Why Black Leopards Are So Rare
Wed, April 21, 2021

Why Black Leopards Are So Rare

In the past decades, there have been several reports of black leopards spotted in Africa but very few confirmed sightings / Photo by: gary Whyte via Wikimedia Commons

 

In the past decades, there have been several reports of black leopards spotted in Africa but very few confirmed sightings. A 2017 global review titled “Mapping black panthers: Macroecological modeling of melanism in leopards” showed that reports of the animal in Kenya, Ethiopia, and South Africa date back to 1909. However, the only confirmed report was from Ethiopia. 

Leopards are found in almost all types of habitat such as forests, savannas, scrublands, and deserts. They are most at home in low branches of the forest canopy, where they rest and stalk prey. They then drag their prey up into trees to avoid other predators that would steal their kill. Black leopards are common in the dense tropical forests of South and Southeast Asia because they have several advantages. For instance, their coloration enhances their ability to blend with the thick vegetation in the low light of the forests.

Most confirmed sightings come from Southeast Asia, where 90% of the leopards there are black. While black leopards are rarely seen, researchers have managed to study their behavior. Previous studies revealed that they are solitary, territorial carnivores. Black leopards use their coat to camouflage their presence as they stalk and ambush their unsuspecting prey. They are also nocturnal by nature, which means they spend most of their days resting. 

But just like other animals, black leopards are under serious threat. They are usually hunted for sport and poached for their black, silky skin. They also suffer from deforestation and the resulting habitat loss and fragmentation.

Rare Black Leopard Seen Again After 100 Years

Last February, wildlife photographer Will Burrard-Lucas had successfully captured a black leopard in Kenya’s Laikipia Wilderness Camp. The photos of the black leopard were published in the African Journal of Ecology. He used the automated Camtraptions cameras, which were placed near animal trails and water sources including pools and natural springs. The devices were left on 24 hours a day in most places but were only turned on at night in public places. 

Nick Pilfold, a global conservation scientist at the San Diego Zoo, stated that while there have been a few different photos over the past years claiming that there was a black leopard, most of them were taken from a distance. Thus, they could not be used as confirmatory evidence. According to CNN, an American news-based pay television channel owned by AT&T's WarnerMedia, the team placed remote cameras to track the leopard population last year. This was after they heard reports of a possible black leopard sighting. 

"We intensified our camera placement in the area where the reports were being made. Within a few months, we were rewarded with multiple observations on our cameras,” Pilfold said. 

In his blog, Burrard-Lucas expressed how the digital encounter with the black leopard has been a lifelong dream for him. “For me, no animal is shrouded in more mystery, no animal more elusive, and no animal more beautiful. For many years, they remained the stuff of dreams and farfetched stories told around the campfire at night. Nobody I knew had ever seen one in the wild and I never thought that I would either,” he wrote. 

Last February, wildlife photographer Will Burrard-Lucas had successfully captured a black leopard in Kenya’s Laikipia Wilderness Camp / Photo by: CT Cooper via Wikimedia Commons

 

Why Black Leopards Are Black and Rare

The leopard's coat is pitch black as a result of a gene mutation called melanism that causes an overproduction of pigment. Studies showed that this only occurs in about 11% of leopards across the world. Most of these black leopards live in Southeast Asia. According to Inverse, an American digital media company covering topics such as technology, science, and culture for a millennial audience, these leopards’ coats still have all the same features as a non-melanistic leopard such as spots or rosettes. 

Studies showed that melanism exists in 13 of the 37 cat species in the Felidae family, suggesting an adaptive significance to carrying this trait. Black leopards are believed to use this trait to protect themselves from predators and hunters. This also raises questions about whether being black in an arid environment influences mating, reproduction, and hunting strategy. However, melanism might have disadvantages with these animals, which might also explain why wild, all-black cats are relatively rare.

The leopard's coat is pitch black as a result of a gene mutation called melanism that causes an overproduction of pigment / Photo by: Wen Photos via Pixabay

 

A recent study published in PLOS ONE stated that melanistic cats have visible spots, which they often use to signal to each other. However, black leopards, jaguars, and other wild cats lack the white markings on their ears and tails. This raises difficult challenges, according to zoologist Maurício Graipel of the Federal University of Santa Catarina in Brazil. “Since white is the most light-reflecting color, we considered that these white marks might play a role in visual communication during the night,” he said. 

According to Smithsonian Magazine, the official journal published by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., a black leopard’s black coat acts as camouflage at almost any time, but this can be a problem when they run with another black cat. It may not be easy for them to understand each other. While they use various cues to communicate with each other, visual communication plays an integral role, too. The spots or rosettes on the ears and tails are important features that can carry a variety of messages, from friendly intent to “back off!”

This inability of black leopards and other black cats to effectively communicate could explain why they are relatively rare in the feline family. They simply can’t “talk” to each other, thus having difficulty courting mates and raising offspring.