Perhaps it is a fear common to all primates, but the first time that I heard a leopard making its deep 'huffing' call outside my tent, I was terrified. Leopards are solitary big cats that live all over Africa and as far as South-East Asia, wherever there is sufficient tree cover for them to hide in. They are stealthy hunters, preferring to pounce rather than chase their prey. While they are not generally a threat to humans, they will eat just about everything else; from bugs to gazelles, baboons to dogs. Our primate ancestors even fell victim to leopards.
The first time that many people see a leopard, there is a moment of confusion; "is this a leopard or a cheetah". They shouldn't feel alone. The Maasai tribe, a pastoralist society bordering the Serengeti and known for their traditional knowledge of plants and animals, calls both leopard and cheetahs the same name.
Leopards are heavier and more strongly built than cheetahs, but still one third the size of lions. Their spots are dark rosettes with a hollow center, all on a tan background. Leopards hunt at night, generally in dense vegetation; preferring to pounce on their prey, rather than chase after them. They stalk slowly through grass or bushes, and attack when only a few meters away.
Cheetahs, smaller and lighter than leopards, are built for speed. They chase down their prey during the daytime in dramatic races. A cheetah's spots are round and solid.
The leopards of Serengeti can be seen along rivers and in the denser parts of the woodlands. By day, leopards often lounge and nap in large trees with sloping stems. After making a kill, they will drag it back and up into a convenient tree for protection; presumably from lions or hyenas who might steal their catch. A leopard will then return to the tree for several days to feed and rest. The classic pose of a leopard is feet dangling from a large Acacia tortilis tree, fast asleep with a gazelle draped over the tree in front of it.
Unlike lions, leopards are solitary animals throughout their lives. They establish and defend territories, meeting only to mate. Leopards mature at two years old and can have cubs every two years after that. Mothers appear to allow their young into their territory and have been seen to cooperatively hunt with them.
Leopards communicate by roaring and by scent. Their roaring sounds like a person sawing through a very rough piece of wood. Roaring can define their territories or signal that they are alarmed. Leopards also purr and meow similar to domestic cats, but normally only between mother and cubs. Scent marking is done using an anal gland similar to other cats. Marks are sprayed on bushes or trees on or near the leopards territorial boundary. They claw at the tree, sharpening their claws, and then spray urine on the tree to mark it.
The Serengeti leopard population appears to be healthy, though because they are so stealthy and reclusive, not as much is known about them as lions or cheetahs. Leopards, because of their stealth and their ability to live on a wide and varied diet, seem to have a relatively stable population across Africa and southern Asia.
The best places to see leopards in Serengeti are along the riverine game-viewing tracks. Leopard camouflage makes them extremely difficult to see on the ground, so looking into tall trees with inclined trunks is the best bet for finding a resting leopard.