A Wildlife Photographer's Search for the Elusive Black Leopard

Will Burrard-Lucas finds the mythical big cat.

black leopard

The Black Leopard © Will Burrard-Lucas, published by Chronicle Books 2021

Since he was a child, British photographer Will Burrard-Lucas has been transfixed with the legend of the black leopard. He had heard tales of the nearly mythical big cat that is one of the most elusive animals on Earth. But no one he knew had ever seen one.

Black leopards (also known as black panthers) are not a separate species. They are melanistic, meaning they have extra pigmentation, resulting in the dark coat. In certain light, you can still see their spots.

His love for animals, and leopards, in particular, spurred Burrard-Lucas's career as a wildlife photographer. To get more intimate portraits of his subjects, he created a remote-controlled camera buggy he named BeetleCam to capture close-up, ground-level photographs. He also developed a high-quality camera trap system to take better nocturnal images of animals.

Burrard-Lucas has photographed big cats, elephants, rhinos, and other animals all over the world.

Then, a few years ago, photos began appearing of a black leopard in India. Soon, Burrard-Lucas had a photo. Then he went to Africa, where there was another sighting, and worked hard to capture heralded photos of his own.

As far as he knows, his images are the first high-quality camera trap photos of wild black leopards ever taken in Africa.

The images, along with many other wildlife photographs, are featured in his book, The Black Leopard: My Quest to Photograph One of Africa’s Most Elusive Big Cats, published by Chronicle Books.

Treehugger spoke to Burrard-Lucas about his childhood, his career, and his passion to track down the evasive black panther.

The Black Leopard © Will Burrard-Lucas, published by Chronicle Books 2021

Treehugger: You spent your childhood in Tanzania, Hong Kong, and England. Where did your love of nature and animals develop?

Will Burrard-Lucas: When I was young, my family spent several years living in Tanzania, and some of my most vivid early memories are of being on safari in places like the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, and Ruaha National Park. That’s really how it all began.

Ngorongoro Crater in particular made a big impression on me. It’s a vast inactive volcanic caldera, six hundred meters deep and over sixteen kilometers across. The view from the rim was like a vision of a forgotten paradise; the bountiful crater floor completely walled off from the rest of the world and filled with black rhinos, elephants, and other spectacular animals.

During those years, I developed an intense interest in wildlife and a love for the African continent. We saw many lions and cheetahs during the three years we lived in Tanzania, but we only saw leopards in the wild once—a mother and two young cubs. 

In 1990, we left Tanzania and moved to Hong Kong. The densely populated metropolis and frenetic pace could not have contrasted more to our life in Africa. However, there was still plenty to fascinate the naturalist in me. We lived in a residential complex that backed directly onto a wild forest-clad hillside, and I used to roam that hill searching for snakes and other animals. We also had a collection of BBC natural history documentaries on VHS tape, and David Attenborough’s "The Trials of Life" in particular, really inspired me. I watched those tapes over and over again!

When did you first become enamored with the legend of the black panther or black leopard?

It is hard to say exactly. My first exposure was almost certainly Bagheera in Disney’s animated version of "The Jungle Book." Growing up, and then into adulthood, they remained an almost mythical creature to me. I heard rumors of them being seen in remote locations, but despite traveling the world and talking to numerous guides and conservationists, until 2018 I had never met anyone who had actually seen one in the wild with their own eyes.

lion roaring
The Black Leopard © Will Burrard-Lucas, published by Chronicle Books 2021

When did you take your first great photograph and how did you come to the realization that this might be what you wanted to do with your life?

I’m not sure what could be defined as a great photo! I guess the first photo I took that I am still proud of today would be this one of a caiman under the stars in the Pantanal, a massive wetland region of Brazil. 

On one of our night walks my brother Matthew and I came across a swampy area where caimans were lying in a channel waiting for fish to swim past. It was a very dark night with no moon but plenty of stars overhead. I’m not sure where the inspiration came from, but we decided to try and photograph a caiman with star trails in the sky above. We had a manually controlled speedlite flash to correctly expose the caiman in the foreground. This produced a single flash at the start of the exposure which froze the caiman’s initial position on the sensor.

Then we left the shutter open for the next 40 minutes to catch the star trails. While this was happening the caiman was in total darkness and could thrash around chasing fish as much as it liked without ghosting the image. Of course, this was possible only because the foreground was completely dark—if there had been a moon that night it would not have worked.

I always knew I wanted to run my own business, but it was a meandering journey to discover how I would make it work. Eventually, I was able to combine my love of photography, wildlife, and inventing through my business Camtraptions. There wasn’t an overnight realization really. The key has been to constantly experiment.

African wild dogs photographed by BeetleCam
African wild dogs photographed by BeetleCam. The Black Leopard © Will Burrard-Lucas, published by Chronicle Books 2021

You did a lot of work with your younger brother Matthew, also a photographer. How did you create BeetleCam and what does it allow you to do?

While searching for ways to capture more impactful photographs, Matthew and I found that by using a wide-angle lens and crawling up close to our wild subjects, we were able to gain a much more intimate photo. This was great for photographing small animals like penguins in the Falkland Islands and meerkats in Botswana, and the more we did it, the more we fell in love with the close-up perspective. What we really dreamed of, however, was capturing this close-up perspective of iconic African wildlife—the sort of animals that might maul or trample us to death if we tried to get too close.

The solution I came up with was BeetleCam, a strong remote-control buggy I could use to drive a camera right up to an animal while I stood at a safe distance. I imagined using the BeetleCam to capture images of a lion from its prey’s perspective, or an elephant looming over the camera. I taught myself enough about electronics, programming, and robotics to design my first prototype BeetleCam. That first one was very simple, but later I added a wireless live video feed to take the guesswork out of composing photographs and a strong fiberglass shell to protect it from curious animals.

