An African Black Leopard Has Been Captured in Stunning Rare Photographs

Sightings of wild melanistic leopards are rare in Africa—but not unheard of.

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Feb 13 2019, 6:37pm

Camera trap picture of a black leopard. Image: Will Burrard-Lucas

Spectacular and rare images of a wild African black leopard were released by a UK wildlife photographer on Monday.

Will Burrard-Lucas captured this elusive predator, which is sometimes called the black panther, using camera traps in Kenya’s Laikipia Wilderness Camp after local reports of sightings.

“As far as I know, these are the first high-quality camera trap photographs of a wild melanistic leopard ever taken in Africa,” Burrard-Lucas wrote in a blog post. “For me, no animal is shrouded in more mystery, no animal more elusive, and no animal more beautiful.”

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Camera trap picture of a black leopard. Image: Will Burrard-Lucas

African black leopards, an ultra-rare big cat, are the same species as normal spotted gold-coated leopards, but they carry a special gene mutation called melanism. The mutation causes melanin, a dark pigment, to express itself as black fur. Albino animals, in contrast, carry a mutation that inhibits melanin expression.

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Camera trap picture of a black leopard. Image: Will Burrard-Lucas

About 11 percent of leopards worldwide are melanistic black panthers. Indian black leopards, aka Bagheera from The Jungle Book, are much more common, while African black leopards, aka Black Panther from Black Panther, are barely ever seen by human eyes.

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Camera trap picture of a black leopard. Image: Will Burrard-Lucas.

In addition to Burrard-Lucas’s images of the male leopard, a wild black leopardess was caught on video in 2018 by a team led by Nick Pilfold, a carnivore biologist at San Diego Zoo who runs a conservation program at the Laikipia preserve.

Pilfold and his colleagues published their findings last month in the African Journal of Ecology.

Pilfold said that this video, together with Burrard-Lucas’s photos, offer the first scientific footage of African black leopards in 100 years.

That said, photojournalist Phoebe Okall captured a picture of a wild melanistic leopard in 2013 at Ol Jogi Conservancy in Ethiopia, which was not used for scientific purposes.

Collectively, the new visuals reveal that these black cats still roam the African wilderness, inspiring mystery and awe on the rare occasions they are sighted.

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