Black leopard spotted in an African county for the first time in hundred years

African leopards are the most abundant subspecies of leopard, but black leopards are extremely rare.

Most of us have only seen a black leopard in The Jungle Book. But one of Bagheera's majestic, real-life cousins was caught on camera in a Kenyan reserve recently — the first sighting of a black leopard in a hundred years.

Researchers from San Diego Zoo Global captured video footage of the black leopard in early 2018, and only published their research earlier this year.

Wildlife researchers in the study were treated to the first confirmed sighting of a black leopard in Africa since the last one in 1909.

The leopard is melanistic, a rare genetic mutation giving it a coat that looks all-black in the dark. Image credit: Will Burrard-Lucas/Burrard-Lucas Photography

The leopard is melanistic, a rare genetic mutation giving it a coat that looks all-black in the dark. Image credit: Will Burrard-Lucas/Burrard-Lucas Photography

Popular wildlife photographer Will Burrard-Lucas followed the study up with high-resolution images of a black leopard in the Kenyan reserve after the research was published in January this year.

The vast majority of the leopards in Kenya have a light coat scattered with dark spots. A tiny percentage of them, however, have developed a genetic mutation called melanism, giving them an all-black coat that shines during the daytime.

But at night, infrared cameras can pick up on these spots, the San Diego Zoo Global said in a report.

The good-old leopards we're familiar with. Image courtesy: Panthera.org

The good-old leopards we're familiar with. Image courtesy: Panthera.org

The leopard was filmed by remote-sensing cameras that were set up to study the behaviour and social dynamics of leopards in the area.

Locals in Kenya had reported sightings of black leopards living in the country, but no footage or images of high-quality were available to back up these claims.

"That's what we've provided here with our cameras, and now we're able to confirm what has been long suspected about black leopards living in Laikipia County," Nicholas Pilfold, a scientist from San Diego Zoo Global, told NPR.

While African leopards are known to be the most abundant subspecies of leopards anywhere, the black leopard sighting is a very rare one.

"It’s exciting to see black leopards on our cameras—and more research into their melanism is needed, so we can understand why they occur here," Ambrose Letoluai, another researcher part of the leopard conservation program.

From past cases of melanism, scientists have understood that it is more likely in leopards living in densely-forested areas. The thick, abundant shade that the tree canopies offer gives the leopard better camouflage against the background of dimly-lit forests.

Screengrab from video footage of the black leopard. Image credit: San Diego Zoo Global

Screengrab from video footage of the black leopard. Image credit: San Diego Zoo Global

However, the recent leopard sighting is an arid region of Kenya called the Laikipia County, which is more 'Savannah' than a forest. The interesting and unexpected sighting raises questions of how what melanism is really an adaptation for.

Moreover, leopards are a critically endangered species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species. This latest sighting has highlighted the need for an effective conservation program — one that can keep the rare species alive and well in its (unexpected) new habitat.

Tech2 is now on WhatsApp. For all the buzz on the latest tech and science, sign up for our WhatsApp services. Just go to Tech2.com/Whatsapp and hit the Subscribe button.





Top Stories


also see

science