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  • Writer's pictureLEO Africa

How to identify leopards

Leopard (Panthera pardus) is one of the key species we monitor at LEO Africa. Leopards are top predators and play a very important role in controlling the herbivore population.

Leopards are solitary animals and highly territorial. They actively defend their territory by scent marking and roaring. If you are out in the bush and you suddenly smell “popcorn”, then it means that a leopard was just there scent marking with its urine (yes, it actually smells like popcorn!). The only time you usually see more than one leopard together is either when there is a pair mating, in this case they will stay together only for a few days, or when a female has cubs.

They compete for food with lions, hyenas and cheetahs. They prefer small sized prey such as impala, warthog and bushbuck, but sometimes they can go for bigger animals such as young zebra or even a small giraffe. When they have made a kill they usually hide it up a tree to keep it from being stolen by opportunistic scavengers (hyenas and lions). They are incredibly strong and can drag a kill that is heavier than their own body weight up a tree with only their mouth.

Leopards are very secretive and well camouflaged animals and therefore difficult to spot, but every time we do it is an amazing experience. They are nocturnal and love the thick bush where they can easily ambush their prey, getting up to 3m close before striking (no other big cat can get this close).

In the park we have identified over 40 individuals and we know that there are at least 3 females with cubs at the moment.

To create an ID kit of a leopard it is very important to have pictures of the flanks (the sides), and any other picture that shows the animal at a different angle, especially if there is a flank missing. When we do not have both flanks for an animal, (they don’t usually turn around in front of the camera), we create a “temporary” ID kit that needs to be checked periodically until the missing flank is found.

We use pictures both from the drives and camera traps that we set up in the park. It is important when on drive to try and take pictures of both sides of the animal or at least a frontal and a side picture; here the volunteers play an important role with their cameras. Once back at base the pictures are inserted onto the computer and a staff member will go through them and update the ID kits. All the data will then be sent to the Park Management in the monthly report so they can have an accurate estimation of the population and growth rate.

Creating an ID kit means following the lives of the animals you are monitoring. Getting to know where they live and how they interact. Seeing the cubs growing picture after picture is a great honour, even if you’ll never see them in the field. You can watch over them and discover new things every day.

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