Black leopards (also known as panthers) are currently making headlines— but this time it’s not movie-related! This past week, both a photographer and a team of researchers have managed to capture photographic evidence of the hyper-rare African black leopard.
Black leopards have a condition called melanism. Whereas albinism causes one to have a lack of melanin and coloring, melanism is the opposite, causing a surplus that makes the feline’s fur appear black. Other countries like India also have black panthers, but African black panthers are particularly elusive.
Researchers have long suspected black panthers to be living in Kenya, but the last scientific documentation occurred back in 1909.
“Regionally, we’ve heard reports of black leopards living here in Kenya, but high-quality footage or imagery to support these observations has always been missing,” said Nick Pilford, head of the San Diego Zoo research team.
While some photos have emerged over the years, they were always taken at a distance and could not be used as confirmatory evidence.
Like this one, taken by Phoebe Okall in 2013.
So, when Pilford and his team learned of local black panther sightings, they immediately grabbed their cameras in hopes of capturing a rare event.
“Almost everyone has a story about seeing one,” Pilford told National Geographic.
“It’s such a mythical thing.”
Now, after being published in the African Journal of Ecology, the group’s findings are blowing everyone away.
The team’s footage shows a juvenile, female black leopard traveling with a normal-colored leopard assumed to be her mom.
In an odd twist of fate, wildlife photographer Will Burrard-Lucas was at the camp at the same time as the researchers and also managed to capture photos of the feline.
When the photographer had heard about black panther spottings in the area, he’d travelled to Kenya in hopes of capturing a photo. In a blog post, he wrote: “For me, no animal is shrouded in more mystery, no animal more elusive, and no animal more beautiful.”
“For many years, they remained the stuff of dreams and of farfetched stories told around the campfire at night.”
“Nobody I know had ever seen one in the wild and I never thought that I would either.”
Luckily, Burrard-Lucas’ efforts paid off. He also managed to capture photographic evidence of the hyper-rare African feline.
“I couldn’t believe it, and it took a few days before it sank in that I had achieved my dream.”
The photographer’s photos are particularly important because, as Pilford notes, they’re the first close-up, high-quality photos to show the African black leopard’s characteristic rosette pattern.
The team and Burrard-Lucas successfully captured the first scientific documentation of an African black leopard in nearly 100 years.
The fact that the images were captured in Kenya suggests the area may have a higher proportion of black leopards than other African countries. This led Pilford to note that Wakanda, the fictional home of Marvel’s Black Panther superhero, is located near Kenya. “It’s a unique coincidence,” he told National Geographic.
“The only place where we have black leopards is where this place in the Marvel Universe appears to exist.”
Watch the footage below!
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