‘One does not see a leopard, a leopard allows itself to be seen,’ goes a saying.
The most adaptable of all wild cats, the leopard is also the master of stealth and elusiveness. No other species of big cat has managed to adapt and evolve so remarkably so as to make a place for itself amidst human dominated and influenced spaces as the leopard. Often having to share space with its larger big cat cousins such as tigers and lions, leopards have developed an uncanny agility and strength to climb and hunt on trees and even lug their heavy kills up the trees. Also, the leopard’s incredibly flexible diet that ranges from small-sized animals such as hares, birds, lizards, fish, and even domestic dogs and chicken to large-bodied antelope and deer, has held it in good stead. This bestows the leopard with an edge over other wild felid species, in that it can inhabit different types and almost any type of habitat. Leopards are just as adept at climbing trees as they are at prowling on terra firma. Their striking rosetted coat patterns allow these nocturnal ‘ghosts of the night’ to seamlessly blend in with the surrounding foliage, so much so that it takes a trained eye to spot one in the wild. Some of the striking images here are a testament to this cat’s beauty and incredible camouflage.
Leopards (Panthera pardus) are widely distributed across Africa and Asia and so far nine subspecies of the leopard have been identified. The Indian or the common leopard (Panthera pardus fusca) is one of the subspecies that occupies a wide range throughout the Indian subcontinent. Leopard’s incredible adaptability, elusive nature, and wide geographic range tends to underplay the serious threats that it faces. Today, leopard populations all across its range countries, including India, are on decline as more and more of their habitat becomes lost to human use, prey population plummets, poaching for their body parts continues unabated, and conflict with humans intensifies. Sadly, today, leopards occupy only 25-40% of their historical range. As India gets more urbanised, more roads are being built at a fervent pace which unabashedly slice through important leopard habitats and corridors fragmenting them and severing connectivity between populations. Leopard deaths due to collision with speeding vehicles on highways is quietly emerging as a deadly threat with a worrying potential to significantly impact their numbers in the wild. It is important that mitigation measures such as underpasses and overpasses are urgently instituted at identified hotspots along the roads.
A rare, genetic variant among leopards, like in several other species of cats, has long gripped people’s imagination like no other. Often referred to as the black panther, this leopard variant boasts of rich, complete or near-complete black coats instead of the regular rosetted golden-yellow fur. This condition caused by a genetic mutation is regarded in technical terms as ‘melanism’ and these leopards are also called melanistic leopards. Though these all-black individuals are granted the advantage of cover in the darkness of the night, studies have shown that the lack of certain white markings on ears and tails can impede communication with other leopards.
The mystique and awe that leopards elicit in most wildlife enthusiasts ranks these cats among the most sought after wildlife attractions of the Indian jungles.