Black leopard
A black leopard in captivity. A wild black leopard was reportedly photographed for the first time in a century.
| Credit: Freder/Getty Images

A rare African black leopard was photographed in the wild for the first time in more than 100 years.

British wildlife photographer Will Burrard-Lucas released a collection of photographs on Monday that show the animal lurking about Kenya’s Laikipia Wilderness Camp.

“As far as I know, these are the first high-quality camera trap photographs of a wild melanistic leopard ever taken in Africa,” Burrard-Lucas wrote.

When Burrard-Lucas heard about a smattering of black leopard sightings around Laikipia, he decided to head to the park with a collection of camera traps in an attempt to photograph the animal. The camera traps consisted of a “wireless motion sensor, a high-quality DSLR camera and two or three flashes.”

There were several unsuccessful nights before Burrard-Lucas was able to snap a photograph of the elusive animal, and the hardwon shots are striking. The black leopard emerges out of the landscape with its eyes shining bright in the camera flash.

The black leopard’s color is the result of melanism (a gene mutation that’s basically opposite of albinism). The over-production of pigment creates the leopard’s inky black coloring. According to Nick Pilford, lead researcher of a leopard conservation program in Laikipia County, “melanism occurs in about 11% of leopards globally, but most of these leopards live in South East Asia.”

“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,” Pilford told USA Today. “This is what Will’s photos and the videos on our remote cameras now prove, and are exceptionally rare in their detail and insight.”

There is some contention around who has been the first to capture an image of the black leopard in the 21st century. A biologist’s leopard sighting was detailed in the African Journal of Ecology in July 2018 (the article was published in December) but there was not any imagery.

But one newspaper in Kenya, The Daily Nation, is challenging the new claim, saying that one of their photographers captured a shot of the leopard back in 2013.