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5 Ways you can spot the difference between a leopard and a cheetah on your luxury African safari


Leopards and cheetahs are always an exciting find whenever you are on an African holiday. But these two big cats have befuddled many a tourist, since people find it quite difficult to distinguish between the two.

It is almost as if they are the twins of the African bush. Mother Africa can tell them apart – almost without looking. And you know there is a difference between them, but you’re just not sure what it is. That is until you know what to look for.

Here are 5 questions you can ask to help you tell them apart on your next wildlife safari:

What patterns do they have on their fur?

At first glance it may seem as if these two cats have exactly the same markings on their fur. Especially when you only see them briefly while you are on your holiday safari.

However, upon closer inspection you can clearly distinguish between the patterns of these two predators. Leopards have a rosette pattern. That is black rose-like markings that encircles a small patch of fur that is slightly darker than the fur on the outside of these markings (photo on the left). These patterns are unique to each leopard, and helps game rangers to identify individual leopards on game drives.

On the other hand, cheetahs have solid oval or round spots (photo on the right). As is the case with leopards, the pattern on a cheetah is also unique to each individual animal.

Does the animal have any tear marks?

There is no doubt that when you are on an African safari holiday these two species are some of the most majestic animals you will see. In those beautiful faces lie two clues as to which one you have found:

The first thing you need to keep your eyes peeled for is tear marks. A cheetah has two distinct tear marks, running all the way from its eyes to its mouth, across the contours of its face.   

According to legend, these marks were created when a mother cheetah could not stop crying over losing her cubs. In reality we are not sure what the reason for the tear marks is. One possible explanation is that it absorbs harsh rays from the sun, since cheetahs hunt during the day.

Leopards have no tear marks on their faces. 

And while we are focusing on their faces, note that cheetahs have dark, amber eyes. This is in contrast to the leopard’s eyes which are blue, green, or yellow.

Where did you spot them?

Since these two cousins have two completely different hunting styles, you can often tell which one you are spotting by taking a look at their habitat. Even though their living quarters may overlap, they have quite opposite preferences in where they want to live.

Cheetahs rely on speed. As the fastest land mammal, they need wide open spaces where they can reach top speeds without being in danger of getting hurt. The less trees and other hurdles there are, the better. Which is exactly why they choose open plains and savannahs. The Serengeti is a great example of these open plains that cheetahs call home. The Serengeti is a must see African wildlife safari destination.

Leopards rather rely on the element of surprise. Stalking their prey until the very last moment when they pounce. Therefore, they prefer areas with a lot of trees, thick bushes and tall grass. Leopards also habitually drag their prey up a tree to protect it from larger predators. The Sabi Sands Game Reserve in South Africa provides an ideal habitat for these big cats. With multiple high-end lodges in a region brimming with leopards and other wildlife, it is the ideal game reserve for luxury African safari holidays.    

Does the animal have a muscular physique?

Body type is another big difference between a cheetah and a leopard.

Cheetahs are built for speed. They have long legs, lean bodies, and small heads which enable them to reach speeds of up to 120 km/h! But running fast comes at a cost – their bodies compromised on muscle. Unfortunately, this makes them easy targets for larger predators who will easily steal the prey they have killed.

Cheetahs also have a tail that is about two-thirds of its body length. The flat end acts like a rudder which helps them to quickly change direction while running.  

Leopards have much shorter legs, but muscular bodies. They have to be strong to be able to drag a dead impala up a tree to protect it from scavengers. Leopards’ tails are also long, but tubular,which helps them maintain their balance while climbing in trees.

Was the animal in a tree?

Leopards are often spotted in trees during wildlife safaris. They find trees quite useful. Leopards use trees to hide their prey, to take naps, and to scout the area. They have retractable claws that allow them to easily climb trees – especially when they are in danger.

Cheetahs are not great climbers. They cannot retract their claws, and there is a very simple explanation for this. They need their claws for traction (as is the case with athletes and spiked shoes). Their claws help them to easily reach top speeds. Because of this, you will not spot a cheetah high up in a tree.

Are you considering taking an African safari from Australia to see these two magnificent animals in their natural habitats? Then you should contact Destinations Africa – your local African travel specialists. We would love to help you plan your ideal African trip.


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