The leopard, along with the lion, tiger, jaguar and snow leopard, diverged from their common ancestor 2 to 3 million years ago. The genetic diversity of leopards is comparable to or greater than that of other feline species, such as lions, cheetahs, jaguars and pumas. African leopards are the most genetically variable among all leopard subspecies, while the Far Eastern leopard is the least.





Snow leopard

The modern leopard emerged 470,000 to 825,000 years ago in Africa (different fossil dating methods give different results). The ancestral leopard may have gone extinct during faunal turnovers that occurred throughout the world except in Africa, with the modern leopard later spreading out to other parts of the world from the African continent. African leopards were the first group to split off from the common ancestor. They possess the broadest range of genetic variation and have more in common with other subspecies of the Panthera family.

Migration of the modern leopard out of Africa (geographical distribution)
leopard migration routes possible leopard migration route to Java
The Asian lineages are estimated as somewhat younger, between 170,000 and 300,000 years old, consistent with a migration out of Africa to Central Asia, then further east and south, to modern India, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, then northward to the northern parts of Korea, China and Russia’s Far East. The leopard may have had to cross the Afro-Arabian land bridge, perhaps by the Sinai passage, following the route of African migrants that settled in the Mediterranean. During the late Pliocene and early Pleistocene, it migrated to and settled in Eurasia. The leopard’s migration routes correspond precisely with the postulated migration of modern human populations out of Africa.
© The New York Public Library
The South Arabian leopard (Panthera pardus nimr) has far more in comon with the Aftrican lineages than with the Central Asian ones, which suggests an earlier and perhaps different migration route to the southern Arabian Peninsula. The main migrations between Africa and Eurasia took place on the Afro-Arabian landmass between 20 and 5 million years ago, and are thought to have stopped when the Red Sea became fully formed, with the Sinai passageway serving as the only available corridor between the continents.

The similarities between Indian and Sri Lankan leopards leave no doubts that the modern Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotyia) descended from the Indian one (Panthera pardus fusca). A phylogenetic analysis of leopard subspecies, which is based on evolutionary data, as well as genetic findings indicate that the Far Eastern leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) descended from the North Chinese subspecies (Panthera pardus japonensis), while the latter, in turn, descended from the East Asian leopard (Panthera pardus delacouri). The three subspecies are probably the youngest, as their many similarities suggest.

The Javan leopard (Panthera pardus melas) is highly distinctive from other Asian leopards for evolutionary reasons that remain controversial. It may have travelled from the Malay Peninsula via Sumatra. However, that the leopard ever inhabited Suimatra is unclear; moreover, the significant genetic distinctions from all the other modern leopard subspecies, its similarities with African subspecies and other Panthera members suggest that the Javan leopard may not belong to any of the modern leopard lineages, and is probably a relic population from some previous migration. Alternatively, the leopard could have been brought to Java in the past to be reintroduced, in the same way it was likely brought to the small island of Kangean, which is a short distance off Java and Bali. The origin of the Javan leopard remains unclear and calls for further research.

Modern and historical geographic range
Historical leopard range Modern leopard range