The African leopard (Panthera pardus pardus), found in sub-Saharan and northeast Africa, has a striking fur coat. Beautiful to look at, the coat serves important functions as well. The black spots, or rosettes, form a pattern that camouflages the cat as it stalks its prey. That rosette pattern, unique to each animal, also identifies individual leopards, similar to a human fingerprint.

Though rare in Africa, there is also an all-black leopard, whose rosettes are barely visible against its black fur. Black leopards are not a unique species or subspecies. The coloring is the result of a genetic mutation that causes an increased production of melanin.

Leopards are the smallest of the four “big cats,” the others being the lion, tiger, and jaguar. Highly adaptable, they live in any of a wide variety of habitats, including savannas, deserts, mountains, and rain forests. Their diet is flexible, too. Though they prefer medium-sized ungulates such as gazelles and deer, they also eat insects, reptiles, and birds.

Solitary and nocturnal, African leopards need a lot of space to live and reproduce. That’s becoming a problem. As the human population grows in Africa, people are converting forests, savannas, and rain forests to areas of agriculture and livestock farming. Urban sprawl is also encroaching on the African leopard’s natural habitat.

Increasingly, leopards are coming into conflict with humans. Farmers’ livestock is a tempting and convenient food source for leopards, particularly as their typical prey decline in numbers. Farmers often resort to killing leopards to protect their livestock.

The leopard’s beautiful coat also makes it a target for poaching for the skin trade and for traditional African medicines and religious practices.

Worldwide the leopard population is declining and it is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Communities and organizations are working to protect them through habitat preservation, education, and other conservation efforts.

  1. How fast can a leopard run?

    • Answer

      Leopards can move at speeds more than 57 kilometers per hour (36 miles per hour). They can leap more than 6 meters (20 feet).

  2. What happens as populations of predators, including leopards and other big cats, shrink? Why are these big cats so important?

    • Answer

      Ecosystems that lose top predators such as big cats become unhealthy, as the natural balance of predator and prey is upset. For example, with fewer big cats, prey such as baboons would see greater population growth. A larger baboon population creates more opportunity for diseases that could affect more species in the ecosystem and also spread to humans.

  3. What are some successful approaches for conservation of Africa’s big cats, including leopards?

    • Answer

      Conservation organizations raise money to educate people about the importance of big cats to ecosystems. They fund projects in communities to tackle the problems, such as how to protect livestock from a leopard living in a natural environment near an agricultural area. Governments can also help by passing and enforcing laws that make selling furs and other body parts illegal.


capable of adjusting to new surroundings or a new situation.


the art and science of cultivating land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).


tactic that organisms use to disguise their appearance, usually to blend in with their surroundings.


environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.

noun, plural noun

animals raised for sale and profit.


active at night.


animal that is hunted and eaten by other animals.


rose-shaped patch of color on the skin or fur of some animals, such as cheetahs and jaguars.


mammal with hooves, usually divided into even-toed ungulates (cattle, camels, deer) and odd-toed ungulates (horses, zebras, rhinoceroses).

urban sprawl

unplanned low-density development surrounding an urban area that often starts as rural land. Also called suburban sprawl.