Rare African black leopard clearly photographed after more than 100 years
Published Wednesday, February 13, 2019 4:30PM EST
A British photographer got the surprise of a lifetime when he managed to snap rare photos of a black leopard in Africa -- the only high-quality photos taken in over a hundred years.
Photographer Will Burrard-Lucas told CTVNews.ca over the phone, “it’s not an exaggeration to say this was a dream come true … they’re pretty much the number one thing I’ve wanted to photograph.”
He’s been fascinated with black panthers since he was a child, and in a blog post he said, “no animal is shrouded in more mystery, no animal more elusive and no animal more beautiful.”
Burrard-Lucas had heard rumours of one being spotted at the Laikipia Wilderness Camp in Kenya. The creature is rarely photographed clearly in eastern Africa.
“Usually they’re fleeting glimpses or shots from the air so they’re blurry or far away,” he said.
So earlier this month, he set up his specialized Camtraptions camera traps which are set off by movement. After sifting through accidental photos of hyenas, he eventually captured a female black leopard and her cub in fine detail.
“It was the ultimate subject. I never expected to get shots of one,” Burrard-Lucas said, explaining that leopards are very shy and secretive. “It took a few days to really sink in.”
Black leopards have a condition known as melanism, which causes the animal’s body to produce an excess of pigment. Conservation scientist Nicholas Pilford estimates that only 11 per cent of the world’s leopards have it.
“There have been sightings of black leopards in Kenya [and Ethiopia] for a long time … but in terms of good-quality imagery, these images we have are very rare,” he told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.
The African black panthers is so rare, scientists aren’t even sure the genetic mutation is the same one found in Southeast Asia, Pilford said.
He leads a conservation project in partnership with the San Diego Zoo and has been independently tracking leopards for a year and half.
Black leopards common in Asia but not Africa
Pilford explained the majority of leopards in Southeast Asia are black -- with the black colour being seen as an evolutionary advantage in the jungles of India and Malaysia. But black leopards are rare in Africa.
His team recently published a paper in the African Journal of Ecology on their findings and he coordinated press releases to be timed with Burrard-Lucas’ rare photos.
A 2017 paper tracked melanism in leopards globally but researchers only had reference to one high-quality photo of a black leopard taken in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1909.
“So this is an 100-year update in the natural history publications of leopards … that needed to be done” Pilford said. “And I think it’ll be a benefit to the conservation of the species.”
Burrard-Lucas explained his cameras made his series of photos truly unique.
“These are the first high-quality camera trap photos of a black leopard anywhere.”
'Black Panther' popularity is happy coincidence: Pilford
Black panthers are the catch-all term for any big cats, like leopards and jaguars, with melanism.
Pilford has been delighted at the fact his published research coincides with the recent boom of black panthers in pop culture, which includes Marvel’s 2018 film “Black Panther.”
He explained that according to some comic lore, the fictional country of Wakanda is typically located in East Africa, which is very close to where this real black cat was found.
“It’s really neat. The black panthers we have are very close to the fictional ones of Wakanda,” he said.