Individual Identification Methods

The naming of an animal (including leopards) has the potential to detract from its wildness, and this is where the contentiousness comes in. However our official opinion is that leopards are named for reference. Unofficially our guides, drivers and guests may start to refer some individual leopards in a more amiable way (King of the North, Hamu etc.), as we get to follow some of them from birth to death in daily basis, or at least watch and enjoy their majesty. Avoiding forming an emotional attachment would be difficult.

In our official stance, we try to avoid using pet names or human names to leopards. Even in our unofficial nick names, behind each name there would be a story (not just a random name).

Assigning names to the leopards helps us in finding them, aids us in recording their movements and certainly helps us in our day to day game drives.

Whisker Spot Pattern Identification Technique

Whisker spot pattern identification technique was initially introduced in 1970s to distinguish individual lions (Pennycuick and Rudnai, 1970). Later the same technique was developed for identifying and naming individual leopards at few places in Africa. In 1989, beloved Sri Lankan scientist Sriyani Mittapala and the crew explained about the reliability of identifying individual leopards using a similar technique (Mittapala etal, 1989).

Leopard Trails learnt the technique that we use today for identifying and naming individual leopard from our South African companions at Londolozi.

Naming an individual leopard start when we have a clear face shot of that particular leopard. There are few vibrissae/whisker- bearing horizontal spot rows in the muzzle area.The top vibrissae/whisker-bearing spot row is used as the reference line or the indicating line. Then we count the number of spots between the indicating line and the nose in each side and state as a ration. The first number refers to the right cheek (our left) and the second to the leopard’s left cheek (our right) (ex- 2:3, 3:3, 4:5 etc.)

Figure 1: Pahalahenthota 3:3 male, red circles are essentially the areas in which a leopard’s spot pattern is to be found.

With the purpose of giving a meaningful name, in front of the spots ratio we state the name of the territory or the born area of that particular leopard. Guiding team will gather together and argue back and forth for a while about a suitable name regarding the areas the particular leopard frequently seen.

Behind the spots ratio we state the gender of the leopard (male or female).

When we count those whisker spots, we could get easily confused with one or more spots along the nose line. As we are focusing only on whisker spots, we ignore the spots along the nose line.

Figure 2: Kotabadi 2:3 female, red circles show the spots along the nose line which we should ignore, red arrows show the reference lines and white circles show the whisker spots.

Given that most will have no more than 5 spots a side this gives 25 possible ratios (With exceptions). There is the possibility that there will be a few leopards even in the same area with the same combination of spots (ex- Sathmaga 3:4 male and Katagamuwa 3:4 male). It can become confusing when individuals have the same spot numbers, but thankfully the patterns or the configuration are often different.

Figure 3: Sathmaga 3:4 male (left) and Katagamuwa 3:4 male (right), showing the configuration differences of whisker spots even they have the same spot combination.

Even if thewhisker spots’s configurationmatch, we can still look at a combination of forehead pattern, spots under the eye, nose colour, eye colour differences, scars, prominent spots elsewhere, sex, size and territory to differentiate between them.

Steps To Confirm The Identity Of A Leopard

  1. Check the whisker spot ratio (Narrow down from the database)
  2. Try to narrow down your search further using the information such as sex and the territory.
  3. Out of the possible results, check the forehead spot pattern or the spots under eyes.
  4. Check the other unique features such as broken and short tails, torn ear lobes, prominent scars etc.

When the leopards are young, spots could appear spottier. This is simply because they have the same number of spots, but the spots just appear much more condensed as they haven’t yet stretched out over their growing frames, as they will as they get older.

Figure 4: Three months old (left) and 24 months old (right) New road 2:2 male

References

Pennycuick C, Rudnai JA. A method of identifying individual lions, Panthera leo, with an analysis of the reliability of the identification. J Zoology Lond. 1970;160:497–508

Miththapala, S., J. Seidensticker, L. G. Phillips, S. B. U. Fernando, and J. A. Smallwood. 1989. Identification of individual leopards (Panthera pardus kotiya) using spot pattern variation. Journal of Zoology (London) 218:527–536.

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