It’s a scientific coup to warm the heart of any superhero fan: the first documented sightings of a black panther in Africa in nearly 100 years, not far from where Marvel places the fictional setting of its Oscar-nominated “Black Panther.”
A team from the Institute for Conservation Research of the San Diego Zoo Global and the Loisaba Conservancy in Kenya confirmed the existence of black leopards — as the animals are also known — in Laikipia County, an area north of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.
“It is certain black panthers have been there all along, but good footage that could confirm it has always been absent until now,” Nicholas Pilfold, a biologist at the San Diego institute, said in an Instagram post on Tuesday.
“Black panthers are uncommon, only about 11 percent of leopards globally are black,” he added. “But black panthers in Africa are extremely rare.”
The researchers’ findings were published in the African Journal of Ecology in January.
The leopard, scientific name Panthera pardus, is more commonly found with a black coat in tropical and humid Southeast Asia. But, apparently, melanism — the cause of the dark coloring — can also be displayed in semiarid climates, like that of Laikipia, according to the paper.
There have been a few reported observations of this species in Africa, but, until now, only one had been confirmed, in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, in 1909.
Following unconfirmed reports of a black leopard in Laikipia County, the research team installed eight cameras around the Laikipia Wilderness Camp — focusing on available water sources, such as swimming pools and natural springs, and on animal trails.
From February to April 2018, five of the cameras recorded footage of a young female black leopard. She appeared alone in four nighttime videos — drinking water from artificial water sources or carrying remains of her prey — but in the only daytime video, she was following an adult female leopard with normal markings.
“Unconfirmed observations from September 2017 from the two leopards together suggest that this nonmelanistic female might be the mother of the black leopard,” according to the paper, which added that in previous sightings, the black leopard was “smaller in size, and in closer proximity to her mother.”
Word of the camera observations brought forth another high-quality image of a black leopard from the Ol Ari Nyiro Conservancy, also in Laikipia, which was taken in May 2007.
“Collectively, these images are the first reported in nearly 100 years that confirm the existence of black leopard in Africa, and the first in Kenya,” the paper said.
The dark coloration of the melanistic leopards’ coat is attributed to a recessive gene that causes the loss of the normal function. Despite being called black, they are usually very dark brown and have the same pattern of spots as other leopards, according to the Out of Africa Park in Arizona, which hosts two black leopards, named Enoch and Silhouette.
But there are also theories suggesting that melanism could have an environmental factor.
“Melanism is hypothesized to be an adaptation to environments in which a dark coloration provides camouflage from predators or prey,” Dr. Pilfold said in the paper.
Until recently, leopards — reclusive, adaptable, and territorial — were considered to exist in relative abundance.
But a study published in May 2016 suggested that leopards had lost 75 percent of their range since 1750. They were then classified as “vulnerable” on the Red List of threatened species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Three subspecies of the leopard are classified as “critically endangered,” and two others as “endangered.”
“I think the biggest threat to the leopard on a global scale is that it’s been just under the radar,” Philipp Henschel, the lion program survey coordinator for Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization, told The Times in 2016.
“Nobody really cared about the leopard,” he said, “because everybody assumed they were really abundant and widespread.”