Changing Planet

Legendary Black Leopards Appear on Camera Traps

Krithi Karanth is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and in 2011 received the Society’s 10,000th grant for research and exploration. She is a conservation biologist working to save India’s increasingly fragile ecosystems and threatened animals. Her research utilizes many forms of data, including camera traps, to monitor and conserve a wide variety of Subcontinental creatures.

Originally home to five of the biggest cats in the world (tigers, lions, cheetahs, snow leopards, and leopards), India lost the cheetah by 1960. Among the individual Panthera species, leopards are perhaps the most adaptable big cats, found to live alongside people in farms and fields across India. A melanistic variant—the black leopard—has played a role in many tales, including that of Bagheera, one of Mowgli’s mentors, in Kipling’s The Jungle Book. It has always had a particular air of mystery and an almost mythic quality—like a living shadow, more elusive even than its perfectly camouflaged relatives.

(Photo credit Ullas Karanth/WCS)

What do we know about these beautiful black cats? Where are they found? Are they really all that rare?

Camera traps by Wildlife Conservation Society-India have shown that about 10 percent of all leopard images belong to black leopards. This makes them appear less rare than we originally thought. WCS cameras have been capturing these black cats since 2008.

Our camera traps have found these cats in several wildlife reserves in Karnataka-Kerala from Anshi-Dandeli, Bhadra, Bandipur and Wynaad. What is interesting is that many images come from the wetter forests of the Ghats, particularly Anshi-Dandeli. These sightings are detailed in the natural history writings of Sanderson (1879), who reports seeing them in Mysore; Fletcher, who reports seeing them in the Nilgiris (1911); and Stebbing (1920), who reported them in north Karnataka.

Litters are known to have both color variants.

(Photo credit Ullas Karanth/WCS)
(Photo credit Ullas Karanth/WCS)

What makes them particularly mysterious in a scientific context is the near invisibility of the black rosette patterns on their black coats. For other leopards, unique patterns are instantly recognizable. For the dark variants, although the spots are visible, they are difficult to distinguish. This makes it challenging to identify individual black leopards and accurately estimate population densities.

(Photo credit Ullas Karanth/WCS)
(Photo credit Ullas Karanth/WCS)

While much remains to be uncovered about these cats, simply to rediscover them in the same places that classic explorers like Sanderson, Fletcher, and Stebbing alluded to is exhilarating. Perhaps best of all, it’s a real cause for celebration that these photos confirm that conservation efforts over the past 50–100 years in these wildlife reserves are protecting such alluring and intriguing cats.


Fletcher, F. W. 1911. Sport on the Nilgiris and Wynaad. Macmillan & Co. London.
Sanderson, G. P. 1879. Thirteen Years Among the Wild Beasts of India.
Stebbing, E. P. 1920. The Forests of India.

Read More by Krithi Karanth

  • Cindy Lindstedt

    WOW is that one of the coolest cats. Love all the BIG CATS,and the the little one’s too. 🙂

  • shailesh

    Proud of her achievement, commitment, and dedication. Rare to see so much passion for wild life in India! Keep up the Great work.

  • Prashanth

    Beautiful compilation. Lovely pics as well.

  • Gene Albright

    This is cool! What we need though is more information on the African Black Leopard and the Amur Black Leopard.

  • ian

    The cheetah does not belong to the Panthera genus. Great pictures!

  • Kshitij

    Black leopard images constituting 10% of all leopard images was surprising indeed! 🙂
    Nice to know that they are surviving well.

  • Johannes Vierula

    Had a privilege to photograph a wild black leopard in Western Thailand this year.


  • Donny

    India is also home to the clouded leopard – in the North East. These photographs and findings are stunning.

  • Skearns

    These are beautiful creatures. Of all the big cats, I would have to say that the leopard is my absolute favorite. From what I have seen on you tube and the nat geo channel, and the above article is that leopards are the most adaptable, most intelligent and most elusive of the big cats. I love to see evidence of the re population of endangered big cats.



  • Dianne Capes

    do you know if we have any here in our country? are they the same as Jaguars? or are Jaguars related to the tigers? would love to know please. thank you for the beautiful photos and sharing them with us! are they also extinct?


    Great! Even I have witnessed their presence in lower Himalayas, Shivalik Hills and Tarai areas like Uttarakashi District, Dehradun District and, Pilibhit District from past 20+ years. while my trekking and camping endeavors in wild.

  • Annonymous

    What is that little box behind the animals (dead center of the picture)? I have noticed it on all of the pics of animals from India that are posted on Nat. Geo?

  • Brian Lockett

    @ ian: The article didn’t claim cheetahs are of the genus Panthera. It merely listed cheetahs as one of five of the biggest cats in the world. The reference to Panthera is only being used to refer to the black leopards, who are among the big cats.

  • Mahboob Chowdhury

    Beautiful pictures of a very beautiful animal.

  • marilyn jones

    I saw a black leopard crossing a dirt road in Punta Allen, Mexico.

  • amal francis sam

    they r our nations pride…we do anything to comserve them

  • Phanindra Chandraprakash

    Great pics of an illusive cat :).

  • Seán Collins

    Great pics of what is my favourite animal.

  • Anupam Johri


    August 3, 5:36 am
    What is that little box behind the animals (dead center of the picture)? I have noticed it on all of the pics of animals from India that are posted on Nat. Geo?

    That is the camera trap on a short stake; It is normally put up on both sides of the trail, to get a photograph of both sides of the animal which trips the camera trap ( useful for identification of individual tigers / leopards due to distinctive individual stripe / rosette markings )

  • Noel Rodrigo

    It’s always nice to hear about Leopards. In Sri Lanka in and around Rain forest villager’s claim they have seen black leopards. In my 35 years of tracking leopards I’ve seen 2 black leopards but they were both dead .killed by traps put for wild boar.sad I wish one day I will see my black cat.

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