And biologists have rare shots of the slender black leopard migrating majestically into Kenya – the first time the animal has been photographed in Africa since 1909.
Nick Pilfold, a global scientist at the San Diego Zoo, said the shots were taken out of sheer luck. His team of biologists installed out-of-home wildlife cameras last year to track the leopard population near the Loisaba Conservancy in Laikipia district when they heard unconfirmed reports of a possible sighting of a black leopard.
"We've intensified our camera positioning in the area where the reports were made," he said Tuesday night. "Within a few months, we were rewarded with several observations on our cameras."
The coat color of the female leopard is pitch black due to melanism, a gene mutation that results in pigment overproduction, Pilfold said. It is the opposite of albinism ̵
While there were reports of sightings of black leopards – also known as black panthers – the last confirmed observation was in Ethiopia over a century ago, he said.
"Melanism occurs in about 11% of leopards worldwide, but most of these leopards live in Southeast Asia," he said. "Black leopards in Africa are extremely rare, and before the observations in our published newspaper was the last confirmed observation in 1909 in Ethiopia."
Black Leopards may have lived in Kenya the whole time, but there is no confirmation of that until now, Pilfold said.
The total extent of the animal's decline is still unknown, the San Diego Zoo said in a statement. However, several factors have drastically reduced their numbers, including hunting, habitat loss, competition for prey and conflicts with livestock and farmers.
Pilfold is part of a San Diego Zoo team working with local partners, including Kenya Wildlife Service, to monitor leopard populations in the area and protect species.
He marveled at the coincidence of the position of an animal, also known as the Black Panther – the title of one of the greatest films of the last year.
"Coincidentally, our observations are very close to where the fantasy Marvel comic country Wakanda is located," he said.