Cape Leopard

African Leopard / Big 5 Wildlife

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Carnivora

Family: Felidae (Cat Family)

Genus and Species: Panthera pardus pardus

Name

A subspecies of the African Leopard, the Cape Leopard is named after a specific habitat and region in South Africa. “Cape” refers to the geographic location where they’re primarily found, the Cape Fold Mountains, located in the Eastern Cape and Western Cape of South Africa.

Appearance

They are gorgeous creatures. Solid black dots on their faces, chests, and feet that break into the signature cracked rosettes along their backs, each of their coats bearing a unique pattern of spots. The leopards’ rosettes are a familiar pattern, but in the wild, they can be difficult to see. This difficulty is not only due to the camouflage the markings provide — helping to break up the predator’s outline — or to the creature’s remarkable stealth, the silence with which it is able to stalk its prey through the night. It is because the leopard’s numbers are in decline.

Cape Leopard

Size

The Cape leopard is known for being smaller than the other leopard subspecies in Africa. For comparison, leopards in savanna regions like the Kruger National Park can weigh up to double that of a Cape leopard.

  • Males: They average around 35kg (77lbs) with a maximum weight of 90kg (200lbs).
  • Females: Females are smaller, averaging 37.5kg (83lbs) but can reach up to 52.3kg (115lbs).

Diet

Leopards are opportunistic and versatile hunters preying on species ranging from crickets, lizards and rodents to hares, porcupine and even ungulates as large as eland. Typically, they appear to take prey in proportion to availability in a given area. In the Boland, Cederberg and Gamka, diet studies indicated that klipspringer (Oreotragus oreotragus) and rock hyrax/klipdassie (Procavia capensis) are the main prey species for leopards.

Porcupine (Hystrix africaeaustralis) and Cape grysbok (Raphicerus melanotis) are more prominent components of leopard diet in the Boland. Contrary to popular belief, baboon (Papio ursinus ursinus) is not a major component of the diet of the leopards in the Western Cape.   

Diet studies in the Western Cape indicate that baboons form less than 5% of leopard diet. Groupliving behaviour, agility and long canines, make baboons a formidable target. Despite regular interaction, baboons are comparatively seldom preyed on by leopards and baboons tend to avoid them where possible.

Location and Habitat

The Cape leopard has a specific range and prefers a particular type of environment. Primarily found in the Cape Fold Mountains, which stretch along the southern coastline from the Western Cape through the Eastern Cape, this includes areas like the Great Karoo, Swartberg Mountains, Cederberg Mountains, Tankwa Karoo, and Cape Peninsula.

Adapted to the fynbos biome, this unique South African vegetation type with dense, low-lying shrubs is their preferred habitat. Cape leopards are also excellent climbers and navigate rocky terrain with ease. The mountainous regions offer them shelter, vantage points for hunting, and a good distribution of prey animals.

Their presence in an area is closely linked to the availability of prey like antelope, springboks, dassies (rock hyraxes), and smaller mammals. Game Reserves and wildlife conservation areas will, naturally, have a higher population of Cape Leopards and report more frequent sightings as a result of higher prey populations and minimal human interference.

Behaviour

Leopards do not live in family groups – they are solitary, territorial animals. Two or more leopards are usually only observed together if it is a female with a cub, or a mating pair.

Leopards do not “live” in any one particular place for extended periods and do not have caves to which they return to night after night. They are always on the move – patrolling their territories, finding food and looking for mates.

They are predominantly nocturnal, solitary animals, but each individual has a home range that overlaps with its neighbours. Males have a larger range, and a single male’s range will often overlap with the range of several females. Ranges are marked with urine and claw marks.

 

Rocks, Trees and Climbing Things

Leopards in the Western Cape seldom hoist their prey into trees as there are not many suitable trees in their habitat. It is possible that hoisting is not necessary as they do not face competition from other large predators such as lions or hyenas that can steal their meal.

The Elusive Cape Leopard

Leopards in the Western Cape are not considered a threat to humans. However, despite their size, they are still immensely powerful and can be extremely fierce and dangerous when threatened or cornered. Fortunately they are exceptionally elusive and shy of people, and most reported sightings last only a few seconds. Very few people are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a leopard.

Breeding

A female typically gives birth to a litter of two or three cubs. She abandons her nomadic lifestyle until the cubs are large enough to accompany her. She keeps them hidden for the first eight weeks and moves them from one location to the next until they are old enough to start learning to hunt. They get their first taste of meat in six or seven weeks and stop suckling after about three months. The cubs continue to live with their mothers for about two years.                                                                                                                                                                                   

Facts about Leopards

Categorised as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN’s Red List, African leopards have disappeared from over 65 percent of their natural range in Africa.

Leopards have somewhat smaller ranges and their population density is therefore slightly higher. However, due to their solitary nature and wide habitat range, Cape Leopard numbers are hard to track. Data from recent cape leopard studies, in three distinct mountain areas, suggest that there are fewer than 500 leopards in left in the Western Cape.

All leopards on the African continent are currently taxonomically assigned to a single subspecies, Panthera pardus pardus. A study by Martins (2006) on the conservation genetics of leopards in South Africa revealed interesting new data about local genetic diversity and population structuring.

This study suggests that leopards in the Western Cape are genetically distinct from populations in the Eastern Cape, Kwa-Zulu Natal, Limpopo and Mpumalanga regions and recommends that the Western Cape population be managed as a separate unit. Apart from the genetic difference, the Western Cape leopard population also differs morphologically from other populations.

The leopards in the Western Cape are small and on average half the mass of leopards in the Kruger National Park (leopard males: average 35kg; leopard females: average 24kg).

Yes, there are leopards in the Karoo. Cape Leopards are the subspecies most likely to be found in the Karoo, particularly the mountainous areas like the Great Karoo, Tankwa plains, and the Swartberg Mountains. In recent years, conservation efforts have seen their numbers increase in these regions.

It’s important to note that due to their elusive nature, leopard sightings in the Karoo are uncommon for casual visitors. However, some wildlife reserves and parks within the Karoo that focus on predator conservation may have a higher chance of leopard sightings.

Unlike their spotted counterparts, Cheetahs, Cape leopards aren’t the fastest big cats around. Known for their impressive stalking abilities, Cape leopards can reach speeds of up to 58 kilometres per hour (36 miles per hour) in short bursts. This is crucial for them to ambush prey over short distances.

Leopards are not built for sustained chases. Their strength lies in stealth and explosive acceleration to catch prey by surprise.

Cape leopards are primarily crepuscular, meaning they are most active during the twilight hours of dawn and dusk.

Many smaller prey animals, like impala, springboks, warthogs, and other small mammals, are also more active during these cooler periods. This increases the leopard’s hunting success.

Larger predators, like lions and hyenas, which are more active during the day and night, are less of a threat during twilight. Early morning hours also offer cooler temperatures compared to the harsh midday sun. This allows Cape leopards to conserve energy and be more active while avoiding overheating.

While they are most active during dawn and dusk, Cape leopards may also be occasionally active at night, especially if prey availability is high or there’s a need to travel long distances.

Baby leopards are called cubs (singular: cub).