How do leopards kill animals larger than they are?

Leopard Predation

Leopards may drag their prey 50 feet (15 meters) up a tree to protect it from large scavengers like lions.
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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