The leopard is the smallest of the big cats, known for its beautiful spotted pattern. Leopards live throughout Asia and Africa, though numbers have been dropping since the beginning of the 20th century due to habitat encroachment. Though there is technically only one leopard species, called Panthera pardus, there are many different subspecies of leopards, each with its own fascinating habits, behavior, and home.
The African leopard species is one of the most variable, dwelling in arid deserts, vast savannahs, and even mountains. Common throughout central Africa, this leopard species has the unique ability of being able to drag carcasses many times the leopard's size into trees. An opportunistic hunter, the African leopard will eat just about anything, from insects and birds to giant wildebeests and livestock.
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Unable to match their African cousins' success, the Amur leopard is a severely endangered leopard species endemic to north Asia. According the the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), their may be less than 30 wild Amur leopards left at the dawn of the 21st century. Loss of habitat and fur poaching seem to be the main threats to this dwindling population. There may be hope for the Amur species, however; a coalition of organizations called the Amur Leopard and Tiger Alliance maintains a robust conservation effort to restore leopard numbers through breeding and habitat protection programs.
In Asia and Africa, several leopard species are subject to a color abnormality that creates an overall black coat. Called black panthers or black leopards, these animals have a faint rosette pattern upon close examination that clearly identifies them as leopards. Black leopards have been favorite animals at exotic zoos for more than a century, although the animals do not do well in captivity and are subject to depression and attacks. Due to the inbreeding of captive black leopards, temperament problems seem to have become inbred in many captive animals.
In 2007, scientists were surprised to discover an entirely new leopard species on the island of Borneo. The Borneo clouded leopard, originally thought to be identical to its cousins on the Asian mainland, was found to have genetically diverged more than a million years earlier, creating a distinct species. An apex predator on the island, the Borneo leopard is noted for its extremely long fangs, which are proportionally larger than any other big cat in existence.
Perhaps best known and most mysterious among leopard species is the ghostly snow leopard, native to the mountainous regions of Asia. There has been great taxonomic confusion about this species, with some genetic evidence more closely linking it to tigers than leopards. This astonishing animal is noted for its jumping ability, able to leap more than 50 feet (15.24 meters). Due to extensive poaching, the snow leopard has dwindled into near extinction, although several conservation unions have mounted extensive efforts to save the creature in the wild.