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.
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.
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.
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.
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.