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The good luck black cat, revealed by camera traps

Photographed with a Camtraptions camera trap. Laikipia Wilderness Camp, Kenya.

  • Camera traps enabled researchers and a professional photographer to document the presence of a rare melanistic (black) leopard, confirming reports of the cat in northern Kenya.
  • Five different remote camera stations, positioned near water sources and trails, recorded the young female leopard over three months.
  • The case demonstrates the value of remotely placed sensors in capturing both shy, cryptic animals and rare events in nature, such as melanism, which results from genes producing a surplus of pigment in an animal’s skin or hair so that it appears black.

Sometimes, a black cat can bring good luck.

A professional photographer, together with leopard researchers from San Diego Zoo and Kenya’s Loisaba Conservancy, used camera traps to document the presence of a melanistic (black) leopard in Laikipia County in northern Kenya.

A melanistic (black) leopard (Panthera pardus) in the dry, open country of Laikipia Wilderness Camp in northern Kenya. Black leopards are usually associated with dense forests where their coloration may offer camouflage. Most recorded sightings of black leopards have been in Asian forests. In Africa, melanistic leopards are very rare. This one, photographed with a Camtraptions camera trap, is courtesy of Will Burrard-Lucas.

Field staff at Loisaba had received several reports of observations of a black leopard in the area in late 2017. After hearing the unconfirmed reports, the researchers set out to find it. In early 2018, they deployed eight remote cameras over a 0.5 square-kilometer (124-acre) area as part of a larger-scale exploration of the population dynamics of leopards in Loisaba and nearby Mpala conservancies.

Lead researcher Nick Pilfold of San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research and colleagues positioned the cameras at available water sources and animal trails in these dry bushlands, leaving them on 24/7 to take repeated 15 to 30-second video clips, with a 1-second break in between. They turned the cameras in public areas on only at night.

Camera traps captured a rare female black leopard moving through wildlife conservancies in northern Kenya. Video by San Diego Zoo Global. 

Within the first month, the camera traps confirmed the suspected sightings of the leopard with this rare dark color morph. They recorded the subadult female leopard five times at five different camera locations.

A black subadult female leopard (L) follows an adult female leopard (R) on 15 March 2018 in Laikipia County, Kenya. The leopards did not occupy the same frame, but were separated by approximately 10 s from exiting and entering the same frame, demonstrating the value of remote cameras set out over time and far from human presence. Image is Figure 2 of Pilfold, et al (2019).

“It is likely that black leopards have been living in Kenya all along, it is only that high-quality imagery to confirm it has been missing until now,” Pilfold told CNN.

Photographer Will Burrard-Lucas also documented the black cat, using a Camtraptions camera trap to obtain a set of dramatic, professional-quality photos. He wrote in a blog post, “As far as I know, these are the first high-quality camera trap photographs of a wild melanistic leopard ever taken in Africa.”

The black leopard strikes a dramatic pose in images taken at Laikipia Wilderness Camp in Kenya with a Camtraptions camera trap. Image courtesy of Will Burrard-Lucas, Camtraptions Ltd.

Melanism is a condition resulting from a gene that causes a surplus of melanin pigment in the skin or hair of an animal so that it appears black. Roughly 11 percent of leopards are thought to be melanistic, Pilfold said, but most occur in Southeast Asia, where their darker color may offer camouflage in the region’s tropical forests.

“Black leopards in Africa are extremely rare,” he added, “and prior to the observations in our published paper, the last confirmed observation was 1909 in Ethiopia.”

A camera trap setup for nighttime photography that includes a motion sensor, in this case a Camtraptions sensor, that wirelessly triggers a high-quality DSLR or mirrorless camera and two or three flashes. This setup permitted studio-like lighting that captured the striking leopard images at night. Obtaining such images also takes time: photographer Burrard-Lucas said he leaves cameras on animal paths for days or weeks at a time to capture elusive animals. Image courtesy of Will Burrard-Lucas, Camtraptions Ltd.


Pilfold, N. W., Letoluai, A., Ruppert, K., Glikman, J. A., Stacy‐Dawes, J., O’Connor, D., & Owen, M. Confirmation of black leopard (Panthera pardus pardus) living in Laikipia County, Kenya. African Journal of Ecology.

Banner image by Will Burrad-Lucas, courtesy of Camtraptions, Ltd, contrasts the black leopard with the full moon behind.

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