The Discovery of the African Black Leopard
Updated: Apr 13, 2022
In January this year, I had the rare, once in a lifetime opportunity to lead a private expedition safari in search of the rarest big cat in Africa, the black leopard. Before I get into the expedition, l think it is worth giving some context in order to better understand what we were looking to find.
What is a Black Leopard?
Simply put a black leopard, which can also be reffered to as a melanistic leopard or black panther, is the melanistic colour variant of either a leopard or a jaguar. One might ask, what is a melanistic colour variant? In each species, a certain combination of gene variants stimulates the production of large amounts of dark pigment, melanin, in the animal’s fur and skin. Melanism is caused by a recessive variant in leopard's genetics, and by a dominant variant in jaguar's genetics. Although melanin concentrations often vary between members of the same litter, individuals displaying completely black coats are incredibly rare.
A Brief History of Black Leopards in Africa
In 1909 a photograph taken of a black leopard in Ethiopia sits in the Museum of Natural History in the United States of America. Black leopards have been well documented in South East Asia, particularly India but little is known about their presence in Africa. As of 2017 there was only one confirmed sighting of a black leopard in over 100 years in Africa.
Over the years, the Escape team have heard reports and rumours of black leopards being seen in Africa, but high-quality footage or imagery to support these observations has always been missing. The whispers of sightings of the elusive black leopard have long swirled around central Kenya until a series of breakthrough images of a black leopard were released in 2018. Camera traps stationed near water sources and animal trails in Laikipia County in Kenya during a scientific research study captured these images, and the team of scientists conducting the study believed there was a possibility that there were even 2 or 3 different individual leopards captured on the camera traps. This was a monumental discovery, almost like finding a rare hidden treasure.
There was another breakthrough in 2019 when renowned photographer Willard Burrard-Lucas managed to get the first high-quality camera trap photographs of a wild melanistic leopard ever taken in Africa during a yearlong project in Laikipia. Even during his extensive time in the area he unfortunately never managed to see one himself or photograph one in person due to the unpredictable movement as well as the shy and elusive nature of the leopard.
The Location of the Expedition: Laikipia
Laikipia is set in the highlands of Kenya, it is not a national park, but a series of private conservancies and ranches that are largely unfenced. The whole area spans nearly a million acres, and its uniqueness allows for a connected safari different to any other. It boasts a wonderful variable landscape, punctuated by rocky outcrops, little rivers, riverine forest, acacia woodland, open plains and surrounded by escarpments with views of Mount Kenya. It is believed to be the home to the highest diversity of mammals in Africa. Other than the melanistic leopard it is also home to many threatened species of unique mammals only found in Northern Kenya. Grevy’s zebra, Reticulated giraffe, Beisa oryx, zorilla, striped hyena, aardwolf and wild dog, are amoung some of the species you can find in this corner of Laikipia.
The focus of this expedition led us to 40,000 acres of the ranch where Laikipia Wilderness Camp is based. The wildlife is wild as the area is a fairly new destination, only opening up to eco-tourism over the last decade, and a lot of the wildlife is relatively shy around the presence of people and game drive vehicles. Most leopards are naturally shy and elusive creatures so finding any leopard in this landscape would be tricky.
The Background: Following Rumour and Myth
Even though we have known about their existence, most of the roads we investigated led to dead ends. The dream of seeing an African black leopard in person, even for a couple of seconds, had almost faded and an expedition like this seemed to be “mission impossible”.
We finally caught word of a black leopard cub that had been seen with her spotted mother in Laikipia by the owner of Laikipia Wilderness Camp, Steve Carey, while mountain biking through the wilderness. When reading this, you are probably as surprised as he was, but this was the first reliable information we had found for more than 5 years. After his first sighting, Steve had gone nearly 6 months without seeing even virtually any sign of the the black leopard cub. Then Steve noticed that the mother of the black leopard had shifted her territory closer to camp and the main river. He theorised that the shift in the mother's territory was potentially due to the father of the cub, a black male leopard, who was redefining his territory due to pressure from a new male. The mother leopard was in turn trying to stay in close proximity to the father's territory to keep the cub safe from the new nomadic male. It has been well documented that if male leopards come across cubs which are are not the paternal related father, they will kill them to eliminate genes. In turn, the female would come into oestrus, so he could have the opportunity to mate and perpetuate his genes. Luckily, Steve and his team started seeing the mother leopard and her black cub more frequently but they were both shy and the sightings were often very brief views.
I managed to jump on a call with Steve, who informed me of the remarkable news, but he was quick to mention that the window of opportunity to try and find her was potentially closing. Judging by the size, the young black leopard, was believed to be somewhere between 12-14 months old, and any leopard of this age is capable of making her own kills. Extensive pressure from a new male could lead to her being on the brink of independence sooner than the usual 16-18 months. This is not uncommon and her independence could happen at any point. Typically as with most newly independent leopards, the young black leopard would move into a larger home range before setting up a territory of her own, often inheriting a portion of her mother’s territory.
