LOISABA CONSERVANCY, Kenya – Images of a rare African black leopard have been captured in Kenya, the first verifiable record of the animal for nearly 100 years, researchers have said.
Using motion-sensitive cameras set up near water holes, researchers from San Diego Zoo Global and the Loisaba Conservancy captured video of the largely nocturnal cat after receiving reports of sightings from local pastoralists in Laikipia County in northern Kenya.
While they were working in the area over the past year, the team was shown another image of a black leopard taken at the Ol Ari Nyiro Conservancy, also in Laikipia County, in 2007.
Black leopards – or panthers – carry a gene mutation for “melanism” that makes their coats appear black, but these images were of a high-enough quality to reveal the spots.
“Collectively, these are the first confirmed images in nearly 100 years of black leopard in Africa,” said Nicholas Pilfold of the San Diego team, also lead researcher for a leopard conservation program in Laikipia County.
The researchers published their findings in the African Journal of Ecology in January.
The same month, British wildlife photographer Will Burrard-Lucas captured additional high-quality images of the cat in Laikipia Wilderness Camp. (Check out the photos in the first video below, and Will’s quest in the second video.)
“I’m able to set up a kind of studio-like lighting and just leave my cameras set up for weeks or months,” he told Reuters.
Burrard-Lucas heard from a friend that a black leopard had been spotted in the area and, after contacting the landowners, headed off to set out his cameras near the animal’s tracks.
Barrard-Lucas said in his blog post about the photos: “I was relying on knowledge from Kenyans who had been observing the leopard over a period of more than a year. Specifically, Letoluai Ambrose (a local researcher), Luisa Ancilloto and the rangers (Muhammad and Patrick in particular) were extremely generous in sharing their knowledge of the leopards habits.”
He said: “It’s very dusty, so you can pick up tracks especially early in the morning after the night,” he said. “You can see everything that’s passed.”
Scientists had assumed that a black coat was an evolutionary response to leopards moving out of the dense forests where their spots camouflage them, San Diego Zoo said in its statement. The discovery of a black leopard in an open, arid habitat in Kenya raises questions about that theory, however.
(Reporting by Hereward Holland in Loisaba Conservancy; Additional reporting by George Sargent in London; Editing by Kevin Liffey, Alexandra Zavis and Frances Kerry)
WATCH Elusive ‘black panther’ sighted in Kenya for 1st time in 100 years
WATCH My quest to photograph the African Black Leopard
The Real Black Panther – Black Leopard spotted in Kenya
The full set of my African black leopard photos. What a stunning animal…
Please note, an important message from Will Burrard-Lucas on his blog:
“People have raised the valid concern that the leopard may now be a target for trophy hunters. Fortunately trophy hunting is illegal in Kenya. My take is that the benefits of promoting tourism far outweigh the risks and hence I have stated the location. Tourism brings valuable revenue to these places and is often a critical source of funding for conservation efforts. I would like to encourage people to visit Kenya, support local communities through tourism and look for leopards; you have a good chance of spotting a spotty leopard and maybe, just maybe, a black one. There have been sightings of black leopards across Laikipia, Mt Kenya and the Aberdares so the black leopard in these photos is certainly not unique.”