An ultra-rare black leopard walks through Laikipia Wilderness Camp in central Kenya in 2018.
They say that black cats bring bad luck, but when Nick Pilfold heard about one lurking around central Kenya, he knew he was onto something special.
The Kenya-based biologist and his team deployed a set of camera traps throughout the bushlands of Loisaba Conservancy in early 2018. It wasn't long before he got what he was looking for: undeniable proof of a super-rare melanistic leopard.
The opposite of albinism, melanism is the result of a gene that causes a surplus of pigment in the skin or hair of an animal so that it appears black. Melanistic leopards have been reported in and around Kenya for decades, but scientific confirmation of their existence remains quite rare.
Published in January in the African Journal of Ecology, these photos represent the first scientific documentation of such a creature in Africa in nearly a century.
As recently as 2017, only a single sighting had been confirmed—a 1909 photograph taken in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and stored in the collections of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Their range across much of the continent has shrunk by at least 66 percent due to habitat loss and prey decline.
"Almost everyone has a story about seeing one, it's such a mythical thing," says Pilfold, of San Diego Zoo Global's Institute for Conservation Research.
"Even when you talk to the older guys that guided in Kenya many years ago, back when hunting was legal [in the 1950s and ‘60s], there was a known thing that you didn't hunt black leopards. If you saw them, you didn't take it."