Black leopards have developed an almost-mythical status and are rarely seen throughout their range. In South Africa – where fewer than 40 sightings were recorded between 1952 and 2013 – the pitch-black cats are particularly scarce. Earlier this month, the Wild Heart Wildlife Foundation released footage of what is believed to be the first sighting of a melanistic leopard in the country since 2013.


According to the Foundation, the cat was spotted near a residential area on February 24 (its exact location has been kept secret for the animal's safety). Footage was captured by a local resident and has since been uploaded to the Wild Heart Wildlife Foundation Facebook page

Although it is a common misconception that black leopards (or panthers as they are sometimes called) are a separate species, the shadowy cats actually owe their dark colouration to a genetic abnormality that produces a surplus of a pigment called melanism which turns their skin or hair black. Genetically, they are indistinct from regular-coated cats, but they remain of interest for their unique appearance and the role the dark colour may play in leopard behaviour.

"It is not the first time that a black leopard was spotted in the area," the Foundation wrote on Facebook. "Three years ago, [a leopard] made a brief appearance, and was seen by some children playing in the area, but no photos were taken and the leopard disappeared as suddenly as it arrived."

Following a consultation with a South African carnivore specialist and the Environmental Management Inspectorate (or Green Scorpions as the organisation is often labelled), Wild Heart Wildlife Foundation decided to avoid human interference and instead installed three remote camera traps to monitor the cat. "The idea is to make sure that the leopard has left the area, and is not in danger of any conflict with humans from the nearby residential areas. For a change, we are hoping NOT to capture an image of the leopard," they explained in a Facebook post.

As of March 3, the cat had not been sighted and it is hoped that it has moved on. "After almost a week of monitoring the area with camera traps, there has been no sighting or pictures of the animal. We are hopeful that, if it was indeed a leopard, it has returned to a less populated area in the wild."

Header image: Davidvraju