Black Panther Spotted in Kenya Is First Sighting in Almost a Century

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This black leopard's photo is among the first verified sightings of a black panther in a very long time. Will Burrard-Lucas

Big cats can be elusive in general, but few are more elusive than the black panther.

This creature has proven to be so elusive that confirmed scientific documentation of the animal's presence in Africa hasn't been achieved in nearly 100 years.

That was until recently, when a team of researchers and a wildlife photographer snapped photographic proof of a black panther in Kenya's Laikipia Wilderness Camp following reports of a black panther being spotted in the area.

'It's such a mythical thing'

But before we go any further, we need to get the proper terminology squared away. Black panther is an umbrella term for leopards or jaguars that exhibit a melanistic color variation. This variation creates their black fur. Their spots can still be visible if you're close enough, or the sunlight hits them in just the right way.

What the team spotted in Kenya was a black leopard. Rumors have circulated for decades about the presence of black leopards in Africa, but evidence was always lacking. Indeed, according to National Geographic, the only confirmed sighting is a 1909 photograph unearthed in 2017.

A black leopard with its spots visible photographed by a camera trap
If the light hits black panthers just right, their spots will be visible, as they are in this image. Will Burrard-Lucas

"I have never seen a high-quality image of a wild black leopard come out of Africa, even though stories of them being seen are sometimes told... 'a friend of a friend saw a black leopard crossing the road early one morning,'" Will Burrard-Lucas, the photographer who snapped the pics of the black leopard, wrote in a blog post.

"Almost everyone has a story about seeing one — it's such a mythical thing," Nick Pilfold of San Diego Zoo Global's Institute for Conservation Research told National Geographic. Pilford led the researcher team that published the report on the black leopard sighting in the African Journal of Ecology.

"Even when you talk to the older guys that were guides in Kenya many years ago, back when hunting was legal [in the 1950s and '60s], there was a known thing that you didn't hunt black leopards. If you saw them, you didn't take it."

Planning and luck

To capture photographic evidence of the black leopard, Burrard-Lucas devised his own camera trap system using Camtraptions Camera Trap motion sensors and a high-quality DSLR, or mirrorless, camera and two or three flashes. The sensors wirelessly triggered the cameras to snap a photo when something crossed into their field.

Burrad-Lucas positioned these traps along a trail in Laikipia where leopard tracks had been spotted. Several nights' worth of photos yielded no pictures of the cat. Hyenas, sure, but no black leopards. Then while checking the last camera, Burrard-Lucas saw what he was looking for.

A black leopard steps into a camera trap set near some tall grass
A black leopard steps into a camera trap set in Kenya. Will Burrard-Lucas

"I paused and peered at the photograph below in incomprehension ... a pair of eyes surrounded by inky darkness ... a black leopard! I couldn't believe it and it took a few days before it sank in that I had achieved my dream," Burrard-Lucas wrote.

Following this first success, Burrard-Lucas moved the camera traps around along the game trail in the hopes of capturing the leopard again. He got one hit and then nothing for a couple of nights. And then, with a full moon providing a bit of back lighting, Burrard-Lucas snagged a photo of the black leopard crossing a ridge.

A black leopard snapped by a camera trap with a full moon behind it
Burrard-Lucas was 'thrilled' to capture 'such an atmospheric image' of a black leopard. Will Burrard-Lucas

"As far as I know, these are the first high-quality camera trap photographs of a wild melanistic leopard ever taken in Africa. I can still scarcely believe that this project [...] has paid such spectacular dividends!"

That work also confirmed that the black leopards really do exist in Africa. Still, black panthers are rare enough there that researchers aren't sure if the genetic mutation that causes melanism in these cats is the same one responsible for melanism in the black panthers more commonly spotted in Southeast Asia.

These elusive cats still have a few secrets left.