories.
Males can locate females when they are ready to mate by picking up chemical clues left behind in the female’s urine. Females will also call out to males when they enter oestrus. They will only stay in one another’s company for the period of courtship and mating. This is quite an intense affair that will last for between 2 to 5 days with copulations about every 10 minutes.
When it comes to being mothers leopards are some of the best around. As females cannot afford to be weighed down by pregnancy the gestation period is short, only 100 days. Cubs are thus born altricial (helpless and blind). Hidden away for the first 6 weeks and suckled for up to 3 months. However even though mom does a great job when she is around, she has to eat. This forces her to hide her cubs away and leave them alone when she goes in search of food. Predators kill each other’s cubs instinctively so as to reduce competition. Thus often cubs found by other predators such as hyenas lose their lives in this manner.
The leopards at Amakhosi seem to be thriving though as our sightings of these elusive cats have gone from few and far between, too on a regular basis in recent times. But come see for yourselves, visit me, Pierre, Rowan, Sipho and the whole Amakhosi team soon!