The black leopard is a creature shrouded in mystery. Many people have reported fleeting glimpses of this shadowy cat, but very few of these sightings can be confirmed. Although a handful can be found in zoo cages scattered around the world, no photographs of wild black leopards exist.
Black leopard sightings date back as far as 1952 when nature conservationist Bryan Jones, founder of the Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre near Hoedspruit, recorded a sighting made by a child in Pilgrim’s Rest.
Some individuals have dedicated the majority of their working lives trying to capture evidence of the ghostly feline, but still have nothing to show for it.
But the thus far fruitless search continues. In Lydenburg, a group of leopard experts at the Black Leopard Campus has put considerable time and effort into once and for all proving that black leopards are more than just figments of overly-active imaginations.
The small farming town in the highlands of Mpumalanga has had more reported sightings in the last 60 years than anywhere else in the world.
The Campus, located on the 6,000 hectare Thaba Tholo Wilderness Reserve 30 kilometres outside Lydenburg, is home to the Ingwe Leopard Research project, a venture which seeks to gather data on the density and behaviour of leopards outside formally protected areas.
Their special focus is on collecting information about the fabled melanistic variant of the species.
Melanism is a development of dark-colored pigment in the skin caused by a rare recessive gene trait. Typical markings (known as ghost stripings) are still present, but are hidden by the excess black pigment, giving an effect similar to that of printed silk.
According to Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency predator expert and Ingwe’s former head of research, Gerrie Camacho, the condition occurs in less than one percent of the leopard population.
“Your chances of seeing a black leopard are less than one in a hundred, and considering how difficult it is to see the 99 normally coloured animals, it really is always mere coincidence. But that does not mean it doesn’t exist,” said Camacho.
“There have been enough credible sightings to lead one to believe that the animal does exist. I don’t think it is a myth or a ghost story at all,” he added.
Using sophisticated equipment such as Infrared Trail Monitors and Camera Traps, the Ingwe Research team is intent to snap a photograph of a black leopard and for the first time enable monitoring of this rare big cat.
Current head of Operations at Ingwe and owner of Thaba Tholo, Alan Watson, says that documenting one will cause tourism in the area to sky-rocket.
“Our camp would be booked for the next twenty years if we manage to capture a photograph,” said Watson, “even the chance of seeing a black leopard is a massive draw card and would attract tourists from all over the world. It will benefit the area hugely.”
This sentiment was echoed by Kevin Richardson, a conservationist who has two black leopards, Coal and Nikita in his care at the Dinokeng Nature Reserve in Gauteng. Richardson has raised the two from their birth in 2003.
In 2004, Richardson appeared in a BBC documentary, In Search of a Legend, which focused on his quest to hunt down a wild black leopard in Lydenburg.
Despite employing some of Africa’s best trackers and searching for several months, Richardson too left empty handed.
But not everyone has reacted favourably to the extensive efforts undertaken to find black leopards.
Tristan Dickerson, a leopard field scientist for Panthera, an organisation which strives to protect the world’s big cats, believes that time and money should rather be spent on conserving the leopard population as a whole.
“The only difference between them (black leopards) and normal leopards is one genetic abnormality. There is in truth nothing particularly special about black leopards and the abnormality presents itself randomly just as it does with albinism in lions and humans,” Dickerson said.
“All the time and money spent on finding black leopards has no conservation value whatsoever. The focus should rather be on saving our rapidly decreasing leopard population as a whole,” he added. - THE WRITE NEWS AGENCY