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Leopard vs. Cheetah: Do YOU know the difference?

Probably the most common wildlife mistake that a first-time safari visitor to Africa makes is to confuse a leopard with a cheetah. But in fact, there are plenty of differences between these two superb predators. Both in appearance and in character. And that also means that you are likely to encounter them in different wildlife terrains. And, as you read on, you’ll see that these differences between leopard vs cheetah are all inter-related.

Their different body shape influences their style of attack. Their style of attack influences the sort of terrain that they want to inhabit. The terrain that will give them the best chance of making a successful kill and keeping the successful kill.

Their size and family structure influences their position in the predator pecking order. And this position also influences their scarcity and also where they like to hang out.

So, we’ll look at the following differences between cheetah and leopard:

  • Appearance
  • Family structure
  • Style of Hunting their Prey
  • Preferred Terrain
  • Position in the Predator Pecking Order
  • Scarcity
  • Shyness
  • Collared

Difference in Appearance

Leopard vs Cheetah – appearance

At first glance leopard and cheetah seem very similar. But in fact, once you know the tell-tale signs, they are easy to tell apart from each other. The main differences you will spot between leopards and cheetahs are their spots, eyes and their build.

  • The leopard’s spots are known as rosettes as they cluster with a dark brown spot in the middle, whilst a cheetah has solid black dots.
  • A cheetah has black tear grooves between the eyes and mouth, whereas as leopard has more open facial features, with no black distinctive lines.
  • The leopard (built for strength) is far stockier and solid, which allow it to move its prey to safer ground, typically up a tree, or to a wooded koppie out of sight.
  • The cheetah is built for speed and is more slender with long legs for explosive speed. The cheetah is built like a running machine

Leopard Statistics:

Population Size: Unknown

Top Speed: 10 – 20 years

Weight: 58 km/h

Weight: 40 – 90 kg

Height: 57 – 70 cm

Length: 90 – 190 cm

Habitat: Desert And Semi-Desert Regions, Arid Regions, Savanna Grasslands, Mountainous Environments, Rainforests, And Occasionally Urban Areas

Appearance: These large carnivores are powerfully built with stocky bodies, relatively short legs, and a broad head. There are nine subspecies and are distinguished by the unique characteristics of their coats, which range from tawny or light yellow in warm, dry habitats to reddish orange in dense forests. Their coat is covered in dark, irregular spots called rosettes. These spots are circular in east African leopards, but square in southern African leopards. The tail is ringed, and the animal has distinct black markings on its face, chest, and feet.

Cheetah Statistics:

Population Size: ± 8,500

Top Speed: 10 – 20 years

Weight: 112 km/h

Weight: 21 – 72 kg

Height: 70 – 90 cm

Length: 112 – 150 cm

Habitat: Wide range of habitats—from dry forests and thick scrubs through grasslands and Sahara Deserts. In order to hide from predators, these animals prefer an environment with lush vegetation such as tall grass or bushes.

Appearance: The cheetah is a large cat identified by black marks (so-called “tear marks”), running down from the inner eye along the nose to the outside of the mouth. This feline is an extremely agile animal, having powerful hind legs and a very flexible, muscular spine. The body is long and slender, covered with coarse yellowish fur with small black markings. The tail is spotted with ringed markings, having a black tip on its end. In addition, the tail is quite long, helping the cheetah to keep balance and change direction.

Family Structures

Leopard vs Cheetah – family structure

Unlike lions, who are very sociable and work as a team, both leopards and cheetah are generally solitary. Leopards are generally asocial animals, living alone and avoiding other leopards. Moreover, when leopards accidentally encounter each other, they can engage in a fight.

In contrast cheetahs live in three main social groups: females with their cubs, male “coalitions”, and solitary males. Females lead a nomadic life searching for prey in large home ranges. Males are more sedentary and instead establish much smaller territories in areas with plentiful prey and access to females.

When younger, they often form colalitions with other young males to assist each other with catching their prey. Once matured, they prefer to operate alone and not have to compete with others for the attention of the females.

Style of Hunting Their Prey

Cheetah vs Leopard – Style of Hunting

Unlike other large African predators such as lions, leopards or hyenas, cheetahs are most active during the day; this way they avoid competition for food with these animals. Leopards are nocturnal and hunt at night, usually on the ground or from vantage points in trees.

Cheetah mainly relies on their amazing top speed to catch their prey. Cheetahs will silently creep as close as possible, identify a vulnerable animal (either one that it young, or wandered away from the pack, or heavily pregnant) and then will use its top speed of 100 km/hour to run down its prey.

But as you can imagine, it needs a certain type of terrain for this to work. Ideally a flat open savanna plain. Preferably with long grass to hide its approach.

Then it will be able to reach its full speed and not have to worry about tripping over a rock or navigating trees which will slow it down.

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Typical Prey for Cheetahs:

Cheetahs feed mainly upon smaller antelope such as puku or impala. When there is a shortage of suitable food, they can also consume small species such as hares or birds.

