I recently watched a Nature special about leopards that was absolutely fascinating. Of all the big cats, it seems that leopards may be the most intelligent, relying on cunning more than muscle. If you have an hour, here’s the video:

I’ve always thought of leopards and their non-immediate kin of pumas, cougars, and jaguars as little more than small, solitary lions: strong, fast hunters that rely on brute force. Not so. They lurk in the shadows, hiding from troops* of baboons and other potential enemies. When they make a kill and a clan** of hyenas wants a piece, leopards have little problem giving up their entire meal. They don’t go looking for a fight.

Unsurprisingly, leopards are doing spectacularly well. (This fact may vary for their taxonomic Family I’ve mentioned, but if so, only very slightly.) Whereas lions, cheetahs, and tigers face serious threats to their overall numbers, leopards enjoy a population of around a half million. Even the black panther (of the leopard variety) seems to do okay, despite its seemingly detrimental recessive gene.

I think a lot of people appreciate the awesomeness of big cats like lions and others when they seem them taking down a large animal, but leopards don’t seem to enjoy quite the same esteem. That has been true even of me (at least until now). I think part of the reason is simply how difficult it is to record these beasts. They’re quite wary of everything that isn’t food, and that includes humans. This would make particular sense if our ancestors treated them the way our ape cousins do. (Yet despite this wariness, they do often live very near humans, even invading villages with utter stealth on a frequent basis.) It really is a fascinating animal.

*A group of baboons is also known as a congress. They cooperate better than ours, though.
**Appropriately, a group of hyenas is also known as a cackle.

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