Often there is confusion about which is which when guests see Cheetah or Leopard. Many people do not really know what the difference between leopard and cheetah are or even what they look like. They all come to the bush wanting to see the big 5 but are not always too sure which one of the two belongs to which of the big Five.
It’s really quite easy to tell the difference between leopards and cheetahs if you know what to look for.
Cheetahs have long legs, a tall, slim build body and its colour is tawny with black spotted fur. The spots help camouflage it in its environment. It also has the black tear stripe markings on the face which is said to help them when hunting, since they are diurnal animals, hunting in the day and still need to rely on their speed which is said to be about 120km an hour. The sun is said to reflect the black away from their eyes so that they don’t get blinded. Their long tail acts like a rudder which helps them maintain balance at those high speeds. Unlike other cat they are unable to retract their nails except for the dew claw which sits on the front paws. The males will occasionally form small groups comprising 2 or 3 animals whereas the female always remain solitary.
The leopard on the other hand has a background colour of the coat which is tan and can vary form pale to quite dark. The neck and legs are covered in black spots, with more intricate markings called “rosettes” on the rest of the body. Each rosette is made up of three or four black spots on the outside with a yellow-brown centre. The under-parts of the leopard are white with black spots, even the tail is white underneath with rosettes on top. Other distinguishing features to look for are the large head, powerful neck and shoulders, short and muscular limbs. The white rings around the eyes symbolizing that they are nocturnal hunters. Hunting by night while spending most the day resting, usually draped on tree limbs or lying in thick undergrowth. As a result they’re difficult to see, unless you’re lucky enough to spot one resting or sunning itself on a rock or tree limb. Once darkness sets in, they move around intermittently until after dawn. Adult leopards are solitary and territorial and will only associate long enough to mate.
By: Casper Marais – Kapama River Lodge Ranger