British wildlife photographer captures African black leopard in rare sighting

Two eyes glow in a pool of inky darkness as a black leopard prowls through the African night. 

These remarkable images captured by a British wildlife photographer offer a sighting of the rarely spotted black panther – or melanistic leopard. 

Will Burrard-Lucas, said he had "achieved a dream" when his camera traps produced images of black leopard in Kenya’s Laikipia county last month. 

"It was unbelievable, and at first the enormity of it just didn’t sink in. I was scrolling through the images on the camera and all I could really see were the eyes," he told the Telegraph. 

"I’d never really seen high-quality camera trap photographs of black leopards before, and certainly not from Africa."

The 35 year old from Beaconsfield said he was inspired to photograph a black leopards after seeing one in India. He headed to Kenya after hearing rumours that one had been seen at the Laikipia wilderness reserve about 60 miles north of Nairobi. 

Following directions of locals, he set up a infra-red camera traps on a path where the tracks suggested several leopards had recently passed by. 

Despite a few frustrating nights of failure, the plan paid off – capturing images of a single juvenile male in early January.

Mr Burrard-Lucas said he intended to return to Kenya to continue the project.  "It was very much a speculative recce trip and I wasn’t fully prepared, so there are a few shots I wasn’t able to get."

The images were released at the same time as a study by a group of conservationists who have been studying the local leopard population for a year. 

Nicholas Pilfold, a conservationist from San Diego zoo global, said his team first captured images of a black leopard in January 2018, several months after they launched a project to mitigate human-leopard conflict in the area.

"We had a leopard research program for about the last year and half tracking the leopards in the area. Then we heard reports of black leopards so we put some of our cameras into the areas where they had been sighted, and we captured video of a single individual juvenile female" he said.  

The team have since established the presence of two other black leopards in the area: one adult male and one juvenile male, which was photographed by Mr Burrard Lucas.  

Their finding were published in the African Journal of Ecology last month.

The paper said the only previous sighting in Africa that was confirmed by photography was near Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia in 1909. 

However, the Daily Nation, a Kenyan newspaper, challenged that claim on Wednesday, saying  one of its photographers had succeeded in photographing a black leopard in 2013.  

The Telegraph has also seen images of a black leopard that was captured and collared on Kenya’s Lewa conservancy in the 1990s. 

Mr Pilford rejected claims that his paper was misleading about previous sightings, pointing out that it included a photograph of a black leopard taken in 2007 to demonstrate that their findings confirmed previous reports. 

He said he had made inquiries about the leopard photographed in the Nation, and was told that it was a captive cat imported from America as a kitten.

He was not aware of the Lewa leopard when he wrote the paper, but said he had since confirmed that the image was genuine.

"I wish I’d know ahead of time about that," he said.  "I think you have to differentiate between a sighting and photographic evidence. If someone was to read an article from Kenya that is a the first sighting, I’d understand they’d think that was absurd. The hundred years thing is if you go into the scientific record in written form, there is nothing there, as far as I understand."

"It is still a very rare and unique finding. African leopards have the largest remaining range of any of the sub species. They are photographed very regularly. If melanism was very common thing we’d have seen lots more of it," he said. 

In October last year a professional photographer called Bobby Neptune photographed a melanistic leopard, apparently somewhere in northern Kenya.   

In August 2 2012, the 5,000 acre Ol Malo conservationist ranch posted on its Facebook image a picture of a melanistic leopard spotted in the wild on its territory. It said the leopard was known locally as "Hussein" and had been seen regularly since he was born in 2004. 

Mordecai Ogada, a Kenyan zoologist who has criticized White conservationists, said that while doing his MsC he and colleagues trapped a melanistic leopard, also on Ol Malo, in 2001. 

"Black panther" is the popular name for any big cat with melanism, the recessive genetic condition that causes a black coat. In Africa and Asia, that generally refers to leopards. In Latin America, black panthers are usually jaguars

Melanism in big cats is linked to a mutation of a signalling protein that affects pigmentation and caused by a recessive gene that must be carried by both parents. It occurs in about 11 percent of leopards globally, but most cases are concentrated in South East Asia. In the Malay peninsular some populations are more than 90 percent black. 

It has been hypothesised that the condition is an adaptation that aids camouflage in the dense jungles of hot and tropical environments, which would explain why it is relatively rare in Africa, where most leopards live in relatively arid grasslands. 

The concentration of black leopards in the open landscapes of Laikipia documented by Mr Pilford’s team appears to challenge that hypothesis. 


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