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The social behaviour of leopards

29 March 2016


Geographic distribution and range size


The leopard Panthera pardus (Linnaeus, 1758) is the large roaring cat with the greatest geographic distribution in the World as it occurs widely in Africa and in the East as far as China and the far east of Russia. As are most of the cats, the leopard is solitary with only a female and her young or a consorting male and female associating with each other at times. A leopard is resentful of any intrusion of its range although some range use overlaps occur, especially in arid environments with a poor prey base. The land tenure system of a leopard is broadly similar to that of many other types of cat in that the adult males utilize large ranges that overlap with the ranges of one or more adult females. However, the range of an adult female is usually smaller than that of an adult male.

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The range size of a leopard is dependent on the prey abundance, although it seems that a range of 6 km2 seems to be the minimum that will satisfy all the relevant ecological requirements of a leopard as was found for adult female leopards in various wildlife parks in the East and Africa. In arid regions that have low prey densities, however, much larger ranges are required, and behavioural adaptations may allow some range use overlap in time but not in space within and between the genders. Moreover, a leopard mostly uses a smaller core area of its range in a particular time frame and does not use all the portions of its range equally at all times. Such behavioural adaptations are necessary to allow leopards to form genetically viable populations under harsh conditions. For example, the leopards of the southern Kalahari have the largest ranges known in leopards, with a mean range size of 2104.4 km2 for an adult male and one of 1258.5 km2 for an adult female, and with overlaps in range use within and between the genders.

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Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (37 991 km2) consists of two national Parks, the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park of South Africa (9591 km2) and the Gemsbok National Park of Botswana (28 400 km2). Despite range use overlaps by male and female leopards it is estimated that the South African portion of this park can harbour an estimated 35 adult leopards, and the Botswana one 136 leopards. To maintain a genetically viable contiguous population of at least 50 adult leopards, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is therefore essential as it would contain at least 171 adult leopards.

A leopard travels widely at regular intervals through its range, and in regions where the ranges are small it may criss-cross its range in one night. However, the large ranges in the southern Kalahari are patrolled in stints of five to six days, travelling up to 33 km per night in the cool, long winter nights, but less far in the hot, short summer nights. While moving about a leopard will scent-mark its range frequently. The distance that is travelled in a night largely depends on a variable combination of how far a leopard has to travel to make a kill, on meeting mates for reproduction and on advertising range occupation.




Social integration among leopards occurs largely through olfactory (scent) information that is carried in the urine and faeces of a leopard and in secretions from glands in the anal sac. Scent carries over shorter distances than calls, is more persistent than calls or visual signals and has the advantage of being able to convey information long after a leopard has left a particular spot. Although calls, tactile and visual signals are also used at times to attract mates or to demarcate ranges, scent-marking seems to be an efficient form of olfactory communication among these wide-ranging, solitary carnivores.

Scent-marking is done by both genders and such marks are usually deposited along travel routes, on the margins of the range, especially where routes may cross, or on other conspicuous places such as bushes or tree trunks in the range. Some scent marks are relatively permanent and are marked time and again at an interval of a few days to a month or more. When faeces or scrapes are left at such places too, it leaves additional visual marks of range occupation. Scrapes are made by raking the find feet through soil to remove grass and disturb the soil over an area of some 60 cm long x 20 cm wide. Such scrapes are often scent-marked with urine too.

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Urination is used in two ways: irregular copious urination that lacks any apparent scent message, and regular squirts of small volumes of urine that are deposited regularly on shrubs, grass tufts, low branches or tree trunks as a leopard moves about. When urine is deposited on shrubs and grass tufts it may be followed by scraping, clawing or rubbing against tree trunks. In more moist regions such as rain forests, a specific tree trunk may be clawed repeatedly and urine is often sprayed around the base of the trunk. When spray-urinating, a leopard turns away from the object being sprayed and then squirts a few jets of urine backwards onto it with a raised tail. Leopards also rub against tree trunks to leave their body odour as a scent mark.

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It is not yet clear what all the messages are that are conveyed by scent-marking. However, some of the scent almost certainly carries information on the individual characteristics, residential and reproductive status of a leopard. It may possibly even carry information that would identify a specific individual. Scent-marking also attracts males to females in oestrus and assist a leopard not to hunt in a recently hunted area.




The most common calls of a leopard are coughing, sawing or rasping. Depending on a leopard´s social status these calls may also function as spacing mechanisms or to bring leopards together for mating. The sound of sawing can carry for 2 to 3 km under favourable conditions and it is the call of a leopard that is heard most often. When making this call a leopard keeps its mouth partly open and expels and inhales air back and fore across its soft palate. This call is sometimes associated with females in oestrus but at other times it may serve as avoidance behaviour in leopards.

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Leopards may call at any time of the day, but they do so most often between sunset and sunrise when they are most active. The calls of individual leopards vary to some degree and can be used by a trained observer to identify such individuals. This also allows leopards to recognize their neighbours. As do other roaring cats, leopards also sometimes puff through the nose as a form of appeasement, greeting, courtship or mating. Other sounds include mewing, grunting, snarling, spitting and hissing, but as in all the roaring cats a leopard is not known to purr.

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Bothma, J du P & M D Bothma 2012. Leopard range size and conservation area size in the southern Kalahari. Koedoe 54(1), Art.#1076 4 pages. http://dx.doi.org/10.4102/koedoe.v54i1.1076.

Bothma, J du P & C Walker 1999. Larger carnivores of the African savannas. Pretoria: J L van Schaik, pages 61 - 91.

Sunquist, M & F Sunquist 2002. Wild cats of the world. Chicago, Chicago University Press, pages 328 - 330.


article by Prof J du P Bothma



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