One of Africa's most beautiful creatures, this nocturnal, secretive and elusive predator is the master of camouflage blending in perfectly to the savannah grasslands and mottled treetops. An exciting treat to view on safari, and never guaranteed to be seen out in the wilderness. Leopard sightings are most likely on our visits to the Northern Frontier District and the Masai Mara. Sasaab Lodge is in prime leopard habitat, situated along the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro River among large granite outcrops, as is Sala's Camp on the the Sand River in the southern Masai Mara.
One of Africa's 'Big Cats', the leopard is classified in the Felidae subfamily Pantherinae (which also includes the tiger, lion and jaguar). The swahili word for leopard is 'Chui'.
Males weigh 60 kg on average (up to 90kg) and are heavier than females (50kg).
This large cat is unmistakable, very thickset with large dark brown and black rosettes over the back, and solid black spots on the face and limbs. The cream belly has less densely spaced spots and rosettes, and it has a distinct 'collar' of black spots around the upper chest. Much larger and more muscular than the other big spotted cat of the African bush, the cheetah, leopards have short and powerful limbs, and a large head with muscular jaws.
The presence of a leopard is often discovered before any sighting, such as fresh tracks on roads, game trails or river banks first thing in the morning; warning calls from monkeys and antelope; or the thrilling sound of a leopard 'rasping' at night. This sounds is compared to the sound of someone sawing through wood, as the leopard inhales and exhales repeatedly, a territorial trait letting other leopards know of their presence.
Although a rare animal to see, the leopard is the most widespread of all wild cats in Africa, it's stealth, versatility and courage allows the leopard to live wherever there is cover to hide in, prey to sustain it and interaction with other leopards to mate with; often in semi-urban areas, such as the Nairobi suburb of Karen, where leopards are renowned to have 'taken' domestic cats and dogs.
They thrive in protected wilderness areas such as Tsavo, the Masai Mara and the Northern Frontier District, as well as much of the Great Rift Valley; and are also very successful in forests and mountains such as the Aberdares and Mt. Kenya.
Leopards are solitary and territorial, unlike lions who form prides, and cheetah males that may form a coalition, leopards only remain in each other's company to mate or when cubs are still dependent on their mother. A few exceptions have been noted in the wild, where possibly grown cubs have interacted with their mother for a period of time.
Leopards mark out their territory through a variety of vocal and olfactory communication. Spotting a leopard walking at dusk is a typical way to view a leopard at this time, when it has begun to 'patrol' it's territory, spraying urine, dropping faeces and claw marking 'landmarks' along their path such as tree trunks, bushes, rocks, and termite mounds. Ranges vary depending on the habitat and leopard population, they can overlap, and the territorial communication generally ensures that leopards avoid each other when they want to.
Leopard gestation is generally a little over 3 months, cubs are born blind, with their eyes only opening after about a week. They start to eat meat at about 6 weeks, and are weaned at around 3 to 4 months. They remain with their mother for at least a year, and are generally independent by 2 years of age. They live to approximately 20 years old.
Leopards prey on a wide range of animals, more so than most wild cats. They are opportunistic as well as excellent ambush predators, taking animals as small as lizards, rodents, hyraxes, and birds, especially younger adults who lack the strength and skill to kill larger prey such as gazelles. They also have to be wary of other predators such as lions and hyena that may drive them off their kill. It is for this reason that leopards stash their prey out of reach in tree branches, where they have time over the course of a few days to each as much of the kill as possible. Their immense strength allows them to kill and stash animals far heavier than themselves. We have seen young giraffe, ostrich, zebra, and immature buffalo carcasses up trees on safari, and in the Mara it is common to see smaller prey carcasses such as Impala in the tops of trees.
Often one of the highlights of a safari, viewing a leopard in the wild usually exceeds expectations, as to witness the power and beauty of the leopard first hand allows one to see just how magical these cats are, and why so many people have them at the top of their wish list of animals to spot out in the bush.