Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Leopard!

Sri Lanka has the largest concentration of leopards in the world. Who knew? Most certainly I didn't but once I learned this bit of fact, I was determined to add them to my list of things I must see while I'm in Sri Lanka.

The leopard, Panthera pardus, is a member of the Felidae family and the Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya) is an Asian subspecies.

The leopard is the smallest of the four "big cats" in the genus Panthera, the other three being the tiger, lion, and jaguar. 


Don't confuse me with a jaguar.  Leopards may sometimes be confused with two other large spotted cats, the cheetah and the jaguar.  Aside from body build, the difference between the cat species lies primarily in the spots. The cheetah has longer legs and a thinner build that makes it look more streamlined and taller but less powerfully built than the leopard. The jaguar is more similar in build to the leopard but is generally larger in size and has a more muscular, bulky appearance.

The cheetah has simple black spots, evenly spread; the jaguar has small spots inside the polygonal rosettes; while the leopard normally has rounder, smaller rosettes than those of the jaguar.  The leopard's rosettes are more densely packed, and do not usually have central spots as the jaguars do. Both leopards and jaguars that are melanistic (completely black or very dark) are known as black panthers.

Hunter par excellence.  Leopards are powerful, opportunistic predators that can run at at speeds approaching 58 kilometers per hour (36 mph.  It can also be a very stealthy predator hunting down all types of small and medium-sized prey. The leopard consumes virtually any animal that it can hunt down and catch.

To avoid competition with more powerful carnivores like lions and tigers,leopards rely on their unequaled ability to climb trees to haul their prey high up to eat in relative safety.

Leopards can primarily be found in jungles and forests with good arboreal coverage, although they can adapt to more open areas like herbaceous savannahs, scrub jungle and mountainous regions.

The leopard was once distributed across eastern and southern Asia and Africa, from Siberia to South Africa, but its range of distribution has decreased radically because of hunting and loss of habitat. It is now chiefly found in sub-Saharan Africa; there are also fragmented populations in the Indian subcontinent, Sri Lanka, Indochina, Malaysia, Indonesia, and China. Because of its declining range and population, the leopard species it is listed as a "Near Threatened" species on the IUCN Red List.

Leopard lifestyle. Leopards are solitary creatures and are primarily nocturnal, usually resting during the daytime in trees or thick bush.

Each individual has a home range that overlaps with its neighbors; the male's range is much larger and generally overlaps with those of several females.

Leopards continually move about their territory, seldom staying in an area for more than two or three days at a time. Ranges are marked with urine and claw marks and leopards announce their presence to other leopards with a rasping cough. Leopards also growl, roar and purr.

Leopard mama.  Depending on the region, leopards may mate all year round.The estrous cycle lasts about 46 days and the female usually is in heat for 6–7 days. Gestation lasts for 90 to 105 days.

Females give birth in a cave, crevice among boulders, hollow tree, or thicket to make a den.

A litter includes two or three cubs, whose coats appear to be smoky gray as the rosettes are not yet clearly delineated. The female abandons her nomadic wandering until the cubs are large enough to accompany her. She keeps them hidden for about the first 8 weeks, giving them meat when they are 6 or 7 weeks old and suckling them for 3 months or longer.

To find a leopard.  The Sri Lankan leopard is in great danger of extinction due to the destruction of its jungle habitat, the genetic isolation of the leopard population on the island, and limited number of specimens living in a relatively small physical area.  Even so, a recent study has shown that Yala National Park (also known as also known as Ruhunu), located in southeastern Sri Lanka, has one of the highest recorded densities of leopards in the world.  Finding out this tidbit of information, I started to do some research on Yala and one of the popular things to do.....and best way to catch sight of a leopard in the wild, is to go on an animal safari. 

Lucky for me, Sri Lanka is a small island and it should be easy to plan a visit to Yala.  Seeing a leopard in the wild would be absolutely amazing!  Note to self.  Bring along the binoculars :-)