In contrast a leopard uses wooden trees and rocks as camouflage for its approach. They depend mainly on their acute senses of hearing and vision for hunting. It will creep up incredibly silently and the final burst of speed will be over a shorter distance. Ideally they will stalk their prey and try to approach to within 5 m (16 ft) of the target, and, finally, pounce on it and kill it by suffocation.

But its greater size and strength allows it to kill slightly larger wildlife.

Leopard vs Cheetah - cheetah drinking

Typical Prey for Leopards:

The diet of leopards includes a huge variety of animals such as jackals, antelopes, monkeys, duiker, , impala, wildebeest, birds, rodents, rock dassies, hares, snakes, sheep, goats and even insects.

Even larger animals such as eland or wildebeest can occasionally be killed by leopard, though that’s unusual.

Leopards attain all their required moisture from their food, so they can survive without drinking water for long periods of time.

Leopard vs Cheetah = leopard takin a kill up a tree

Preferred Terrain and Distribution

Leopard vs Cheetah – Preferred Terrain

So naturally this leads to one of the biggest differences between leopard and cheetah. Where you will find them…

As a broad rule (very broad), if the terrain is ideal for cheetah, then it is not ideal for leopard and vice versa. So, if a game reserve is boasting about its great leopard sightings, don’t expect to see too many cheetahs there as well.

Leopards like rocky outcrops and wooded terrain with lots of bush which they can use as cover as they approach. Cheetahs are happiest on the open savanna plains.

Naturally the larger game reserves such as the Kruger National Park, the Serengeti, the Masai Mara will have a range of terrain and so both leopard and cheetah can be found there, though usually, but not always in different parts of the park.

But if you are keen to see these animals, perhaps decide which one you most want to see? (See Scarcity later)

Best Places to See Cheetah in Southern Africa

  • Kwandwe Game Reserve (Eastern Cape)
  • Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape
  • Shamwari Game Reserve, Eastern Cape
  • Other Game Reserves of the Eastern Cape
  • Phinda Game Reserve
  • Central And Southern Kalahari (Botswana/South Africa)
  • Etosha (Namibia).
  • Kruger Park (South Africa)
  • Kafue National Park (Zambia)

Best Places to See Leopard in Southern Africa

  • Kruger National Park and its private game reserves – Sabi Sand and Timbavati
  • Ngala Private Game Reserve (Kruger National Park)
  • Shamwari Private Game Reserve (Eastern Cape)
  • Kwandwe Game Reserve (Eastern Cape)
  • Pilanesberg National Park (North West)
  • Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve (KwaZulu Natal)
  • Kalahari Gemsbok National Park (Northern Cape)
  • Serengeti (Kenya, Tanzania)
  • Kalahari Desert (Botswana, Namibia)
  • Masai Mara (Kenya0

Territorial

Leopard is also far more territorial than cheetah. They will stick to a particular part of a game reserve. Whereas cheetah will easily roam over a vast terrain.

Position in the Predator Pecking Order

Leopard vs Cheetah – Pecking Order

This is important to also note; Lions are at the top of the pecking order in terms of successful kills. Followed by Leopard and then Cheetah. So, if the carrying capacity of a game reserve is relatively low, due to poor soils, lack of rain etc., and there are lions in abundance, then cheetah will find it hard to co-exist.

Whereas leopards who act alone in stealth attacks, have a very different modus operandi to lions. So often they can co-exist relatively easily with lions. But if there are plentiful lion, then leopard will also find it harder going unless the terrain works particularly well for them.

Scarcity

Cheetah vs Leopard – family structure

So naturally it will not come as a surprise to you when I say that cheetah are the most vulnerable and scarce of these cats

Estimated Populations in Africa and in South Africa

AnimalNumbers in AfricaIn South Africa
Lion± 23,000± 13,000
Leopard± 125,000± 2,185 to 23,400
Cheetah± 8,500± 1,826

Indeed Cheetah is so scarce that many private game reserves in South Africa participate in a gene-pool sharing scheme. Whenever new cheetah cubs are born in their reserve, after they are reared from their mother’s milk, they are captured and transported to a different reserve. This ensures that the gene pool stays strong and there are no genetic inbreeding problems. This has worked incredibly successfully.

Due to their tendency to roam over vast distances, this has led to cheetah impacting local livestock farming far more than a leopard. Especially in Namibia.

In Namibia, in order to ensure than cheetahs are not shot by farmers to protect their livestock, there are several cheetah rehabilitation centres. Cheetahs are captured from farms – where they are in danger of getting shot – and taken to these centres to get them used to hunting wild prey again. (As hunting domesticated animals is much easier and so cheetah can get used to it.) Then later they are translocated back to the real wilderness.

Shyness

Leopard vs Cheetah – shyness

The leopard is a shy and elusive animal. It likes to live in the shadows. That is how it remains a successful hunter. (And perhaps why its numbers remain high.)

