Though films like “Black Panther” and “Cat People” have made black leopards famous, these big cats are rare creatures in the wild.
Their coloring makes the nocturnal animals extremely difficult to photograph. But in 2019, wildlife photographer Will Burrard-Lucas traveled to Kenya and managed to scientifically document a black leopard in stunningly beautiful photographs. Most of them were captured at night using special technology he developed.
Those photos and stories about his journey are chronicled in his new book, “The Black Leopard: My Quest to Photograph One of Africa’s Most Elusive Big Cats.”
What we call black panthers can be either black leopards or black jaguars, he explains in the book. Whatever name you use, the big cats’ coloring is caused by genes. In leopards, Burrard-Lucas explains, if both parents have the animal gene melanism — which causes excess dark-colored pigment — the cub could be born with black fur.
If you look closely, black leopards still have typical leopard spots and often flaunt color variations across their coats.
Leopards are found in the wild throughout Africa and Asia, with a high prevalence of black leopards in the dense forests of Thailand, Malaysia and India, where their coats blend in with the shadows of a dark jungle, he says.
But in the sparse pale grass blanketing an African savanna, black leopards stand out, making their cubs especially vulnerable to predators, he says. The black coat also makes it harder to sneak up on prey, he says.
So throughout the continent, “it would make sense that that gene doesn't really provide any benefit to the leopard,” Burrard-Lucas says. “And that's why it's probably much rarer in places like Africa.”
The true scarcity of these African black leopards was mostly based on rumors and anecdotes because the big cats hadn’t been scientifically documented in Africa for about a century. Until Burrard-Lucas embarked on his project, little photo evidence of African black leopards existed.
A friend who works in Kenya’s tourism industry alerted him to a black leopard spotted in the area. Burrard-Lucas was able to track down the landowner who had witnessed the uncommon creature regularly on his property. Burrard-Lucas then learned that leopard scientists from the San Diego Zoo had also started to track down the animal for a scientific paper.
“We decided to kind of join forces and use my photos to help illustrate their release of their scientific findings,” he says. “And so through my partnership with them, when my images were released in conjunction with their scientific paper, it was the first time that a black leopard had been documented scientifically in Africa.”
With some inventive thinking, Burrard-Lucas was able to pull off photographing a black leopard while also capturing photos of other African animals. He used two innovations, one he created called a BeetleCam.
He placed a high-quality DSLR camera on top of a remote control buggy to get intimate, up-close shots of bolder animals such as elephants and lions. But shy animals would scurry off at the sight of the BeetleCam.
“The moment they saw this remote control buggy moving toward them, they turned and ran away. They’re pretty much programmed to avoid anything unfamiliar that lurks in the grass,” he says.
He started utilizing camera traps — a stationary camera with a sensor to detect when animals are near — to snap his pictures. On this project, he says he had “between five and eight camera traps running for more than a year to get the pictures that then went into the book.”
Seeing his photography preserved forever is a thrill, but Burrard-Lucas says the most rewarding part is hopefully inspiring others to appreciate and care more for these rare animals.
All images courtesy of The Black Leopard: My Quest to Photograph One of Africa’s Most Elusive Big Cats, © Will Burrard-Lucas, published by Chronicle Books 2021.
This segment aired on March 4, 2021.