By Jesse 03 May 2019

The Elusive Kenya Black Leopard

YZ expert Jesse missed spotting the elusive black leopard by one game drive! Here he explains where is your best chance of seeing this incredibly rare animal in the wild.

A couple of months ago in an area called Laikipia, in the heart of Kenya, a photographer named Will Burrard-Lucas was one of the first photographers to get a shot of the extremely rare black leopard. He captured something that had been a myth – stories about the creature had been circulating for years and years through the wildlife community, as well as through guiding and local communities throughout Kenya and the world.

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Many thought that Kenya’s black leopard was just a myth. However, alone in the semi-arid habitat in Laikipia, Will managed to prove that black leopard are very much alive and that they can be found in the shadows of the vast Laikipia wilderness.

My trip to Laikipia

On the 21st of April 2019, midway through my familiarisation trip through northern Kenya, I was fortunate enough to spend two nights at Laikipia Wilderness Camp – from here, Will had photographed the black leopard. The camp is family run by Steve and Annabelle Carey. Steve is an ex-Zimbabwean guide who is now living in Kenya, and his wealth of knowledge is absolutely immense!

On my first day, as I arrived in Laikipia Wilderness just before lunch, there was only one other group there, making a total of five of us in camp with Steve and Assistant Camp Manager Jasper! I was promptly shown to my room by Jasper, and settled in with real ease. I unpacked my things and then made my way to the mess area for lunch.

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I asked Steve about the black leopard, and whether it had been sighted regularly. He began to tell me about his sightings of the leopard, including how Will had taken the pictures and the background story of how they photographed the leopard using a state-of-the-art camera trap that caught the feline prowling at night (see pictures above). My excitement grew as I got engulfed in the fascination of seeing these majestic and beautiful cats.

How rare are black leopard?

Steve went on to tell me that black leopard are actually not as rare as everyone speculates, and that there have been recorded sightings of five different individual melanistic leopards during the past two years in the Laikipia area and along the Ewaso Narok river. He went on to say that there was a mother with two cubs – both the mother and one of the cubs were normal rosetted leopards, and the other cub was a melanistic leopard. The presence of the cubs reinforced Steve’s theory that there are a couple of leopards in the area and they are reproducing.

I found Steve’s outlook rather interesting. He reckons that the black leopard could be better suited to adapting and hunting in the Laikipia biome, as the bush is generally thick throughout that area – being melanistic, the black leopard blend in better with the rocky kopjes, caves, and hills, and also with the shadows of the trees and thick shrubs, making them more camouflaged.

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Where else can you spot a black leopard?

We carried on with the discussion through lunch, as I asked Steve more about the black leopard. He went on to tell me that there have been sightings of black leopard in another part of Kenya – in a mountainous forest called the Aberdares, which is south of Laikipia and west of Mount Kenya. The Aberdares forest is very thick, so finding and photographing the black leopard there is a monumental task – you would have better chances of spotting it in Laikipia.

How I just missed spotting a melanistic leopard

That evening I had opted out of going on a drive in favour of enjoying another activity. The Careys, however, went on a game drive. Later that evening, the family of four came back and everyone was extremely excited! They told me that they’d got an amazing sighting of the same female Will had photographed only months before. I was so disappointed that I hadn’t gone on that drive and seen the leopard for myself. But it just means that I will have to revisit Laikipia Wilderness in the hopes of seeing the melanistic leopards. Clearly Laikipia is your best bet if you want to see this species!

Although wildlife sightings cannot be guaranteed, you can certainly speak with our Kenya experts here for the best advice on how to spot a black leopard in Kenya. Alternatively, check out the blogs below for more inspiration: