Leopards in the Judean Desert are not entirely extinct. The Nature Reserves and Parks Authority has learned of an unknown male leopard being seen several times in the last few weeks near Ne'ot Hakikar, south of the Dead Sea.
Leopards in Israel are an indigenous subspecies, the Judean Leopard. Until recently it was believed only one - whom researchers nicknamed Hariton - still roamed the Judean Desert. The leopard population in the Negev is more stable, with 6 to 10 individuals. The number of leopards in the Judean Desert is, however, unsubstantiated.
In recent years the authority has not kept a systematic leopard watch, but researchers from Tel Aviv University have in recent months intensified the watch.
The leopard is almost exclusively a solitary cat - males and females come together to mate and then separate again. Each individual controls a territory of a few dozen square kilometers. Females typically have two cubs per litter and in most cases one reaches maturity. According to studies in Israel in the 1980s and early 1990s, leopards here feed mainly on ibexes (a form of wild goat) and hyraxes, but apparently they are exceptionally effective in hunting domestic cats. Only rarely do leopards succeed in bringing down a mature ibex, and if they do the feast lasts them several days.
The anonymous leopard now sighted near the Dead Sea has approached residential areas and even attacked some domestic animals. It has been a few days since the last sighting, and the Parks Authority now believes the leopard has moved on to another area.
The Authority actually hopes this is so because further intrusions by the leopard into southern towns might generate concern and some public pressure to capture the animal. In the early 1980s the authority caved in to just such pressure and captured two female leopards - Bavta and Enigma - and placed them in zoos. This was a serious blow to the native leopard population in the Judean Desert.
Leopards roam the boundaries of their territories to bar entry to competing leopards of the same gender. Leopards in Israel have no history of attacking humans, unlike countries like India where dozens of such cases are recorded every year. This is probably because of the high density of the human population and because people have been crowding into the leopards' natural habitats. The leopard once inhabited many regions in Israel, and up to the 1970s there were sightings in the Galilee.