An incredibly special photo of a black leopard (female) and a male normal coloured male behind her. This photo was taken in the Nilgiris, a mountainous area in India, although the exact location is being kept a secret for fear of hordes of photographers descending on an environmentally sensitive area. Photograph by R.Prakash.
To clear up some controversy and confusion, let’s start with the name, the black panther. The black panther is merely a colloquial name given to a melanistic colour variation of a leopard or jaguar, and is derived from the genus name, Panthera. Black panthers in Asia and Africa are black leopards and black panthers in the Americas are black jaguars. Melanism (a Greek word meaning black pigment) is an over development of the dark-coloured pigment melanin in the skin or its appendages and is the opposite of albinism. Close inspection of these cats will show that the spots and rosettes are still present but much harder to see due to the darker colour of the coat.
What is absolutely astounding is how these cats actually survive in the wild. If you have been fortunate enough to witness a leopard stalking through bushes using its faultless camouflage you will know how perfectly adapted they are. Black panthers on the other hand can only utilize their camouflage at certain times of the day and believe it or not it isn’t in the dark. In the dark the black colour creates a silhouette which makes the animal stand out like a sore thumb. Learning to hunt for a melanistic leopard or jaguar would quite possibly result in different techniques being developed to those of their normal coloured relatives. Survival would not doubt be a result of a lot of trial and error, and would certainly not be possible in many areas in which the recessive melanistic gene occurs. Savanna habitats are poor areas for melanistic cats to live, as the lack of plentiful deep shadows necessarily limit their camouflage. and although there are records of black leopards being sighted in the Kruger Park, the individuals born black would almost certainly not survive long enough to reproduce.
In certain environments where darkness can be an advantage, whether for camouflage purposes or temperature regulation, one finds a much higher incidence of melanism, as melanistic individuals survive and reproduce, thus passing on the gene.
The Aberdares National Park in Kenya is one of the best places to see black leopards in Africa. Some areas in Asia actually have higher numbers of black leopards than normal coloured ones!
The Aberdares mountain range in East Africa is a place where sightings of melanistic leopards are not uncommon. Photograph by H. Fiebig.
These enigmatic cats emanate a certain aura which attracts us to them. Not unlike the Loch Ness monster of the Scottish Highlands. Maybe it is because we have the desire of seeing something so rare, a yearning for something extraordinary.
Or maybe we can associate with Bagheera; we want to help something in need. In Bagheera’s case, young Mowgli, the ill-fated child left in the jungle, in our case a species of animal with such magnetic appeal that we cannot but feel an obligation to enhance their existence in some way or the other….