There are over 20 subspecies of leopards and eight of them are listed on the endangered species list, four on the critical list.  Leopards are often confused with jaguars, but the spots are different in the two cats.  Jaguars have larger spots that have smaller spots within the spots.  The leopard’s spots are a rosette with a solid edge. There are graceful and agile and are strong swimmers though they do not enjoy the water as much as the tiger enjoy it. 

The leopard is the most adaptable of all the big cats, living in the desert, the jungle and the high mountains.  They range in size from about 70-200 pounds with the males about a third larger than the females.[2]  Pound for pound, leopards are ten times stronger than a human; they are able to carry prey three times their body weight 50 feet up into a tree.  To give a visual example, they can caEndangered Species—the Leopard; Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Source: Wikimedia Commonsrry a baby giraffe up into a tree for safe keeping from larger predators such as lions, tigers and hyenas.

The big cats usually have a litter of 2-3 cubs but the mortality rate is high.  Cubs’ eyes do not open until they are about ten days old.  At three months old they are ready to join their mothers to learn how to hunt.  They stay with their mothers until they are about 18-24 months old.[4]   The fur of the cubs is longer and thicker than the adult cats.  

The expected life span of a leopard is 12-15 years in the wild and 18-23 years in captivity.[2] The habitat of the big cats is Africa, Israel, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, parts of Indonesia, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.  They usually have a territory up to 25 square miles.  The subspecies of the leopard family are named for the location they inhabit.[2]

No Such Thing as a Black Panther

Black Leopard; photo by: Qilinmon at the English language Wikipedia, Source; Wikimedia CommonsCredit: photo by: Qilinmon at the English language Wikipedia, Source; Wikimedia CommonsCalling black leopards “panther” is a misnomer.  Leopards are not panthers which are a different subspecies of cougars.  Over the years, it has become common to call any large black cat a black panther.  However, most likely, the cat is either a black leopard or a black jaguar with melanistic coloration.  Melanistic is a term meaning dark colored skin and hair pigment.[1]  Black leopards and jaguars still have spots which can be seen in the light. 

Black leopards are born in mixed litters.  Melanism is a recessive gene.[1]  These black cats are most commonly found in the dense tropical jungles of Southeast Asia, the coat making a good camouflage which aids the cats' survival.  They tend to be more temperamental than other leopards, reportedly because of inbreeding and they are less fertile than other leopards as well.[2]

The Critically Endangered Amur 

Amur Leopard; Photo by Art G. from Willow Grove, PA, USA, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo by Art G. from Willow Grove, PA, USA, Source: Wikimedia CommonsThe Amur Leopard is also called the Manuchurina or the Korean Leopard and is found on the Chinese-Russian Border and in North Korea.  There are only an estimated 20-30 Amur cats left in the wild and only 114 in captivity.[5]   It is the most endangered of all the big cats.   The main factors in the decline of Amur population are the loss of territory and poachers killing them for their furs.[5]  Between the years of 1970-1983 the Amur lost 80 percent of its territory.   The Amur is often compared to the Snow Leopard.

The Amur leopard can run up to 36 miles per hour in short bursts, jump ten feet straight up and leap 20 feet forward in a single bound.   Like other leopards, the Amur does not chase prey for long distances, rather it stalks and pounces and kills with a bite to the throat.  The big cat uses its whiskers as a guide while hunting, moving them back when sniffing and facing forward when walking.   The leopard holds its whiskers sideways when it is relaxed.

The Amur Leopard is distinguished from the other subspecies by its pale color and longer fur.  The coat is a pale cream color with the rosettes widely spaced and with dark centers and thick black rings.  They have been known to have light blue-green eyes.[6]

Amur Leopards Arrive


The Elusive Snow Leopard

Snow Leopard;  Photo by Dave Pape, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo by Dave Pape, Source: Wikimedia CommonsThe Snow Leopard is the most elusive of all subspecies, rarely seen in the wild; therefore, it is difficult to determine the total population of this magnificent animal.   It makes its home in the mountains of Central Asia and is widely and sparsely distributed.  The gray color of the big cat, extreme cold and rough terrain of the mountains make it extremely difficult to track.  They are sometimes called “ghost cats” due to their coloring of smoky gray with black markings. They live in altitudes as high as 18,000 feet in the summer. They prefer areas of cliffs, steep slopes and ravines. They can jump from boulders and pounce on a prey as far away as 45 feet.[2]

