Nick Pilford knew that his life was about to change when he first heard about sightings of Black Panther near central Kenya. Curious to be a historic first, he gather together his team who then deployed camera traps along the Loisaba Conservancy bushlands, as early as 2018. And as they say, good things come to those who wait, Pilford got his deserved reward not too long- the majestic leopard, which was completely melanized.
The young female was captured along with a bigger, more naturally colored leopard, which could very well be her mother. Melanism is simply the opposite of albinism, in that the pigment of the skin increases to such a level, that it appears black. And while such leopards have been said to be found in Africa for centuries, there have been a severe lack of scientific evidence to back that up.
The African Journal of Ecology published photos of these leopards in January, thus making it the only documented reports, in over a century. The previous was a confirmed sighting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1909, which has been stored in the National Museum of Natural History Washington DC. The population of such leopards has decreased due to land encroachment and hunting, as with most animals around the world.
Out of 9 established species of leopards in Africa, around 11% of them are said to be melanised, and surprisingly, most of them are found in South East Asia, instead of Africa, as we would all think it to be.
Vincent Naude, project coordinator for leopard genetics forensics mentioned that the presence of abundant shades, added with the melanised nature of their skin actually helped them camouflage amongst predators. His organization, the nonprofit Panthera, was not a part of this project.
In Kenya though, Black leopards are called Black Panthers- umbrella term that refers to any big cat with a black coat – and they are mostly found in the arubland, which are semi-dry.
Naude believes that what was a boon in Asia isn’t the case here. For, the savannah type environment where the leopards exist don’t allow for black camouflage, except night, when it is useful. Also, it must be said that watching the melanised leopard with her ‘normal’ leopard mother would give rise to conclusions that this isn’t a genetic thing, and wouldn’t affect the constitution of a family.
What is uniquely surprising is, and Pilford agrees to it too, that the presence of Black Panthers are heavy around the east of Kenya, which, iconically is the region of Wakanda, home to the MCU Black Panther. This revelation comes after reports of another sighting of a black leopard around 2007, by the staff at Ol Ari Nyiro Conservancy, which is located 30 miles to the west of Loisaba.
Now, researchers are in a conundrum, because a decade old record of a leopard with the same pigmentation and a recent picture would hint that they had some common traits with each other. But what was even more complicated, was that whether the two leopards that were born in Africa had the same genetic mutation that resulted in them being melanised, similar to their Asian counterparts?
IMAGES CREDIT: Burrard-Lucas.com