A rare African black leopard has been pictured in the first confirmed sighting for almost 100 years.

The elusive cats, also known as black panthers, were last seen in a confirmed observation in 1909 in Ethiopia.

Kenya’s Ol Ari Nyiro Conservancy says it took a photo of a black leopard in May 2007 but did not publicise it at the time.

British wildlife photographer Will Burrard-Lucas captured the latest black leopard in Kenya after a friend told him there had been sightings.

The leopard's spots show up on infra-red cameras at night. Pic: Will Burrard-Lucas
Image:
The leopard’s spots show up on infra-red cameras at night. Pic: Will Burrard-Lucas
Black leopards carry a gene mutation for 'menalism'. Pic: Will Burrard-Lucas


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Black leopards carry a gene mutation for melanism. Pic: Will Burrard-Lucas

He contacted the landowners and set up motion-sensitive cameras to capture the largely nocturnal cat in Laikipia County, central Kenya, in January.

Black leopards are the same as their spotty relatives but carry a gene mutation for melanism that makes their coats black.

However, infrared cameras used during the night revealed their spots.

Mr Burrard-Lucas set up “studio-like lighting” and left his cameras for days in an area where the leopard had been spotted before he was successful.

The black leopard is very elusive. Pic: Will Burrard-Lucas
Image:
The black leopard is very elusive. Pic: Will Burrard-Lucas

“For me, no animal is shrouded in more mystery, no animal more elusive, and no animal more beautiful,” Mr Burrard-Lucas wrote on his blog.

“Nobody I knew had ever seen one in the wild and I never thought that I would either.

“As I scrolled through the images on the back of the camera, I paused and peered at the photograph below in incomprehension… a pair of eyes surrounded by inky darkness… a black leopard!

The leopards are even more difficult to capture than their spotty relatives. Pic: Will Burrard-Lucas
Image:
The leopards are even more difficult to capture than their spotty relatives. Pic: Will Burrard-Lucas

“I couldn’t believe it and it took a few days before it sank in that I had achieved my dream.”

As the photographer was capturing stills of the animals, researchers from San Diego Zoo Global studying leopards in the area set up remote video cameras nearby.

Researchers believe the black leopard is the daughter of a normal female leopard she was seen following.

Leopards are largely nocturnal. Pic: Will Burrard-Lucas
Image:
Leopards are largely nocturnal. Pic: Will Burrard-Lucas

Publishing their findings in the African Journal of Ecology, Nicholas Pilfold, from the San Diego team, said: “Collectively, these are the first confirmed images in nearly 100 years of black leopard in Africa, and the first in Kenya.”

Melanism was thought to be a way that leopards adapted to moving out of the dense forests where their spots camouflage them from predators or prey.

However, the sighting in the open, semi-arid habitat of Laikipia raises questions about that theory.



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