For the first time in more than 100 years, the exceedingly rare black leopard has been seen roaming wild in Africa. Rumors had long persisted of black cats in Kenya, but the last photographic proof of their existence on the African continent came out of Ethiopia in 1909. Lured to Kenya’s Laikipia Wilderness Camp by persistent stories of sightings, researchers from the San Diego Zoo set up remote video cameras, while wildlife photographer Will Burrard-Lucas installed still photo cameras, and they both returned images of the elusive cat. They made the photos available this week.
The leopards are melanistic, a condition that causes the cat to produce so much pigment it appears black. They’re most often seen in Southeast Asia. The Kenyan sightings were a jolt of good fortune for researchers. After hearing that scientists from the San Diego Zoo had recorded video of the cats, Burrard-Lucas headed for Kenya to fulfill a dream to finally spot one of these elusive creatures. Sure enough, a juvenile female soon slunk in front of one of the cameras, a sighting as rare as it is beautiful.
She was traveling with an adult female, presumably her mother, though the adult did not have the rare coloration.
“We had always heard about a black leopard living in this region, but the stories were absent of high-quality footage that could confirm their existence,” said Nicholas Pilford, a scientist at San Diego Zoo Global and a member of a leopard conservation program in Laikipia County. “This is what Will’s photos and the videos on our remote cameras now prove, and are exceptionally rare in their detail and insight.
“Collectively these are the first confirmed images in nearly 100 years of a black leopard in Africa, and this region is the only known spot in all of Africa to have black leopards.”
Photos by Will Burrard-Lucas