This may sound like a simple one, but it’s not always as clear-cut as one would think. Ok if you have a clear view of the leopard’s nether regions, or a male and female are next to each other, then the difference is glaring, but in certain situations, it can be mighty hard to distinguish between the sexes.
A young male can easily be confused with a female, and after dark with only the beam of the spotlight to go on, it’s hard to properly gauge the size of a leopard.
I’ve starred in a number of embarrassing incidents in which I’ve too quickly pronounced on the sex of a spotted cat, only to hastily be made to retract my statement, muttering some excuse as to why I botched what should surely be a simply matter of differentiation. “The grass was too long” or, “It can be really hard to tell” are two of my go-to lines.
When I first came to the bush, the thrill of seeing a leopard in the flesh was so overwhelming that I didn’t really worry about whether or not it was a female or male or what age it was (mainly because I was completely unable to tell), but after more and more leopard sightings, sexing them started to become much easier. We’ll run through a couple of the easier tells to look for.
Adult male leopards are significantly bigger than females. Although weights of adult males are often exaggerated, with some captured individuals reported to weigh close to 100kg, a far likelier average weight in the Sabi Sand Reserve would be around 70-75kg. Of course if the leopard has a full stomach that could add significantly to its weight, as individuals can eat probably a good few kilograms of meat at a single sitting. Also, leopards from different areas attain different sizes (eg. Leopards from the Cederberg region of South Africa are much smaller than their Londolozi cousins, but we’ll go into that another day), but wherever you are in the world, adult males are still going to weigh more than females, probably around 50% more in most cases. An average female on Londolozi might be in the 40-45kg range.
Take a look at the above grouping of photographs. The Anderson male, Londolozi’s biggest, clearly stands out from the other two with his massive head and neck. The loose skin hanging below his neck – known as a dewlap – is characteristic of a mature male. The bottom two photos illustrate how similar in size and proportion a young male is to a female, so that without recognising the individual or getting a look at other characteristics, telling one from the other can be tricky, although both are clearly much smaller than the adult male.
When dealing with a litter of cubs, the size difference between male and female becomes apparent from early on:
The Tatowa female was one of a litter of three females born in early 2012 to the Ximpalapala female of the north.
The second and probably easiest way to sex a leopard is simply – and without trying to be so blunt – to look between the hind legs. The photo below of the Piva male in the Tugwaan Riverbed was used in the Londolozi leopard ID kit a few years ago, until it was pointed out to me that the image was so glaringly obvious in portraying a male leopard that I might want to use a more subtle one. I took the hint.
Directly descended from the original mother leopard and therefore part of the royal lineage of Londolozi.
This is where things get slightly trickier, as again the size difference isn’t always the only thing to go on. A young male leopard’s tracks can be very similar in size to an adult female, and even within the same sex there is a tremendous amount of variation between individual track sizes. The Nanga female has probably the smallest tracks of any female leopard on Londolozi, whilst the Mashaba and Nkoveni females both have tracks that could easily be confused with a male, so large are they. The Camp Pan male had tracks so big that he was sometimes tracked in the belief that it was a solitary lioness! The general rule of thumb is that males have larger tracks, but the shape of the individual tracks themselves can also give one a clue.
The outside edge of a male’s rear pad tends to be quite rounded, whilst a female’s tends to be more angular. Why this is so I can’t say, but it is a fairly consistent rule.
The edges of tracks can be obscured depending on the substrate, so this way isn’t always clear, and again, there can be variation between individuals.
At the end of the day, spending time with any leopard is special. Being able to determine whether it’s a male or female can, however, give you that extra edge when it comes to interpreting its behaviour, and understanding just how the individual you are watching fits in to the African wilderness it inhabits…