Wildlife photographer Will Burrard-Lucas managed to photograph a rare black leopard in the African wilderness, something that many say hasn’t happened in 100 years. The melanistic leopard, also known as a black panther or black jaguar, was spotted at the Laikipia Wilderness Camp in Kenya.
The leopard is a male and estimated to be roughly two years old. Burrard-Lucas followed the leopard tracks through the undergrowth with a guide, known simply as Steve. He then set up his Camtraptions camera traps. "I'm quite used to doing camera traps and not actually achieving anything because it is such a speculative thing - you don't know if the animal you're trying to get is going to come down the trail that you've set the cameras up on," Burrard-Lucas said.
Neither the photographer nor the guide knew if the tracks were those of the black leopard or a regular spotted one. "I never get my hopes up, and after the first couple of nights I hadn't got this leopard and I was beginning to think I'd be lucky if I get a photo of a spotty leopard, let alone this black one," Burrard-Lucas said.
On the fourth night, the photographer got lucky. Though camera trap photos with a flash are usually very clear, the black leopard was somewhat disguised by the darkness and all Burrard-Lucas could see were his eyes staring out.
"We had always heard about black leopards living in this region, but the stories were absent of high quality footage that could confirm their existence," said Nicholas Pilfold PhD, lead researcher for a leopard conservation program in Laikipia County. "Collectively these are the first confirmed images in nearly 100 years of a black leopard in Africa, and this region is the only known spot in all of Africa to have a black leopard."
Dr Pilfold and his team say that "confirmed" refers to the clarity of the image, which allows the researchers to see the leopard's distinctive pattern. Though Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper photographed a similar leopard in 2013, it was revealed that the leopard had been born in captivity and brought to Kenya as a cub.
The photographer has left his cameras set up at the park in Kenya and will fly back in a few weeks to see if they have captured anything else, though time is running out since the leopard may soon be pushed out of his territory by a larger male.
Black panthers are black due to melanism, the same pigmentation that makes house cats blacks. In a sense, it is the opposite of albinism. In Africa and Asia, large melanistic cats are usually leopards, while in South America, they are jaguars. It is not necessary for black leopards to mate to produce a black cub, though both parents need to carry the recessive gene for melanism.
Some animals have adaptive melanism, which are hereditary changes in melanin production that cause the darkening in color of populations of animals in darkened surroundings. Adaptive melanism occurs in many animals, including mammals such as squirrels, felines and canids, and coral snakes.