Africa and Asia


Forests, mountains, grasslands, and deserts

A cunning cat

The leopard is the epitome of stealth. Its very name brings mental pictures of this great spotted cat crouched on a tree limb awaiting the approach of a gazelle, or of a sleek, spotted body slipping silently through the dry savanna grass with scarcely a ripple as it nears its chosen target. Silence and stealth are the trademarks of this ultimate predator.

Seeing spots!

Leopards are the smallest of the large cats (to include lions, tigers, and jaguars) and are the most widespread, with subspecies found in Africa and Asia. They have a body structure similar to jaguars and are covered with flower-shaped spots on their backs called rosettes, with no dot in the center; the jaguar has a dot inside each of its rosettes. This profusion of spots helps leopards hide from their prey, breaking up their body outline in forests or grasslands. Leopards living in dry grasslands are a lighter color than those found in rain forests.

In the thick, dark rain forests of Southeast Asia, leopards that are nearly black can sometimes be found; these cats may look solid black at first glance, but their spotted pattern is visible in certain light. Some people believe these “black” leopards to be wilder and more aggressive, but their behavior is the same as their lighter-colored kin.

Although snow leopards and clouded leopards have “leopard” in their common name, they are different enough from the true leopards to have their own classifications within the cat family.
Leopards can hear five times more sounds than humans, even the ultrasonic squeaks made by mice.
When it's time for a rest, leopards like to climb trees and sprawl out on the branches. They are the largest cats to climb trees regularly.
The character Bagheera in Rudyard Kipling’s "The Jungle Book" was described as a black panther, which is really a very dark-colored leopard.
The Medici family of Renaissance Italy used a leopard as its emblem and kept several of these cats as pets.

The San Diego Zoo has had leopards in our collection since our earliest days in the 1920s. Since 1929, we have had 70 leopards, representing five subspecies, born here.
Currently, the Zoo has one Amur leopard, named Oskar, at the Asia Cats exhibit—in the first exhibit on the left after the entrance.

Leopards at risk

Although the leopard is an adaptable cat, able to live in various habitats, some leopard subspecies are at critical risk. Leopard-skin coats were legal for many years and are still sold secretly. Many trees in leopard habitats have been cut down for building projects. Poachers kill leopards for their whiskers, which are used in some West African potions. Because leopards prey on livestock, ranchers trying to protect their animals frequently poison the large cats. All leopard subspecies are either endangered or threatened. The U.S. Endangered Species Act and the Commission on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) help protect leopards, as do wildlife parks in their home countries.

Help for Amur leopards

The Amur leopard, a subspecies living at the San Diego Zoo, exists on the cusp of extinction. As a conservation organization, we are working with other zoos to develop a sustainable and genetically diverse population of Amur leopards that can contribute to new scientific knowledge and to the survival of the species in restored and protected native habitat.

Monitoring the wild populations of Amur leopards is critical to understanding population trends, which will determine the effectiveness of current conservation measures. The Amur Leopard and Tiger Alliance and its partner, the Wildlife Conservancy Society, have been monitoring the leopards since 1997. The cats (and other wildlife) have been surveyed in winter by counting tracks in the snow along established animal paths to estimate leopard density and population size. In 2002, camera traps were added to allow researchers to identify individual leopards by their unique spot patterns and monitor individual animals over many years. Used year-round, the images uncover the secret lives of these cats walking, stalking, and rolling playfully on the ground. Camera images also captured prey species including sika deer, boars, and yellow-throated martens.

The Amur leopard is under siege from a variety of pressures including poaching of the leopards and their prey, loss of habitat due to forest fires, inbreeding due to tiny, isolated populations, human development and activities in their habitat, and lack of political commitment to conservation (a trend that is slowly shifting in the cats’ favor). Yet things are far from hopeless. The small but mighty wild population in Russia’s Primorsky Krai has remained mostly stable over the past 30 years, in spite of significant human pressures. Anti-poaching efforts and educational programs appear to be working. China has established a reserve that connects with leopard (and tiger) habitat in Russia, and there is a possibility of establishing a second wild population by reintroducing zoo-bred Amur leopards in Russia’s Far East.

The protection of leopards, their prey, and their habitat is finally improving. Through cooperative, committed, international conservation efforts, leopards will have something to “stalk about” for generations to come.