By Sam Wong
Photographs of a rare black leopard released yesterday were not in fact the first from Africa in a century, as New Scientist and many others reported.
In 2013, Phoebe Okall, a photographer for Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper, captured this image at Ol Jogi Conservancy, around 50 kilometres from the Loisaba Conservancy where the more recent photos were taken.
That leopard, named Bagheera, was not born in the wild though – he was rescued from a pet shop in New York and brought to Kenya as a cub.
Nicholas Pilfold of San Diego Zoo Global, the lead researcher for a leopard conservation programme in Laikipia County, said the new photos were the first confirmed images of black leopards in nearly 100 years – although “confirmed” in this context means “the image must show the characteristic rosette pattern of the leopard”.
Pilford’s journal paper reporting the new photos also included an image taken in 2007, which shows a black leopard at Ol Ari Nyiro Conservancy, about 50 kilometres west of Loisaba Conservancy.
Black leopards, also called panthers, have a gene mutation that results in their unusual dark coat – a condition called melanism. They are extremely rare, and most often seen in South-East Asia.
A 2017 paper mapping the distribution of black leopards included five reported sightings in Africa, but most were not confirmed with photographic evidence. The last confirmed sighting was from Ethiopia in 1909.
It is thought that the gene variant for melanism may be advantageous in moist forests, where dark coloration might help them remain hidden. This part of Kenya is semi-arid, with pockets of tropical forest among grassland and shrubland.
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