Black Panther the superhero has earned plenty of headlines lately, but it was his real-life counterpart making news this week. British wildlife photographer Will Burrard-Lucas captured stills (and cameras from the San Diego Zoo captured video) of the same elusive black panther at Laikipia Wilderness Camp in Kenya.
"We were recording the same individual leopard," Burrard-Lucas told me in an email, noting that black panther and black leopard are different terms for the same animal. "(The zoo and I) weren't aware of each other until our own separate efforts led to us capturing imagery of the same individual."
There were some differing reports as to whether the cat was male or female, but Burrard-Lucas says his images make that clear. It's a boy!
"I know that all my images show the same leopard and he is a young male about two years old," he told me. "(The zoo) guessed it was a female due to the size and they didn't have any close-up photographs of the back to know for sure. My images are high-definition (and I am) 100 percent sure the leopard in my images is a male."
Burrard-Lucas is the founder of Camtraptions, a company specializing in products for remote and camera trap photography, and took his images with a Camtraptions Camera Trap.
In a blog post, he notes that he'd been fascinated by tales of black panthers since childhood.
"For me, no animal is shrouded in more mystery, no animal more elusive, and no animal more beautiful," he wrote. In September, he was lucky enough to spot one from a distance in India's Kabini Forest, but seeing one in Africa eluded him until his recent Kenya trip, where he set up the camera traps.
"Each trap is made up of a Camtraptions motion sensor, which wirelessly triggers a high quality DSLR or mirrorless camera and two or three flashes," he says. "I leave these cameras on game paths for days or even weeks at a time in order to photograph elusive animals." He posted behind-the-scenes video to show how it works.
Steve and Annabelle Carey, owners of Kenya's Laikipia Wilderness Camp, and their neighbor Luisa Ancilotto, helped him hone in on a path where the animal had been seen.
"Black panthers are iconic creatures, and yet very few images of wild black panthers exist," Burrard-Lucas says. "This is not just because leopards are extremely secretive and hard to see, but also because only a tiny percentage of leopards are black."
In a statement about its video images of the same animal, the San Diego Zoo notes that the animals we call black panthers or black leopards have a gene mutation called melanism, making their coat appears completely black in the daytime. "Infrared imagery reveals the leopard's iconic rosette patterns at night," the zoo's statement says.
When Burrard-Lucas checked the cameras early on in his quest, he thought he'd only captured pictures of hyenas -- until he reached the last camera, and saw the rare black panther appear. But on subsequent nights, that animal disappeared, and a spotted leopard was seen instead. Some reports, including one from National Geographic, suggest that the black cat could be the child of the spotted one.
"The spotty male hung around for what felt like an age and I began to think that the black leopard might never return," Burrard-Lucas said. But on the night of the full moon, it reappeared for a stunning shot.
Burrard-Lucas notes that he is not claiming that these are the first photos of a black leopard taken in Africa. "I do however believe that they are the first high-quality camera trap photographs," he said.
Some worried that sharing the images would lead to the animal becoming a hunter's target. Burrard-Lucas calls this a "valid concern," but notes that trophy hunting is illegal in Kenya.
"My take is that the benefits of promoting tourism far outweigh the risks and hence I have stated the location," he said in an update to his blog post. "Tourism brings valuable revenue to these places and is often a critical source of funding for conservation efforts."
He's still in disbelief that the black panther was ready for its close-up.
"I can't believe it really," he says in the behind-the-scenes video. "Just the most stunning, spectacular creature I think I've ever photographed."