Vertebrate fauna of SE Asia


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Text and photos by Nick Baker, unless otherwise credited.
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Family : Felidae
Species : Panthera pardus

Head-body length : up to 1.3 metres
Tail length : up to 1.0 metre
Weight : up to 65 kg

The Leopard is the most widespread of all the big cats, ranging from southern and central Africa through parts of the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent to Southeast Asia.

It is highly adaptable and can survive in a variety of habitats. In Southeast Asia, however, it is largely a lowland forest animal, occurring in  evergreen rainforest and dry, deciduous forest.

It is a solitary, opportunistic feeder which prowls the forest floor seeking out prey items such as wild pig, muntjac and other ungulates, and macaques. It is an ambush predator, and strong climber. In Southeast Asia's forested habitats it appears to be largely diurnal, being active even at mid-day when other large animals are inactive.

Leopards have a lithe, muscular body with
a long, slender tail. The skull is relatively large, with powerful crushing jaws. Males are larger than females.

There are two colour forms. There is the familiar spotted form, which is pale yellow to golden brown and is adorned with numerous small rosettes on the back and flanks, and dark spots on the legs and chest. The second form is melanistic i.e. with intense black pigmentation which almost totally obscures the rosettes (though under strong light the rosettes may still be apparent).

In southern Thailand and Peninsular Malaysia nearly all individuals are melanistic, and are sometimes called 'black panthers' (though this term, which can also apply to black jaguars in South America, is considered somewhat old-fashioned). Elsewhere in Southeast Asia the spotted form is more common - and in such areas both spotted and black forms may be born in the same litter.

The presence of black forms in deep forest may be an evolutionary adaptation to improve camouflage.

The distribution of the Leopard is increasingly fragmented due to forest destruction. The species has not adapted to oil palm plantations - perhaps because there is a low diversity of ungulate prey, or possibly because there are few places for this ambush predator to hide.

IUCN recognize 9 subspecies of leopard, of which three occur in Southeast Asia : the Indian Leopard (P. p. fusca) occurs in parts of western Myanmar, the critically endangered Javan Leopard (P. p. melas) occurs only on the island of Java, and the widespread Indochinese Leopard (P. p. delacouri). 

The Indochinese Leopard occurs in parts of southern China, Myanmar, Thailand, Indochina (Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam) and Peninsular Malaysia. In Singapore the species is clearly extinct on the main island, and is probably also extinct on outlying, forested islands.

Figs 1 and 2 : Trail camera images of two different adult, melanistic leopards from lowland, primary forest in Peninsular Malaysia. This is the subspecies known as the Indochinese Leopard (P. p. delacouri).

Fig 3 : Typical spotted form from southern Africa - this is the subspecies P. p. pardus.

Figs 1 and 2 image use courtesy MYCAT ゥ. 

References : M3, M5


Fig 1
Fig 2

Fig 3