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Legendary Black Leopards Appear on Camera Traps

Krithi Karanth is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and in 2011 received the Society’s 10,000th grant for research and exploration. She is a conservation biologist working to save India’s increasingly fragile ecosystems and threatened animals. Her research utilizes many forms of data, including camera traps, to monitor and conserve a wide variety of Subcontinental creatures.

Originally home to five of the biggest cats in the world (tigers, lions, cheetahs, snow leopards, and leopards), India lost the cheetah by 1960. Among the individual Panthera species, leopards are perhaps the most adaptable big cats, found to live alongside people in farms and fields across India. A melanistic variant—the black leopard—has played a role in many tales, including that of Bagheera, one of Mowgli’s mentors, in Kipling’s The Jungle Book. It has always had a particular air of mystery and an almost mythic quality—like a living shadow, more elusive even than its perfectly camouflaged relatives.

(Photo credit Ullas Karanth/WCS)
(Photo credit Ullas Karanth/WCS)

What do we know about these beautiful black cats? Where are they found? Are they really all that rare?

Camera traps by Wildlife Conservation Society-India have shown that about 10 percent of all leopard images belong to black leopards. This makes them appear less rare than we originally thought. WCS cameras have been capturing these black cats since 2008.

Our camera traps have found these cats in several wildlife reserves in Karnataka-Kerala from Anshi-Dandeli, Bhadra, Bandipur and Wynaad. What is interesting is that many images come from the wetter forests of the Ghats, particularly Anshi-Dandeli. These sightings are detailed in the natural history writings of Sanderson (1879), who reports seeing them in Mysore; Fletcher, who reports seeing them in the Nilgiris (1911); and Stebbing (1920), who reported them in north Karnataka.

Litters are known to have both color variants.

(Photo credit Ullas Karanth/WCS)
(Photo credit Ullas Karanth/WCS)

What makes them particularly mysterious in a scientific context is the near invisibility of the black rosette patterns on their black coats. For other leopards, unique patterns are instantly recognizable. For the dark variants, although the spots are visible, they are difficult to distinguish. This makes it challenging to identify individual black leopards and accurately estimate population densities.

(Photo credit Ullas Karanth/WCS)
(Photo credit Ullas Karanth/WCS)

While much remains to be uncovered about these cats, simply to rediscover them in the same places that classic explorers like Sanderson, Fletcher, and Stebbing alluded to is exhilarating. Perhaps best of all, it’s a real cause for celebration that these photos confirm that conservation efforts over the past 50–100 years in these wildlife reserves are protecting such alluring and intriguing cats.

References:

Fletcher, F. W. 1911. Sport on the Nilgiris and Wynaad. Macmillan & Co. London.
Sanderson, G. P. 1879. Thirteen Years Among the Wild Beasts of India.
Stebbing, E. P. 1920. The Forests of India.

Read More by Krithi Karanth

Comments

  1. Seán Collins
    Ireland
    August 6, 3:32 pm

    Great pics of what is my favourite animal.

  2. Phanindra Chandraprakash
    India
    August 5, 6:52 am

    Great pics of an illusive cat :).

  3. amal francis sam
    August 5, 12:42 am

    they r our nations pride…we do anything to comserve them

  4. marilyn jones
    United States
    August 4, 1:29 pm

    I saw a black leopard crossing a dirt road in Punta Allen, Mexico.

  5. Mahboob Chowdhury
    Chittagong,Bangladesh.
    August 3, 11:42 pm

    Beautiful pictures of a very beautiful animal.

  6. Brian Lockett
    Upstate New York
    August 3, 9:46 pm

    @ ian: The article didn’t claim cheetahs are of the genus Panthera. It merely listed cheetahs as one of five of the biggest cats in the world. The reference to Panthera is only being used to refer to the black leopards, who are among the big cats.

  7. Annonymous
    August 3, 5:36 am

    What is that little box behind the animals (dead center of the picture)? I have noticed it on all of the pics of animals from India that are posted on Nat. Geo?

  8. TARIQ BADAR
    India
    August 3, 5:23 am

    Great! Even I have witnessed their presence in lower Himalayas, Shivalik Hills and Tarai areas like Uttarakashi District, Dehradun District and, Pilibhit District from past 20+ years. while my trekking and camping endeavors in wild.

  9. Dianne Capes
    South Africa
    August 3, 5:18 am

    do you know if we have any here in our country? are they the same as Jaguars? or are Jaguars related to the tigers? would love to know please. thank you for the beautiful photos and sharing them with us! are they also extinct?

  10. BIJU.M.MATHEW
    aburoad, rajasthan
    August 3, 3:46 am

    LOOKING LIKE DRAGON

  11. Skearns
    Annapolis MD
    August 3, 2:51 am

    These are beautiful creatures. Of all the big cats, I would have to say that the leopard is my absolute favorite. From what I have seen on you tube and the nat geo channel, and the above article is that leopards are the most adaptable, most intelligent and most elusive of the big cats. I love to see evidence of the re population of endangered big cats.

  12. Donny
    Bangalore
    August 2, 10:35 pm

    India is also home to the clouded leopard – in the North East. These photographs and findings are stunning.

  13. Johannes Vierula
    August 2, 8:25 pm

    Had a privilege to photograph a wild black leopard in Western Thailand this year.

    Photo: http://bit.ly/1ke8BfK

  14. Kshitij
    Pune
    July 19, 9:29 pm

    Black leopard images constituting 10% of all leopard images was surprising indeed! :)
    Nice to know that they are surviving well.

  15. ian
    July 17, 9:57 pm

    The cheetah does not belong to the Panthera genus. Great pictures!

  16. Gene Albright
    Aurora CO
    July 17, 5:57 pm

    This is cool! What we need though is more information on the African Black Leopard and the Amur Black Leopard.

  17. Prashanth
    Bangalore
    July 17, 12:10 am

    Beautiful compilation. Lovely pics as well.

  18. shailesh
    USA
    July 16, 1:33 pm

    Proud of her achievement, commitment, and dedication. Rare to see so much passion for wild life in India! Keep up the Great work.

  19. Cindy Lindstedt
    Mooresville, NC
    July 16, 12:20 pm

    WOW is that one of the coolest cats. Love all the BIG CATS,and the the little one’s too. :)