The Snow Leopard has a relatively small head in relation to its body.  Its short broad nose has a large nasal cavity that warms the cold air as it is passed through it.  Its huge paws have fur on the bottom to cushion and protect its feet as well as to give it good traction in the snow.  They have well developed front leg and chest muscles.  Their tail is long and bushy and is used not only for balance but as a sort of comforter to wrap around their bodies.[2]

Snow Leopards are solitary like the other subspecies of leopards.  The big cats mark their territory with scent and claw rakings.  During January through March it is breeding season for these cats.  After breeding, the male disappears leaving the female to fend for herself and the cubs.  Blue sheep and ibex are the main source of food for these cats and they bring down a prey every 10-15 days.[2]  They also eat game birds, small rodents and marmots.  Marmots are hunted for their pelts and they hibernate in the winter which sometimes forces the big cats to prey on livestock.

The Snow Leopard


The Clouded Leopard of Southeast Asia

 Clouded Leopard;  photo by Nancy Vandermey, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: photo by Nancy Vandermey, Source: Wikimedia CommonsThe Clouded Leopard is closely related to the Snow Leopard but is in fact not a leopard by genus; however it is often considered a subspecies of leopards by the average person.  This cat is larger than small species of cats, but smaller than large species.  They can purr and meow like a domestic cat and also vocalize with a low roar, soft chuffle, hiss or growl.  This cat’s pupils stay oblong, never becoming round like the big cats or vertical slits like small cats.   The Clouded Leopard has a longer tail in relation to body length and its jaws can open wider than subspecies of leopards.[2]   They have two inch long canines which are the size of a tiger’s who is ten times bigger in body size than the clouded cat; thus, this cat has sometimes been referred to as the modern saber tooth cat.   The males are often more than twice the size of the females which is the largest gender difference in the cat family.

Clouded Leopards are rain forest cats and tend to ambush from the treetops.  These cats can climb trees backwards and can hang from their back feet. Their ankle joints can rotate backwards which allows them to climb down trees headfirst.[2]  Newborn clouded cats have closed eyes, no teeth and do not walk for about two weeks.  They have polka dots on their foreheads which is said to mesmerize their prey.  Their spots are large irregularly-shaped ellipses with dark edges like looks somewhat like clouds. There are black spots on the head, legs and belly, and short black stripes on the neck.  There are black rings on the rail and the back of their ears are black.

Other Subspecies of Leopards on the Endangered Species List

Persian Leopard; photo by Marcel Burkhard, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: photo by Marcel Burkhard, Source: Wikimedia CommonsAlong with the Amur Leopard, there are three other subspecies that are near extinction; the Barbary, the Anatolian and the Persian Leopards. The Barbary Leopard is found only in the Atlas Mountains of Africa and is estimated to be down to only 12 remaining adults in the wild.  These leopards have thicker coats and are stockier than other leopards.  They can go for a month without drinking, getting moisture only from their kills.[1]

In Turkey, the Anatolian Leopard population is down to 250 in the wild. The Persian Leopard is the largest cat of all the subspecies and is native to Western Asia.  It is also called the Iranian Leopard.  As with all leopards, this cat is elusive and solitary.  Not much is known about this subspecies as it has not been extensively studied.  There is an estimated 600-800 cats in the wild throughout the mountains of Iran and a total population of about 1300 throughout Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Armenia, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Russia.[1]

North China Leopard; Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Source: Wikimedia CommonsThe North Chinese Leopard which is located south of the Amur Leopards' territory in Northern China, is endangered with only about 2500 in the wild in highly fragmented ranges, and about 100 in captivity.[1]  These cats are large leopards with a darker orange background rather than the tan, tawny or grey.  The rosettes on this subspecies is larger with darker fur enclosed. 

Leopards are beautiful and mysterious.  Their survival is threatened not only by a dwindling habitat; but also for their pelts and various organs and bones that are used for healing concoctions in many Asian countries.  It is only with a conscious effort to protect these magnificent creatures there will be assurnace they do not go the way of the saber-toothed tiger.


The copyright of the article Facts About Leopards an Endangered Species is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.


National Geographic - Eye of the Leopard
Amazon Price: $19.97 $12.34 Buy Now
(price as of May 16, 2013)

Killer Cats: Lives of Leopards