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The Sri Lankan leopard and its relatives

The leopard (Panthera pardus) is an aloof, reclusive species of big cat. It is also the most common wild cat, extending across much of Africa, and Asia from the Middle East to the Pacific Ocean. Leopard habitat varies greatly. Found in tropical forests, grassland plains, deserts, and alpine areas leopards can also persist near major towns, including Mumbai and Johannesburg. The leopard has the more extensive diet of larger carnivores. Their behavior allows them to live in areas where other big cats have been eradicated or deeply isolated. However this agile adaptability does not necessarily acclimate the species against all levels of threat. The leopard population is declining across its range, similar to other big carnivores. The key threats are all ongoing. They include habitat loss and fragmentation, prey depletion, conflict with people, unsustainable trophy hunting, poaching for body parts, and indiscriminate killing. Here we discuss the 9 different subspecies of leopards, their important characteristics, and current status of conservation.


Sri Lankan Leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya)

The Sri Lankan leopard, an endangered, endemic sub-species, is the island’s apex predator. This sub species is native to the island and has made a leopard safari Sri Lanka much sought after. These Sri Lankan cats possess a tawny or rusty yellow-coloured coat with close-set rosettes and dark spots. Females of this subspecies weigh around 29 kg, and males weigh around 56 kg. The Sri Lankan leopard has historically been found across a wide range of habitats on the island nation including arid scrub jungle, rainforest, upper highland forest, and dry evergreen monsoon forest.


Javan Leopard (Panthera pardus melas)

The highly threatened Javan leopard is endemic to the Indonesian island of Java. The leopards are either completely black due to a recessive phenotype or have the usual spotted coat. The Javan leopard is critically endangered, and only about 250 individuals survive in protected habitats in their range. Depletion of the prey base, poaching, habitat loss and conflicts with humans have resulted in a rapid downfall in the numbers of the Javan leopard. The density of the Javan leopard was estimated at 1 individual per 6 km² in the Gunung Gede Pangrango National Park, and at 1 per 6.5 km² in the Gunung Halimun-Salak National Park. The population is estimated at 363-525 animals.


Indochinese Leopard (Panthera pardus delacouri)

The Indochinese leopard is native to southern China and mainland Southeast Asia. Like most other wildlife in the region, the leopard faces threats due to habitat loss and poaching for illegal wildlife trade. Indochinese leopard skin is somewhat a rusty-red in ground colour, but notably paler at the sides. Also seen to have small rosettes that were mostly 3.8 cm × 3.8 cm (1.5 in × 1.5 in) in diameter and incredibly closely set that they looked dark. The fur is short with less than 2.5 cm (0.98 in) long hair on the back. The Indochinese leopard has been found to be spread across Southeast Asia, where today small populations remain only in Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, and southern China. The scarcity of tigers has led to the use of leopard body parts for the preparation of traditional Chinese medicines which has severely affected wild Indochinese leopard populations.


Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis)

The Amur leopard or the Far Eastern leopard is a critically endangered subspecies of leopard. The animal is native to southeastern Russia and northeast China. The Amur leopard can be differentiated from other leopard subspecies by its thick fur that is pale cream-coloured, particularly in winter. Rosettes on the flanks are 5 cm × 5 cm (2.0 in × 2.0 in), with notably wide spacing, up to 2.5 cm (0.98 in), with thick, unbroken rings and darkened centers. Its fur is quite soft with long and dense hair. The length of hair on the back is 20–25 mm (0.79–0.98 in) in summer and up to 70 mm (2.8 in) in winter. The winter coat usually varies from light yellow to dense yellowish-red, with a golden tinge or rusty-reddish-yellow. The Amur leopard is solitary. Known to be light-footed and strong, it carries and hides unfinished kills so that they are not stolen by other predators. It was observed that several males sometimes follow and fight over a female, those successful stay with females after mating and may even help with rearing the young.


North-Chinese Leopard (Panthera pardus japonensis)

The North-Chinese leopard is native to northern China. The leopard is approximately the same size as the Amur leopard. However, the coat of the leopard is darker and more orangish in colour. The rosettes are also darker and more closely spaced. Feng Limin, a researcher involved in the discovery, said that cameras have captured at least 28 North China leopards over the past year in the Ziwuling forest region in Shaanxi, by far the most densely populated region for the endemic leopard in China. The leopard primarily preys on deer and wild boar. Poaching, deforestation, and illegal trade in leopard skins are factors leading to the loss of these leopards in the wild.


Persian Leopard (Panthera pardus ciscaucasica)

The Caucasian leopard, popularly known as the Persian Leopard, is the largest leopard native to the Caucasus region, southern Turkmenistan, parts of western Afghanistan and northern Iraq. It is listed as Endangered on the IUCN (International union for the Conservation of nature) Red list. Only about 871 to 1,290 mature individuals of this subspecies are reported to exist currently. In Iran, a study conducted between 2007 and 2011 revealed that nearly 70% of the mortalities of the Persian leopards was due to illegal hunting and poisoning. Road accidents accounted for 18% of the deaths.


Arabian Leopard (Panthera pardus nimr)

Native to the Arabian Peninsula, the Arabian leopard is a highly threatened leopard subspecies. The subspecies have been listed on the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered. Subpopulations are limited to less than 200 individuals. This leopard subspecies is one of the smallest subspecies of leopards. These leopards have a coat colour that varies from pale yellow to deep golden. The geographic range of this subspecies is limited to the Arabian Peninsula and includes the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. Within its range, the Arabian leopard inhabits hilly steppes and mountainous uplands. These predators feed on Arabian gazelles, Cape hare, rock hyrax, Nubian ibex, and other mammals native to the region. Hunting and capture accompanied by the depletion of prey base, habitat destruction, and persecution have led to the threatened status of the Arabian leopard.


Indian leopard (Panthera pardus fusca)

Indian leopard is found in the Indian subcontinent and is listed as a vulnerable subspecies on the IUCN Red List. The Indian Leopard is known to sport bigger rosettes than the other subspecies, with a paler coat in desert habitats, greyer in colder climes and more ochre in rainforest habitats. Much like other big cat subspecies, the pattern of rosettes is unique to each individual and can be used to tell them apart. They are sexually dimorphic, with males larger and heavier than females. A 2014 survey indicated that there are around 12,000 to 14,000 leopards existing in the wild today. Indian leopards live in a wide variety of habitats within their range. Some leopards of India have been recorded as man-eaters in the past. Indian Leopards are excellent and nimble climbers. They rely on trees for cover, so are found in various forested habitats, including rainforest, dry deciduous forest, temperate forest and northern coniferous forest.


African Leopard (Panthera pardus pardus)

The African leopard is a subspecies of leopard that is native to the African continent. Though widely distributed across sub-Saharan Africa, the African leopard’s historical range has been heavily fragmented. The African leopard sports a fantastic variation in terms of coat colour, depending on location and habitat. This cat’s coat colour ranges from pale yellow to deep gold or tawny, and sometimes black, and is patterned with black rosettes while the head, lower limbs and belly are spotted with solid black. Male leopards are larger, averaging 60 kg with 91 kg being the maximum weight attained by a male. On average, females weigh around 35 – 40 kg. Amongst African wildlife, African leopards are mostly victims to the trophy hunting industry, and there are reports of the negative impacts of trophy hunting on leopard populations and social lives. Leopard populations near human settlements have also been severely depleted due to hunting of these animals for bush meat. The more ethical way to see these cats would be on an African leopard safari.