How do leopards kill animals larger than they are?

Humans aren't normally on the leopard's menu. However that didn't stop one from killing 125 people from 1918 to 1926 in Indian villages located within the Himalayas. See more big cat pictures.
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From 1918 to 1926, a serial killer stalked villagers in a remote area of the Himalayas in India. Across a 500-square-mile (1,294-square-kilometer) region, 125 people died upon having their bodies savagely ripped apart and devoured. For years, residents put themselves on voluntary lock-down at night, scared to encounter the vicious murderer. In spite of such precautions, the killer managed to break into a home and take down a young boy [source: Sunquist and Sunquist].

The culprit would eventually be called "the man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag." The leopard, which had developed a taste for humans, was eventually tracked down and shot by hunter Jim Corbett. Corbett's feat was so appreciated by the Indian government that it named a national park in his honor.


As is the case with lions, man-eating leopards are the exception rather than the rule. In 2004, residents of Mumbai, India, experienced at least 12 leopard-related attacks. Surprisingly, wildlife officials didn't place the blame on bloodthirsty big cats. Instead, they attributed the incidents to too many people living near the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, home to around 30 leopards [source: BBC]. When human populations and animal predator populations collide, the former may naturally become the prey.

Normally, leopards prefer to dine on gazelles, antelopes and other ungulates (hoofed animals). Found in a variety of habitats ranging from tropical forests to mountains, leopards are most widely distributed in Southern Africa and Southeast Asia. However, due to poaching and deforestation, all leopard subspecies are classified as either endangered or threatened [source: San Diego Zoo].

These big cats are among the smallest in the Felidae family. Weighing in at an average 129 pounds (59 kilograms), leopards are half the size of lions and tigers. For comparison, adult tigers, the largest big cats, weigh around 500 pounds (226 kilograms). But what leopards lack in size, they make up for in strength. With specialized senses and anatomy tailored for hunting, leopards can occasionally slay animals up to three times their size [source: Schutze].


Leopard Predation

Leopards may drag their prey 50 feet (15 meters) up a tree to protect it from large scavengers like lions.
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Think about the last time you dangled a toy in front of your house cat. You can easily goad one into "hunting" a piece of string and witness its stalk-and-pounce maneuvers. Once the feline spots the moving string, it immediately crouches down toward the floor, eager to catch its newfound prey. If the string is too far away for the cat to catch, it may slowly creep toward it and resume its crouch. Then, in a burst of energy, it will spring onto the end of the string and claw it into submission.

While a cheetah will chase down its dinner, leopard predation involves a similar stalk-and-pounce pattern as the house cat uses, taking its prey by surprise. This sneak-attack style allows a leopard to strike large prey, such as giraffes, antelope and apes. Its offensive arsenal begins with its coat. Not only is the leopard's pattern of black rosettes super fashionable, the spots conceal the big cat's whereabouts against the landscape, similar to how zebra stripes work.


Like their domesticated relatives, leopards are also nimble climbers. Their proportionally large paws and claws provide them with the best climbing tools among the big cats. As nocturnal animals, many leopards prefer arboreal hangouts during the day, lounging on a shady branch when the sun's up. These elevated resting spots serve as safe havens and lookout posts for prey.

Because they mostly hunt after dark, leopards rely heavily on their keen nocturnal eyesight and hearing. To locate prey in the dark, leopards have circular pupils that dilate more than the human eye can [source: NOVA]. Their eyes also contain a specialized membrane called the tapetum that reflects the light that passes through the retina twice, giving the eye an additional chance to focus the limited light entering [source: NOVA]. Leopards hear five times better than the average human. Their concave ears capture more sound waves and their inner ears are sensitive to vibrations two octaves above what our auditory systems can detect.

To get an idea of a leopard's strength, consider these stats. When pressed, leopards can run up to 36 mph (58 kph), leap 20 feet (6 meters) in one bound and jump 10 feet (3 meters) off the ground [source: San Diego Zoo]. Researchers have witnessed these camouflaged leopards edge toward their prey with a slow, deliberate gait, approaching as close as 13 feet (4 meters) without detection [source: Sunquist and Sunquist].

Once in position, the leopard leaps at its prey with claws outstretched. When assaulting a larger animal, the big cat will bite the throat to suffocate the prey [source: Kruger National Park]. After a successful hunt, a leopard may haul its victim up a tree branch 50 feet (15 meters) above the ground to keep it safe against scavengers such as lions, cheetahs and hyenas [source: San Diego Zoo]. As an example of their incredible strength, it's been reported that leopards can use their jaws and necks to pull giraffe carcasses weighing an estimated 275 pounds (125 kilograms) up trees [source: Skinner et al]. Most of the time, however, the spotted cat sticks to smaller targets such as gazelles, foxes and jackals [source: Sunquist and Sunquist].

With eyes, ears, coat and muscles all adapted for hunting in the wild, it's surprising to learn that leopards don't have a highly successful kill rate. Observational evidence indicates that daytime hunting is rarely effective, and they slay medium-size animals less than 25 percent of the time [source: Sunquist and Sunquist].


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More Great Links

  • Bies, L. "Panthera pardus." Animal Diversity Web. 2002. (Aug. 19, 2008)
  • Bright, Michael. "Man-Eaters." Macmillan. 2002. (Aug. 19, 2008)
  • "Leopard." African Wildlife Foundation. (Aug. 19, 2008)
  • "Leopard." Kruger National Park. (Aug. 19, 2008)
  • "Leopards caught in fearful Bombay." BBC. June 29, 2004. (Aug. 18, 2008)
  • "Mammals: Leopard." San Diego Zoo. (Aug. 19, 2008)
  • Schutze, Heike. "Field Guide -- Kruger National Park: Mammals." Struik. April 30, 2002. (Aug. 19, 2008)
  • Skinner, J.D.; Smithers, R.H.N.; and Chimimba, Christian T. "The Mammals of the South African Sub-region. Cambridge University Press. 2005. (Aug. 18, 2008)
  • Sunquist, Melvin E. and Sunquist, Fiona. "Wild Cats of the World." University of Chicago Press. 2002. (Aug. 19, 2008)