But there are a few private reserves, especially in South Africa, which have worked closely with leopard over many decades. So that the leopards in these reserves know that a game vehicle is not a threat to them. Effectively they have become used to the vehicle and so you see them more often.

But this is not the norm!

(Note: It also means that many private game reserves can truthfully say that they have the “Big Five” but your chances of seeing all of them will be very low. As it is the leopard in the Big Five which may elude you.)

Aside on the Cape Mountain Leopard

I have lived in the Cedarberg for 30 years. We have between 50 and 100 Cape Mountain Leopard in the Cederberg Mountains. But I know of only TWO people who have ever seen one! You see their spore. You see their droppings. A sheep farmer will lose an occasional sheep to a hungry leopard. But I have never seen one. And probably never will.

In contrast a cheetah is far less wary of a human. Of all the big cats, these are the only ones which have been known to become semi-domesticated if trained in the past. Though such practises are very much frowned upon nowadays.

This means that at some cheetah rehabilitation centres, you are very likely to see cheetah even though they may be in large enclosures.

Collared

Cheetah vs Leopard – collared

And the final difference, partially due to their scarcity and the consequent need for translocation, is that you may find that the cheetah population is collared in many game reserves. This does not mean that they are tame in any way. It just allows the researchers to find them. And it means that your chances of tracking them in their vast open ranges is enhanced. But never guaranteed.

Leopards are virtually never collared!

Top Tips for Seeing Cheetah and Leopards in Africa

Top Tips for Seeing Cheetah in Africa

So, if I have done my job correctly, the following tips should be obvious:

  • Head to game reserves with lots of wide open savanna or Kalahari plains
  • If a reserve boasts about its leopard sightings, cheetahs are less likely to be seen.
  • If it is HIGH on your priority list in South Africa, you may want to head to a reserve which has a cheetah rehabilitation programme as usually they know how to find their cheetah, and often they are collared so that the researchers can find them relatively easily.
  • As they are so scarce, allow yourselves at least 3 nights in any one reserve in cheetah-friendly terrain. Preferably four.

Best places to see cheetah in South Africa

  • Kwandwe Game Reserve (Eastern Cape)
  • Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape
  • Shamwari Game Reserve, Eastern Cape
  • Phinda Game Reserve

Where to see Cheetah – Some favourite lodges in these areas (note: no guarantees)

Best places to see cheetah in Southern Africa (Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe)

  • Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana
  • Etosha National Park, Namibia.
  • Kafue National Park, Zambia
  • Okonjima Game Reserve, Namibia

Where to see Cheetah – Some favourite lodges in these areas (no guarantees!)

Best places to see cheetah in East Africa

  • Serengeti National Park
  • Masai Mara National Park
  • Amboseli National Park

Burt the lodges are too numerous to mention!

Top Tips for Seeing Leopard in Africa

And almost in reverse, the best chances of seeing leopard in Africa are the following:

  • Head to game reserves with lots of bushy terrain, wooded glades koppies, riverine vegetation and plentiful trees
  • If a reserve boasts about its cheetah sightings, then its probably not the right terrain for leopards.
  • If a reserve talks about plentiful leopard sightings, or leopards being used to the vehicle, then that’s a good sign. If the copy just mentions that they HAVE leopard, that doesn’t mean you will see it.
  • As with cheetah, allow yourselves at least 3 nights in any one game reserve. Preferably four, to maximize your chances.

Best places to see leopard in South Africa

  • Sabi Sands Game Reserve
  • Timbavati Game Reserce
  • Thornybush Game Reserve

Where to see Leopards – Some favourite lodges in these areas (no guarantees)

Any game lodge in the above reserves will offer a good chance of seeing leopard so these are just some of our favourites.

Best places to see leopard in Southern Africa (Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe)

  • Moremi Game Reserve, Okavango Delta, Botswana
  • Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe
  • South Luangwa National Park, Zambia
  • Lower Zambezi National park, Zambia

Where to see Leopard – Some favourite lodges in these areas ( no guarantees)

All game lodges IN these game reserves will offer a good chance of seeing leopard, so these are just some of our favourites

Best places to see Leopard in East Africa

  • Serengeti National Park
  • Ngorongoro National Park, both in Northern Tanzania
  • Ruaha National Park, Southern Tanzania
  • Maasai Mara National Park, Kenya
  • Samburu National Park, Kenya

Again too many lodges to mention by name.

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Leopard vs. Cheetah: Do YOU know the difference? – was written by Cedarberg Africa

Cedarberg Africa is a specialist tour operator for Southern and East Africa. We focus on upmarket tailormade safaris for discerning and inquiring people. Chat to you about a possible trip from personal experience, weighing up the different options, to plan a trip that is just right for you.

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Sonja Brand

Africa Travel Specialist

Hi I’m Sonja, I’m here to help you plan your ideal holiday experience

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