For many of the guests visiting South Africa’s Kapama Private Reserve along their African Safari adventure, it is their first visit to the  continent. They are always so excited to see the variety of wildlife the Reserve has to offer. Many of the wildlife species guests know from documentaries but some they still get confused with or swap the names around, especially when it comes to the spotted cats. The two that get swapped around the most when seen while out on a game drive are the Leopard and Cheetah.

Because both of them are fairly difficult to find while out on safari, our guests are generally quite confused as to which one is which. I decided to talk a little bit about the main obvious differences between them and also some not so noticeable differences!

Here are a couple of the main differences listed from most noticeable to least:

Leopard Cheetah
Large head and skull with strong neck and body Smaller head, slender body with longer legs
Rosette patterns on body Body covered in black spots
No tear marks visible on face Tear marks visible down side of nose
Powerful muscular attacker relying on camouflage for stalking Sprinter lacking strength relying on speed to catch prey
Prey normally hoisted up into trees Always feeds on the ground
Leopards have bigger front feet than back feet The Cheetah on the other hand has really big back feet
A Leopard’s tail is much more tubular in shape A Cheetah’s tail is  much more flat in shape

This is just a couple of the more obvious differences to be on the lookout for next time you see one of the spotted cats while out on safari. If one compares the size of these cats you will notice although a Cheetah might stand taller than a Leopard, the Leopard is much heavier than the Cheetah. The simple reason is that Cheetahs do need to have a more slender build for them to obtain their speed of up to 112km/h whereas Leopard needs the extra muscles to be able to drag their prey up into a tree out of danger from other predators.

Although you might sometimes see Cheetahs up in a tree it will always be one easy enough for them to jump in as they are not as good climbers as your Leopard. Reason being that a Cheetah’s claws don’t retract as they need it for traction when running at such high speeds. Thus the edges are not as sharp to be able to grip and climb into trees. Whereas Leopards have retractable claws to protect them to stay sharp at all times and grip trees as they are climbing!

Hope next time you visit a reserve that features both of these incredible cats, that this information will help you.

Story and photos by Buffalo Camp Ranger – Hancho Olivier



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