For the first time in years, images of the elusive African black leopard have been caught on camera, by wildlife photographer Will Burrard-Lucas in Kenya. The photos show the majestic animal walking through darkness, its eyes glowing as it stares directly at the viewer.
“Black panthers are iconic creatures and yet very few images of wild black panthers exist,” said Burrard-Lucas in an email to Hyperallergic. “This is not just because leopards are extremely secretive and hard to see, but also because only a tiny percentage of leopards are black.”
CNN reports that the last confirmed photographic evidence of a black leopard occurred in Ethiopia in 1909, though Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper claims that its photographer, Phoebe Okall, was able to photograph a black leopard in 2013.
According to Nick Pilfold, a global conservation scientist at the San Diego Zoo and part of the team of biologists Burrard-Lucas was working with, some female leopards appear black as a result of melanism, a gene mutation that causes an over-production of pigment. During the day, the leopard’s coat appears black in its entirety, but at night, the leopard-print pattern is visible due to infrared imagery, as seen in Burrard-Lucas’s photographs.
“Black leopards are usually associated with dense forests where their dark colouration may help them hide in the shadows,” Burrard-Lucas explained. “Most recorded sightings of black leopards have thus been in the forests of Asia. In Africa, however, melanistic leopards are extremely rare.”
To capture the images, Burrard-Lucas created his own camera trap system, which he describes in a video uploaded to YouTube. He uses the Camtraptions motion sensor to trigger “a high quality DSLR or mirrorless camera and two or three flashes,” he told Hyperallergic. Once the camera traps are all set up, they can be left alone for days or weeks at a time. Burrard-Lucas said in the case of this project, his biggest challenge was knowing where to put the camera traps.
“When I heard that a black leopard had been seen up at Laikipia Wilderness Camp in Kenya my ears pricked up and I contacted the owners Steve and Annabelle Carey to find out more,” he said. “Steve confirmed that it was true and he had seen several black leopards over the years.”
Burrard-Lucas quickly went to Laikipia to meet Steve Carey, who then introduced him to Luisa Ancilotto, who lived close to the camp and had seen a black leopard recently.
“She told us as much as she knew about the leopard’s habits and territory,” said Burrard-Lucas. “Then Steve managed to pick up some fresh leopard tracks nearby and followed them to a path that leopards seemed to be using. I set up my camera traps up on this trail and it was there that I captured my first image of the black leopard.”
In his video, we can see Burrard-Lucas returning to the camera traps to check the footage. “All I can see is eyes,” he says, smiling, “but this is a black leopard emerging from the darkness.”
“I couldn’t believe it and it took a few days before it sank in that I had achieved my dream,” Burrard-Lucas writes on his blog.