The silent killer,
the night stalker, the versatile hunter... and many other names have been used
to describe this cat. Smallest of the four great cats (lion, Jaguar, Tiger) and
at close range almost looks like a Jaguar. In the savannahs of Kenya, this cat
has been confused with the cheetah by first time visitors. At a second glance
you miss the tear marks of the cheetah.
The leopard has
been associated with darkness and many myths exist in the traditional African
society. This has been due to fact that the leopard makes about 90 % of their
kills silently during the night. The kill is then dragged and hoisted on to a
tree for later feeding. These minutes before raising the kill up the tree are
extremely crucial for it is the time that most kills are lost to hyenas and
lions attracted by the smell of blood. They have quite a varied diet ranging
from animals double their size to smaller antelopes, birds and crawling
beetles. Their diet also depends on what is available in their range.
Usually this will
include wildebeest calves, zebra fawns, gazelles, impalas, rodents among
others. They are known to hunt domestic animals including calves, sheep and
goats in areas where they inhabit close to human settlements.
The physical build up
of the leopard is amazingly strong. It is said that their muscles are 7 times
stronger than man's muscle, pound for pound. This explains their capability to
lift carcasses more than twice their body up the trees. It an advantage that
the leopard enjoys in that after the kill is up the tree it is safe from its
enemies, usually the lions and hyenas. In a couple of times the lions have
tried to get up the tree and get the kill. Unfortunately, lions in Kenya are
not good tree climbers, unlike their partners in Lake Manyara, Tanzania. What's
more, the kill can be eaten for the next few days depending on the size.
Spotting such caches
during safaris is almost a guarantee that you can view the leopard at least one
Their claws are
retractable and extremely sharp. The scratching of the backs of trees cleans
the outer keratin shell keeping them sharp all the time. This is how they are
able to catch their prey before the killer bite. Usually the scratches
inflicted this way are very deep and lethal.
This master of
deception has body markings that aid in staying hidden. The pattern of their
body coat is in rosettes and each leopard has its own specific print that
matches no other. The coat varies in color from light tawny to brown-yellowish.
The black spots help them to stay hidden under thickets.
They can run up to 40
miles an hour for short distances. The leopard is a good swimmer and in
addition to that can leap 20 feet high. The horizontal jump can be up to 10
feet. Despite this prowess, they primarily depend on outwitting the prey, hence
the title 'master of deception'.
They can easily adapt
to most environments as long as there is food availability. In Kenya and
Tanzania, due to availability of huge thickets, their preference is in the
bushes. These provide all the food supply and keep them hidden. In many
occasions their presence is noticed through carcasses on tree tops but the
leopard is nowhere to be seen. Their tail is often what gives them away. When
they rest on the trees their bodies are usually camouflaged but the dangling
tail sells them off. In the nights they are usually heard and recognized
through their 'sawing-like' sound.
In addition to their
being silent killers, they are generally solitary cats. The only
relationships noticed are the short-lived mating period and a female with her
cubs. They produce between 2-4 cubs after a gestation period of between 80-100
days. Most of the times, it is only 1-2 cubs that survive. Lions and hyenas
kill many of their cubs and because of that the mother has to move them quite
often to avoid attracting too much attention.
After 22-24 months
the cubs leave their mother and start their solitary life.
In most parts of
Kenya, early morning hours are best time for looking out for them and late
afternoon hours. These are the hours when the temperatures are low as they are
more active like most of the big cats.
There exists an-ever
ending fight between the olive baboons in some parts of Kenya. The baboons are
heard screaming during the nights and it has been proofed beyond doubt that one
of the reasons is the presence of the leopard. The leopards in Kenya do attack
the baboons and in turn the baboons attack them. In any case the baboons out
number the leopard by far and relies on group protection. But the leopards have
had their successes with having a baboon for a meal.