A rare black leopard recorded by a trail camera at night in infrared.

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Once-in-a-Lifetime Find

Rare Black Leopard Spotted in Kenya

Black cats don’t always bring bad luck! Our research team in Kenya was lucky to spot an ultra-rare black leopard on video, and the world took notice. Covered by NPR, CNN, and National Geographic, the story is bringing much-needed attention to the conservation of African leopards.

A Real Rarity

Listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), leopard populations suffer from poaching, habitat loss, and human-wildlife conflict. While local people have always known about black leopards, scientific evidence is rare, so this is an exciting discovery. Before our team’s recent sighting, the last confirmed observation of a black leopard in the wild was 110 years ago, in 1909.

On the Record

This black leopard is a young female. She was filmed traveling with her mother, who’s larger and features the iconic gold and black leopard coat. They were recorded by trail cameras, which are motion-triggered digital cameras that are mounted to tree trunks.

Wary by nature, wild leopards of any color are challenging to film and photograph. Even with remote trail cameras, the chances of recording a black leopard are limited. To have video footage of such a rare cat is truly remarkable and adds valuable insight to our understanding of this elusive species.

A rare black leopard recorded by a trail camera in the daytime

The young female leopard's coat looks black in the daylight.

Black Beauty

The young leopard’s all-black coat is caused by a condition called melanism, which is a high concentration of the pigment melanin. Melanin occurs naturally in humans and animals. The dark-brown-to-black pigment provides color in skin, hair or fur, and eyes. Higher concentrations of melanin produce darker hues.

In this leopard’s case, a rare genetic mutation caused a surplus of melanin in her fur. This makes her coat appear solid black in daylight. Because the camera’s motion sensor was triggered after dark, the video footage was filmed in infrared, revealing her iconic rosette pattern.

A rare black leopard recorded by a trail camera at night in infrared

The black leopard's iconic rosette pattern can be seen in the nighttime video because it was filmed in infrared.

Made in the Shade

Melanism occurs in about 11% of leopards around the world, but most of them are found in Southeast Asia, where they live in dense forests. Dark jungle shadows make melanism a useful camouflage adaptation, especially when hunting. On the arid savannas of Africa, melanism is much rarer, making this distinctive female very special.

San Diego Zoo Global is working with partners in Africa to track and research leopard populations, so that we can preserve their ecosystems and protect their species. Your support makes this important work possible.

Learn more about leopards, the challenges they face, and how you can help them.

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