Wildlife photographer Will Burrard-Lucas hit the wildlife photography jackpot when he captured photos of the world’s rarest black panther while on a trip to Laikipia Wilderness Camp in Kenya.
It’s been nearly 100 years since this mystically beautiful black cat with large glowing eyes has been caught on camera. They work hard to stay hidden, lurking in the dark of night. Plus, they are very rare compared to spotted leopards.
Burrard-Lucas worked smart by setting up a Camptraptions trail camera along a path he hoped a black panther would travel down at some point after dark.
Black panther is a general term used for any big black cat, although, in Africa the term is reserved for the beautiful black leopard.
Black leopards are unthinkably rare. It’s estimated that there are 250,000 leopards in the world, and just a small fraction of these are all black in color.
They are not a specific breed, but instead a melanistic leopard. A normal colored leopard can give birth to a black leopard, and a black leopard can give birth to a spotted leopard.
The majority of black leopards are seen in the lush forests of Asia. Melanistic leopard sightings are much rarer in Africa.
Over the first few nights, Burrard-Lucas was a little disappointed that he only captured hyenas and spotted leopards on camera.
“I have never been annoyed at capturing a spotty leopard on camera trap before,” the photographer writes.
He remained patient and hopeful, until finally, he captured exactly what he’d been hoping for: footage of the rarest black panther in the world.
Black panthers have been spotted in South America as well, although, there the term ‘black panther’ refers to black jaguars as opposed to black leopards.
Stories of black leopards living in this region of Africa have been passed down for years, but this is the first form of documented proof.
“We had always heard about black leopards living in this region, but the stories were absent of high-quality footage that could confirm their existence,” Nicholas Pilfold, PhD, lead researcher for a leopard conservation program in Laikipia County, said in a press release.
“Collectively these are the first confirmed images in nearly 100 years of a black leopard in Africa, and this region is the only known spot in all of Africa to have a black leopard,” Pilfold goes on to explain.
“For me, no animal is shrouded in more mystery, no animal more elusive, and no animal more beautiful. Nobody I knew had ever seen one in the wild, and I never thought that I would either. But that didn’t stop me [from] dreaming.”
It wasn’t the first time Burrard-Lucas encountered a black cat. A couple years ago, while speaking at the Nature in Focus Festival in Bangalore, he spent three days searching Kabini Forest where a few others had spotted a black leopard.
He knew the leopard was hard to find and so he didn’t get his hopes up too much. Then, one day while walking through the forest with photographer Giri Cavale, the black leopard happened to walk across the road right in front of them.
Burrard-Lucas captured the photo below in broad daylight.
This encounter got him even more excited about finding additional black leopards. Around the same time, he heard stories about a black leopard in Africa.
A few people had spotted the leopard, and that was all he needed to know before jumping on a plane and making the journey to Laikipia Wilderness Camp.
With help from locals, he was able to find fresh leopard tracks indicating a path that they were regularly using. From there, he set up an array of camera traps including Camptraptions wireless motion sensor and a high quality DSLR camera.
He was hopeful he’d capture a leopard on film, but a black leopard was still a long shot.
At last, he captured a photo of a black leopard. “It took a few days before it sank in that I had achieved my dream.”
He didn’t stop there. “Over the days that followed I moved the camera traps around as I learned more about the leopard’s movements.”
Over the course of several nights he was able to capture several photos of the black leopard.
“In all the pictures I had taken, it were the leopard’s eyes that struck me first. I adjusted my lighting to darken as much of the background as possible. Just before I left, I managed to capture one last picture… eyes in the night…”