We knew that we needed to move fast, and without hesitation, we decided to dedicate two weeks to the expedition. After 36 hours of non-stop travel, we arrived at Laikipia Wilderness Camp amped with excitement and anticipation.
The Search for the Black Leopard
Given the circumstances, and after meeting with Steve, just the thought of even getting a fleeting glimpse of the black leopard would be a dream come true, and getting a photograph felt in the realm of possibility. If anything, we thought that if we were fortunate enough to see the black leopard, it would probably be from a couple of hundred meters away with a spotting scope or with binoculars, with a possible long-distance photograph from a vantage point from one of the rocky outcrops.
If we had any chance of seeing the black leopard in person we would need patience, persistence, a lot of luck and the perfect set of circumstances to come together at the perfect time. We needed to dedicate long hours of tracking, setting up and checking camera traps to understand where, when and how the leopard was moving. We also used night vision through the night, looking for any sign. In the end, we spent over 240 hours searching through the breathtaking landscape for a sign of any black leopard. We needed to be relentless, we even spent 29 hours out in the field without a break with our local Samburu guides.
Our Samburu guides were by far some of the best guides I’ve ever worked with in Kenya. They were just as excited for us to find the black leopard, which they had only glimpsed a handful of times in six years working in the area. We were the only vehicle searching an area, and more than ever the local knowledge and dedication to the expedition by our guides was invaluable and their educated decisions crucial.
The Moment of Discovery
What I love about our story is that we went through everything traditionally, we studied the mother and the cub's movements through camera traps, we tracked them, we started to understand where they were moving and at what times, which helped us plot and plan the best opportunity of being at the right place at the right time.
Our first glimpse of the black female was unbelievable, I just sat there and I didn’t even think about picking up my camera. I just stared through my binoculars watching her - the moment is difficult to describe. At dusk, for a second I thought I was looking at a silhouette, but she turned towards us and looked at us and all you could see was those piercing yellowy green eyes. As soon as I saw her staring back at me, I thought that this is one of the most special moments I’ve ever had on safari, and I felt lost in time. She only stood still for 15 to 20 seconds, but it felt like two minutes before she disappeared into the darkness of the thick bush. We achieved what we had set out to do within the first couple of days of the expedition, we felt a world of possibilities open up. With 10 days left we knew that if stuck to our method there was a real chance, we could get get a photograph.
After a couple of days without any luck, we finally had the perfect storm come together. After another long day, we headed out after dinner and found the mother leopard hunting dik-dik. While she was hunting we heard alarms call coming from a rocky outcrop. We pick up our night vision and had to look 4 or 5 times before realising it was the black leopard cub. We immediately stopped and resisted every urge to try to get closer. We stopped the vehicle at over 100 metres away and waited for her to relax with our presence. We had to wait patiently, we felt that this was our only chance. We would turn the engine on and let it idle and carefully watched her behaviour to see how she reacted to the vehicle, often in complete darkness and just using night vision. When we started our approach she would lift her head so we let the vehicle idle for a little longer until she dropped her head and relaxed again. From there it was a case of seeing if we could move ourselves 10 metres forward, again while watching her body language. If it looked like she was going to move then we would turn off the vehicle and let her settle again. We managed to close the distance with short incremental sensitive approaches. Once a leopard doesn’t want to be seen it can so easily disappear. After patiently edging closer and closer for about 45 minutes we got into a position where we could get a clear view. We managed to get within 20 meters!
Through our gentle approach we managed to get an unforgettable sighting - the longest anyone had spent with an African black leopard. We were eventually able to spend over two hours with this rare leopard observing how she moves through her natural world, and we we fortunate glimpse into a window of her life as I had never imagined. By the end of our expedition, we had the privilege of being some of the first people to photograph a black leopard on a traditional safari, both at night and during the day, in Africa with over 8 sightings.
By the last sighting, she had become more comfortable around the vehicle. We believe that there was a mutual respect through which she understood that she was safe in our presence while on the vehicle. It surprised me how comfortable she had become! Our last sighting was over 5 hours long, and although it was difficult to get a clear view, it was filled with special moments.
In reality we initially thought that if we would be lucky enough to photograph a black leopard it would be from a few hundred metres away. Never in our wildest dreams did we think we would get a portrait of a black leopard.
From all of us at Escape Safari Co., we hope this experience and these photographs inspire your curiosity as much as it did ours.
If you would like to learn more about this expedition you are welcome to email firstname.lastname@example.org
Come Escape with Us.