Barely visible against the starry night sky of north-central Kenya’s Laikipia Plateau, a male melanistic leopard glides past a camera trap set by British wildlife photographer Will Burrard-Lucas. Decades ago, this sleek cat might have been called a black panther, but the “black panther” is not a true species—it’s a catch-all term for any leopard (Panthera pardus), jaguar (Panthera onca), ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) or other wild cat whose usually-tawny coat is darkened by a genetic mutation that triggers an increased production of the black pigment melanin.
Whatever they’re called, big cats with obsidian coats have long captivated humans, showing up in everything from ancient Mayan mythology to modern superhero franchises. As a child living in Tanzania, Burrard-Lucas became fascinated by these fabled creatures. So in 2019, when the photographer heard that local wildlife guides and scientists had spotted melanistic leopards on the vast, semi-arid Laikipia Plateau, he rushed there to set up a unique camera trap he had designed. At first, he used an infrared camera and an invisible infrared flash to avoid startling the animals. But as he became more familiar with a young male leopard—even glimpsing him in person half a dozen times—Burrard-Lucas switched to a regular camera with a low-intensity flash and long exposure, eventually making the photograph shown here.
Over the following year, numerous newspapers and magazines published Burrard-Lucas’s images of the solitary black leopard camouflaged in the inky night. Some people feared that the attention would attract hunters, imperiling the male leopard and another melanistic female photographed on the same plateau. But Burrard-Lucas argues that the benefits of promoting responsible tourism outweigh the risks, especially because Kenya has banned trophy hunting.
In many ways, human-wildlife conflict, particularly between local pastoral communities and predators, poses a more serious threat to jaguars and other species, and many think that supplementing local incomes with tourism dollars is a way to lessen that pressure. The safari industry, however, comes with its own ethical quandaries. During the colonial era, outsiders stole vast swaths of the Laikipia Plateau, which later became private safari camps and large ranches, forcing Maasai, Samburu, and Pokot people from their traditional grazing lands and spurring conflicts that linger today.
Burrard-Lucas’s images of the black leopard raise interesting biological questions, as well. Because melanism is more common in tropical, heavily vegetated regions, scientists think it might help the predators disappear into their shady surroundings, allowing them to hunt—and hide—more effectively. So does melanism present a significant disadvantage leopards on the sparsely vegetated Laikipia Plateau, where, at least in the light of day, their black coats do little to help them blend in? And if normal-colored leopards’ dashes of white help them communicate with one another, as one study suggests, does melanism interfere with that communication?
Although the global attention garnered by Burrard-Lucas’s photographs may inspire further research into these questions, part of the allure of his images—and of black panthers in general—is the sense of mystery they impart. Rare, elusive, powerful, and little-understood, melanistic leopards are a reminder of how much of the natural world remains out of sight, in places technology is just beginning to illuminate.
Laikipia Plateau, Kenya
UK-based wildlife photographer Will Burrard-Lucas spent part of his childhood in Tanzania where he developed a deep passion for African wildlife. He is known for developing innovative approaches and technologies, such as remote-controlled buggy systems, for his cameras to capture fresh perspectives of shy, nocturnal, and potentially dangerous animals.
Krista Langlois is a freelance journalist and essayist based in Durango, Colorado. In addition to her work as a contributing editor for bioGraphic, she writes about people and nature for publications including Adventure Journal, The Atlantic, Hakai, National Geographic News, Outside, and Smithsonian. Find more at www.kristaleelanglois.com or on Twitter @cestmoilanglois.