It took a while to get the hang of using it, but once I did the results were amazing! Using the BeetleCam I have taken photos of lions, spotty leopards, African wild dogs, hyenas, and other animals that would have been impossible otherwise. It was an entirely new perspective that really caught people’s imaginations.

lion eyes BeetleCam while eating dinner
A lion eyes BeetleCam while eating dinner. The Black Leopard © Will Burrard-Lucas, published by Chronicle Books 2021

Which animals were most interested in BeetleCam (or most disinterested)? And how did that affect photos?

Lions are definitely the most interested — they are bold and inquisitive so will often come up and try to play with it or carry it away. This has resulted in many engaging images of curious big cats over the years. I nearly lost the first BeetleCam the very first time I used it when a lioness picked it up in her jaws and ran away with it! Fortunately, she eventually dropped it when she stopped to catch her breath.

As long as the buggy remains still, elephants are quite disinterested in BeetleCam and will completely ignore it. That allowed me to get more candid photographs of elephants grazing or drinking from waterholes.

elephant walking
The Black Leopard © Will Burrard-Lucas, published by Chronicle Books 2021

Which were some of the projects you were most excited about? The animals that you were most excited to photograph?

For a book called "Land of Giants," I photographed a group of elephants in the Tsavo region of Kenya. Tsavo is home to around half of the 25 “Big Tuskers” left on earth: huge bull elephants with tusks weighing more than 45 kilograms on each side. These secretive elephants live in remote and isolated corners of Tsavo and are rarely seen. There I photographed a herd of about 200 elephants, including LU1, the elephant believed to have the largest tusks in all of Tsavo. His bulk dwarfs the other elephants around him, and his tusks are so long that the ends disappear into the grass. 

I also used BeetleCam to photograph F_MU1, a 60-year-old female elephant who was so gentle and calm she sometimes came close enough to me that I could have touched her. When I first saw her I was awestruck, for she had the most amazing tusks I had ever seen. If I hadn’t looked upon her with my own eyes, I might not have believed that such an elephant could exist in our world. If there were a Queen of Elephants, it would surely have been her. 

These are among the last images captured of F_MU1. Shortly after they were taken, she died of natural causes. She had survived through periods of terrible poaching, and it was a victory that her life was not ended prematurely by a snare, bullet, or poisoned arrow. F_MU1 was an elephant that few people outside Tsavo knew about. Photographing her, in partnership with Tsavo Trust and Kenya Wildlife Service, was one of the greatest honors of my career.

That project and the black leopard were two of the most exciting projects I have worked on.

What was your reaction when you heard about the black leopard sighting?

Amazement — I had never met anyone who had actually seen a black leopard in Africa before! I knew I had to try to make the most of the opportunity, even if my chances of success were extremely thin.

black leopard at nigh
The Black Leopard © Will Burrard-Lucas, published by Chronicle Books 2021

What was the experience like waiting to photograph the cat? How long did it take?

Once guides, leopard researchers, and other members of the local community showed me where the black leopard had been seen, I had to figure out where to place the camera traps to get the best chance of getting a good shot. That first night we placed five camera traps, each with two or three flashes on stands weighted down with rocks, and the camera in a strong housing to offer some protection from elephants and hyenas.

The next morning, I was up bright and early to check the traps. As I opened up each camera housing and pressed the "play" button, I was greeted with the same image: a beautifully lit picture of myself—my final test shot from the night before. I was disappointed not to have captured any wildlife, but not surprised — I never expected this to be easy. I resolved to leave the traps running for a few days before checking them again. The longer I left them, the more chance I would have of capturing something.

Over the following days, I savored the delicious anticipation that came from having camera traps in the field and knowing that one of them could hold the shot of my dreams. That anticipation was so sweet and my fear of disappointment so great, that I was reluctant to return to the cameras. I was worried the leopard may have moved off and I had arrived too late.

Eventually, after three nights, I decided I had better check. I started with the first two cameras. There were some pictures, including one of a lovely striped hyena, but no leopard. I had photographed plenty of spotted hyenas before, but never a striped hyena, so I was actually feeling pretty pleased. Next, I checked the cameras upon the path. On the next two, I found a scrub hare and a white-tailed mongoose, but again, no leopard.

I opened up the final camera. I now had no expectation at all of finding a leopard picture. I started to scroll quickly through the pictures. Scrub hare, mongoose, and then . . . I stopped and peered at the back of the camera in disbelief. The animal was so dark that it was almost invisible on the small screen. All I could see were two eyes burning brightly out of a patch of inky blackness. The realization of what I was looking at hit me like a lightning bolt.

When I got back to my tent I wanted to avoid everyone until I saw the image on my computer and was sure of what I had. Waiting for my laptop to power up and for the image to import was excruciating. And then there it was. In the darkness of my tent, on the bright laptop screen, I could now see the animal properly. It was so beautiful it almost took my breath away.

Will Burrard-Lucas
The Black Leopard © Will Burrard-Lucas, published by Chronicle Books 2021

When you finally saw the black leopard you said you felt no fear. You wrote, “I am overwhelmed with a sense of privilege and euphoria.” What were you experiencing while you took those photos?

I had to keep pinching myself really. I felt incredibly lucky and also aware that another opportunity like this might never come along again and so I was eager to make the most of it. It felt like the many strands of my life had all come together to bring me to this singular moment in time. This is what led to my increasingly ambitious shots!

View Article Sources
  1. Jennings, Crystal and, Pratt-Bergstrom, Beth. "Are There Really Black Panthers?" National Wildlife Federation's Blog, 2018.