Stunning never-before-seen images show an ultra-rare black leopard as it pads out in the cover of darkness with its sooty coat camouflaged against the night sky.
The photographs, included in a new book titled The Black Leopard: My Quest to Photograph One of Africa’s Most Elusive Cats, were shot by British wildlife photographer Will Burrard-Lucas after he spent a year tracking the mysterious mammal in Laikipia, Kenya.
Burrard-Lucas, 37, released the initial batch of images he took of a black leopard in 2019 and they quickly went viral as it was the first time one had been caught on camera as part of a scientific study in Africa for 100 years.
In his new photo series, the black leopard can be seen slinking through the undergrowth and over rocky plateaus with the moonlight casting a glow on its silky coat.
Burrard-Lucas told MailOnline that he nicknamed the smaller black leopard who frequented his cameras ‘Blacky’ and the other larger male ‘Big Spotty’.
Asked how their behaviour differs from the more common light-coloured leopard, the cameraman says that the black variants appear to be ‘more nocturnal – probably because they have more success hunting at night’.
The leopard’s black colour is the result of melanism. This genetic variation, the opposite of albinism, results in an excess of dark pigmentation.
Burrard-Lucas’ favourite shots of the black leopard, show it in the foreground with starry skies beyond.
In his blog, he details how it took him ‘six months of perseverance’ to get his ‘dream photograph’ as the conditions had to be just right and the leopard had to be moving in the right direction.
He explains: ‘I wanted head-on shots so that meant when the animal passed by my camera I had a 50-50 chance of either seeing his face or backside.’
Eventually, after dozens of misses, Burrard-Lucas got the shot he was after with ‘the black leopard prowling under a carpet or stars’.
Growing up in Tanzania, Burrard-Lucas developed a passion for the natural world which propelled him into a career as a wildlife photographer. To get unique shots of animals he developed the BeetleCam in 2009. This remote-control buggy which cradles a camera, is able to get close to wildlife without putting the photographer at risk.
Burrard-Lucas also started experimenting with camera traps to capture ‘shy or rare’ species. These can be deployed for many weeks or months and automatically trigger when an animal passes by.
His quest to photograph the elusive black leopard started in 2018 when he heard about sightings of a young African black leopard in the Laikipia area of Kenya.
Working in collaboration with the local community and biologists from San Diego Zoo, Burrard-Lucas set up an expedition in January 2019 and went about installing camera traps in a well-protected area where the black leopard was rumoured to frequent.
He used specialist equipment including wireless motion sensors, high-quality DSLR cameras and two to three flashes.
The Brit said he couldn’t believe it when he returned to one of the traps one day and saw a black leopard staring back at the camera lens.
In his new book, which features more than 100 wildlife photos, he details the moment he realised he’s caught the black leopard on camera.
He writes: ‘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 realisation of what I was looking at hit me like a lightning bolt.
‘My first thought was not to celebrate; it was too soon for that. Was the image sharp? Was my focus okay? I zoomed in on the screen and it seemed good, but I know from bitter experience that you cannot tell for sure until it is on the computer. All I wanted now was to get back to camp as quickly as possible so I could study the picture.
‘I removed the memory card from the camera, cradling it in my hand like some sort of fragile, priceless artefact.’
Luckily when Burrard-Lucas got back to camp, he found that the image of the black leopard was in focus.
He continues: ‘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. I zoomed in and the image was sharp.
‘My eye wandered around the frame, looking for distractions. There were some bright blades of grass that irritated me, but nothing serious. The image was better than anything I could have hoped for. I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. It was going to take a few days for this to sink in.’
Burrard-Lucas was helped out in the field by Nicholas Pilfold PhD, a biologist with San Diego Zoo Global, who is currently researching leopards at Laikipia’s Loisaba Conservancy. He went about capturing the black leopard on video over a period of a year.
He confirmed that the on-camera sightings were extremely rare.
He explained: ‘We had always heard about black leopard living in this region, but the stories were absent of high quality footage that could confirm their existence.
‘This is what Will’s photos and the videos on our remote cameras now prove, and are exceptionally rare in their detail and insight.
‘Collectively these are the first confirmed images in nearly 100 years of black leopard in Africa, and this region is the only known spot in all of Africa to have black leopard.’
An account of how the team went about securing the extraordinary video footage, first captured in 2018, appeared in the African Journal of Ecology.
Writing in the paper, the team says that cameras ‘recorded a subadult female black leopard on February 16, February 28, March 11, March 15 and April 14, 2018, at five different camera locations’.
Some of the images were recorded using infrared illumination and some by ‘artificial water sources’, ‘including one video of drinking, suggesting that these points may be important during the dry season’.
The cameras were focused on natural springs, swimming pools and animal trails.
The last time a black leopard was documented by scientists in Africa was in 1909 in Ethiopia. The image is stored at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC.
Black leopards are usually associated with dense forests where their dark colouration is thought to help them hide in the shadows.
Most recorded sightings of black leopards have therefore been in the forests of Asia.
Dr Pilford said: ‘Melanism occurs in about 11 per cent of leopards globally. However, despite African leopards having the largest remaining range out of any of the subspecies, there has only been one confirmed case of melanism prior to these images.
‘In addition to confirming black panthers in Africa, our observations are unique because Laikipia is a semi-arid shrubland, and previous melanistic observations come from more shaded habitats in tropical forests, which is in keeping with the understanding that melanism is an adaptation to camouflage against dark backgrounds.
‘We hope our future research will cast a light on why these black panthers occur here, just how many there are and how being melanistic in an unshaded environment affects their hunting strategies.’
He continued: ‘Melanism is a recessive trait in leopards, so both parents have to be carrying the gene in order for it to be expressed. Genetic research indicates melanism comes from a mutation in a gene that causes a loss of the normal function and colouration. However, although they appear solid black during the day, black panthers still have the iconic leopard rosette patterns in their coats.’
Summing up the black leopard in three words, Burrard-Lucas said: ‘They are truly stunning, beautiful and elusive.’
The big cat that he captured was confirmed as a juvenile male, travelling with a larger normally coloured leopard, thought to be its parent.
The black leopard can also be referred to as a black panther because this is an umbrella term that simply refers to any big cat that has a black coat.
African leopards are listed as Vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Habitat loss and fragmentation, competition for prey, conflict with livestock and farmers, and hunting have reduced the number of leopards throughout Africa, although the total extent of this population decline is still unknown.
Some have raised concerns that giving away where the leopard was sighted has now put it in danger.
Addressing this issue, Burrard-Lucas concludes: ‘People have raised the valid concern that the leopard may now be a target for trophy hunters. Fortunately trophy hunting is illegal in Kenya. My take is that the benefits of promoting tourism far out way the risks and hence I have stated the location. Tourism brings critical revenue to these places and is often the only source of funding for conservation efforts.’