A female black panther was recently photographed at our neighbours’ place. Exactly like Kipling’s Bagheera, she was ‘inky black all over, but with the panther markings showing up in certain lights like the pattern of watered silk’. The images show her to be the most beautiful of creatures.
A black panther is a melanistic leopard. I rarely see leopards and I have never seen this individual but for years a local Laikipia researcher called Ambrose Letoluai had heard about these black panthers from elders in our area. Based at Loisaba Conservancy next to us, Ambrose works for a San Diego Zoo leopard project. As part of his routine to record cat habits he installs devices called camera traps in rocky outcrops and trees. Leopards are elusive, but I was surprised to learn Calvin Klein perfume (‘between love and madness lies Obsession’) dabbed around the cameras was a sure-fire way to attract them within photographic range at night.
For months last year, the San Diego team gathered material on this black panther. Then in January a rather good British photographer set up a camera trap in the same triangle of bush. The images he captured of the creature delighted the world, reaching an audience of 330 million. ‘Unreal,’ tweeted Lupita Nyong’o, a Kenyan who starred in the movie Black Panther.
It seems obvious this should have been a godsend in Kenya’s efforts to conserve nature. It proves Laikipia is uniquely special, a home to extraordinary, rare creatures in a shrinking, last wilderness worth protecting. The appearance of the black panther symbolises a reward to all the poor herdsmen who lose livestock to big cats but tolerate them anyway as well as to the landowners, scientists, government bureaucrats — and the tourists who fly across the world to see the wonders of Kenya. This sort of advertising is worth tens of millions of pounds. People started asking if Wakanda, the fantasy location of Lupita’s Hollywood movie, was actually Laikipia. I considered dumping the cattle ranch in order to open a black panther souvenir shop selling teddy bears and hats.
But locally, Laikipia’s black panther became a sort of unicorn, a fantastical beast meaning utterly different things to different people. The trouble started when international newspapers ran predictably incorrect headlines saying the British photographer had ‘captured’ the black leopard on film for the first time in a century while on an ‘expedition’. The photographer noted he had made no such claim, but since the images went out along with a zoological paper, it was considered to be the first scientific record since a 1909 sighting in Abyssinia.
Various local people started pointing out that they had seen or photographed melanistic leopards on surrounding Laikipia ranches. ‘Not so unique after all,’ they crowed. On Kenya’s highest mountains, melanism appears to be relatively common. Up on the giant heather while fishing I have seen melanistic serval cats, as well as black genets and augur buzzards. Leopards of any kind are rarely seen, though ageing hunters haughtily reported multiple sightings decades ago. Some Kenyans complained about ‘conservation apartheid’. One said: ‘Nothing exists in Africa until a white person observes it… bullshit.’ It was even pointed out that a wealthy Laikipia ranch owner had imported a black panther from captivity — in New York. And I thought again of Bagheera, who was raised in the cages of the king’s palace at Oodeypore.
Overall, it seemed to me that rather than just enjoy the sight of her, people wanted to own the black panther, or at least to bathe in her reflected dark glory. Nature had sent us a gift, which we had failed to appreciate, turning a leopardess into an excuse for a quarrel. But the black panther of Laikipia is once again like Bagheera, who escapes from captivity in Oodeypore by breaking the lock of his cage because he will be ‘no man’s plaything’.
There might be a happy ending to this. The local elders have revealed there is not just one female black panther. As I write, there are, in the vicinity of Loisaba, at least one black tom, a second black female — and three more black sub-adults. I am no scientist but apparently melanism is carried in a recessive gene, so it is a very rare anomaly, like albinism. However, if two leopards carrying this recessive gene mate, a hotspot of melanism might occur in a local population — a flame of black panthers. I hear that this phenomenon among leopards is relatively common in Asia, but extremely rare in Africa, and the strain soon vanishes. For now, our district has the only population of black panthers in the world.