After Almost 100 Years, Black Leopard Documented in Africa

While there have been several unconfirmed sightings in the continent, researchers have confirmed the presence of black leopards in Kenya.

New Delhi: For the first time in almost 100 years, a black leopard – also referred to as black panthers – has been documented in Africa. In the Laikipia County of Kenya, a black leopard was captured on film, confirming its existence in the area.

The only previous documented sighting was in 1909 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Since then, there have been several unconfirmed reports. In Kenya too, sightings were not accompanied by photographs.

The confirmation and findings by researchers from the San Diego Zoo Global and Loisaba Conservancy in Kenya was published in the African Journal of Ecology in January.

The researchers decided to install cameras in Laikipia County after field staff made several unconfirmed reports of African black leopards (scientific name Panthera pardus pardus) between September and January 2018. The cameras captured the black leopard on five instances between February and April 2018. Of these, four were during the night and one during daytime. Infrared illumination during the night allowed the researchers to confirm the rosette leopard patterns.

While the black leopard was spotted on its own in the four night videos, it was following an adult female leopard in the daytime video. The researchers speculate that the adult female could be the sub-adult black leopard’s mother. The unconfirmed reports by the field staff support this hypothesis, the researchers say.

They also received a photograph of a black leopard taken on May 6, 2007, from Ol Ari Nyiro Conservancy in Laikipia county. As the two confirmed sightings are over a decade apart, the researchers infer that black leopards – also called melanistic leopards – are an ‘established phenomenon’ in the region.

Melanism is the result of a genetic mutation that makes the coat appear completely black in daytime and is recessive in its inheritance. The accepted hypothesis for melanism among leopards has been that the mutation provides better camouflage in shaded habitats of dense tropical forest areas. Black leopard sightings have been most frequent in Southeast Asia, supporting this hypothesis. Laikipia is semi-arid but pockets of tropical forests exist within a range of 15 km.

“[I]t is apparent that melanism can be displayed in semi-arid conditions as well, but the effect on predation success, survival and fitness is unknown and worthy avenues of future inquiry,” the researchers added.

Black leopards and black panthers

Melanism is a common phenomenon among the cats of felid species. It has been documented in 13 of 38 known felid species. Among the Panthera (big cat) species, only the leopard and jaguar are known to exhibit melanism.

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The leopard is the spotted cat observed in Africa and Asia, while the panther is observed in the Americas, usually in central and south America. Melanism in leopards is most frequently reported in the Indian Ghats, Javan forests, Tenasserim forests in Southeast Asia and the Malaysian rainforests. Among panthers, melanism is mostly reported in Amazon and Cerrado areas and Caatinga region of South America.

In India, the presence of black leopards is well established in Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Assam and Arunal Pradesh. Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Goa also have black leopards, but with a lower frequency.

A black leopard in India. Credit: Flickr/Ronit Bhattacharjee CC BY NC ND 2.0

Reports of confirmed sightings in previously unrecorded areas have increased recently. In 2018, Odisha confirmed the presence of a black leopard in the state’s Garjanpahad reserve. In the same year, a black leopard was also spotted in Chhattisgarh for the first time in 24 years. These sightings came soon after Marvel’s Black Panther superhero film found success, perhaps fuelling an interest in the melanistic leopards.

Leopards were thought to exist in relative abundance until recently, but the species was classified as vulnerable in 2015. Three sub-species of the leopard are classified as “critically endangered”, while two species are “endangered”.

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