Imagine walking outside and suddenly standing face to face with a moving shadow. Then you see angry eyes, cutting through the night, peering back at you — it’s an animal. A beast. But when you tell the whole village of the danger you saw, nobody believes you. You know what you saw was real.
That’s how Kenyans felt for years whenever they saw a cat of legends lurking in the shadows. Locals and biologists simply retorted, it can’t be! But then, in February 2019, a man arrived on the African plains ready to find out once and for all if the legendary creature truly existed…
For years, the African wilderness held a mystery: two eyes looming in the dark, seen by locals but never captured. Did those eyes truly belong to a legendary animal, or was the black panther a myth like so many believed?
Kenyan locals told and heard the stories many times: a rare breed of cat was spotted lurking in the shadows, growling at anything that crossed its path.
They called it “the black panther,” although technically that’s not a breed (sorry, Marvel fans). What these folks may have seen was a leopard with melanism (a mutation that causes animals to be black).
While the creature may have been spotted more often recently (pun intended), it hadn’t been documented in Africa since 1909! This fact did not sit right with one man in particular.
Wildlife photographer Will Burrard-Lucas was immediately intrigued by the rumors of the black leopard sightings. Despite all the odds, he decided to travel to Kenya to prove the existence of the mythical beast.
“For me, no animal is shrouded in more mystery, no animal more elusive, and no animal more beautiful,” he posted on his blog. “For many years, they remained the stuff of dreams and of farfetched stories told.”
Once he got there, it was no piece of cake trying to capture the black beauty on camera. He knew the leopard was seen in the Laikipia County, but that stretched for miles.
Ambrose Letolulai, a local leopard conservationist, interviewed an Elder who said he had spotted one. “I first heard about the black leopard when I was growing up, but I didn’t believe it at all until I saw it myself,” he told CNN.
Week after week, Burrard-Lucas set up night vision video equipment in the area the Elder had described, and waited up for hours to snap a shot of the leopard most people believed didn’t exist.
Finally, in the second week of February 2019, he had a little luck. The bushes began to rustle, a figure moved closer, and a pair of yellow eyes with widely dilated pupils appeared in the pitch black night.
The footage was immediately sent to the San Diego Zoo Global’s leopard conservation program in the area, where biologist Nicholas Pilfold confirmed the identity of the beast: it was indeed a black leopard!
It was the first time in over a century that the black leopard’s existence in Africa was undeniable, and it was the first time it was recorded in the wild — this big cat was a big deal, to say the least.
On another night, one of Burrard-Lucas’ cameras managed to capture the leopard in the light of a full moon, prowling through the grass, thus creating a clear image of the elusive creature.
You might be wondering, haven’t I seen a black leopard before? You may be correct, but not in the wild in Africa: The most famous black leopard is Bagheera in Jungle Book!
Similar to the black leopard is the black jaguar, which is also a melanistic version of the regular breed. The black jag can be found in South America, while the black leopard has been seen in southeast Asia.
The umbrella term for both of these animals is “black panther,” a term which has recently become more well-known due to the Marvel superhero movie, Black Panther.
As it turns out, the film is set in the fictional land of Wakanda, which is located in Mid-Eastern Africa, much like Kenya is! Has Stan Lee been psychic all along?
“Despite many challenges in the sector, Kenya’s wildlife continues to awe the world,” said conservationist Paula Kahumbu. “I hope that this rare find persuades the authorities to balance conservation with development to protect our spectacular species.”
Logistically, if there is one black leopard, there should be more. The problem is keeping hunters away from them. While these leopards would make a great prize for some, they make a far greater prize to the Kenyan environment if left alone.
Now that the existence of wild black leopards in Africa has been proven, conservationists will continue to seek more of them and perhaps even help them repopulate. Hopefully we’ll soon see black panthers in more than just cinemas!
Of course leopards, regardless of their coat color, are not the only dangerous felines found in African wildlife. We all know about tigers, lions, jaguars, and cheetahs, but there are still cats that might surprise you.
With their innate hunting skills, impressive strength, and razor-sharp teeth and claws, it’s pretty clear why these wildcats are worthy of our fear, even when their size is not what you’d expect…
See, as notorious as big cats may be in the animal kingdom, even they are no match for the deadliest cat of them all — the black-footed cat. It has more endurance, focus, and determination than any of its big cousins!
You might have heard the saying “big things come in small packages,” but it’s never been more true than when it comes to the black-footed cat, Africa’s smallest feline. Its tiny size hasn’t affected its deadliness, however.
Native to the incredibly arid southwestern portion of Africa, the black-footed cat only ever grows to be around 17 inches in length. But that hasn’t stopped it from becoming one of the fiercest predators on the entire planet.
While the black-footed cat looks like any other domestic house cat, its upbringing is much different. For example, the habitat it calls home is so dangerous to the average mammal that these cats are forced to grow up much more quickly.
Not only are they typically able to run at just two weeks old and consume solid food at one month, but they’re also completely weaned by the time they reach two months old. Talk about rapid growth!
Raised in dens they dig themselves, their mothers will often move them around quite frequently by the time they’re at least a week old. By four or five months, most kittens are completely independent.
Although not a whole lot is known about the species, one thing is certain: their independence carries on throughout their lives. Researchers have noted that the only time they spend around other cats is when it’s time to breed.
Even though they’re adorable, these cats would make very poor pets. In addition to being listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Animals (IUCA), they’re known to be incredibly unsociable cats.
They are pretty crafty, however. Should they stray too far from their dens, they have no qualms about taking up space in the burrows of aardvarks, porcupines, and springhares. In fact, they’ll even completely renovate it to their liking!
They mostly snack on birds, arachnids, insects, reptiles, and other small mammals. In order to look for food, adult cats will often walk up to 20 miles in a single night in search of their next delicious meal. So what makes these little guys so scary?
It’s the black-footed cat’s unique hunting skills that make them the deadliest cats on the planet. With an astounding 60 percent success rate when hunting, they easily beat out any other wild cats by a large margin. That’s not all, either.
Typically, they utilize the stalk-and-pounce method to snare their prey. But if that doesn’t work for them, they’ll often wait outside of rodent holes and dens and wait for their dinner to emerge. The long-game is sometimes the best method.
Black-footed cats also have an uncanny amount of endurance due to their ability to retain moisture. They’ll drink water when it’s available, but for the most part, they rely on the water from their prey to get them through the dry desert climate.
Researchers have noted that, while waiting outside of rodent burrows, black-footed cats will often close their eyes for long periods of time. They’re not sleeping! Instead, they’re relying on their excellent hearing to alert them when food is headed their way.
It takes a lot of energy to be so deadly. In fact, the black-footed cat requires much more energy than other cats their size, because their hunts are often strenuous and long. Luckily, they’re so skillful that they will often snag as many as 14 animals in the same night!
Black-footed cats are also capable of taking down mammals larger than they are. Their hunting skills are so notorious that one legend among the San people in southern Africa states that a black-footed cat once killed a giraffe by “piercing its jugular.”
Unlike most big cats, the black-footed cat doesn’t particularly enjoy climbing! Because of their short tails and stocky bodies, they’re just not suited for it. Instead, they stick close to the ground.
So while these cats might not look like they’d be all that deadly — they’re really quite cute when you look at them — the truth is hard to ignore. One thing’s for sure: we want to learn more about them!