The name "leopard" originated from the mistaken belief that the leopard was a hybrid between the lion (Leo) and the "pard" (Panther). In fact, panthers are not a separate species of cat at all; the leopard, like the lion, is simply another species of the genus Panthera. The words "pard" and "panther" are confusing terms which have been used for several of the big cat species.
Leopards (Panthera pardus) have highly variable coats, essentially pale brown and whitish on the underside. The back and flanks bear black, rosette-shaped spots. Usually the spots are smaller on the head and larger on the belly and limbs. These markings serve the leopard well by breaking up its body contours and helping it to blend into the background. A recessive gene causes melanism, a totally black coat, in many leopards. This strain of leopard has caused the incorrect belief that the "black panther" is a distinct cat species.
Most literature classifies the leopard as solitary. This is essentially true, although a little misleading. The female will spend the majority of her life in the company of her young, which she is solely responsible for rearing. These offspring can number as many as four in rare instances, but usually only one and sometimes two.
The males of the species are far more solitary. Their territories are much larger than their female counterparts and can encompass as many as 4 or 5 females within their own. Both sexes are predominantly nocturnal, but can be highly active during the day if the weather is cool enough. Their movements are dictated more by temperature than availability of light - or the lack thereof. Males are more active than females.
Habitat and Distribution:
Because of its highly adaptable hunting and feeding practices, the leopard has the widest distribution of all the big cats. Throughout Africa--south of the Sahara--and southern Asia, it inhabits most areas with sufficient cover and suitable supplies of prey, including tropical rainforests, dry savannahs and cold mountains.
More than 100,000 leopards survive today, but their numbers are going down. The population decline can be attributed to their attacks upon domestic livestock and also to the value placed on their skins. Moreover, in Africa, the leopard is one of the "Big Five" most-sought-after prey of the Western sport hunter, the other four being the lion, buffalo, elephant and rhinoceros.
Note: Some information has been excerpted from World Wildlife Fund.