Black panther The phantom of the forest

By Praveen Siddannavar

What’s a Black Panther, Really? Many of us have mistaken that Black Panthers are a species of its own, it’s not a separate species, but rather any big cat with a gene that produces dark pigment.

Melanistic leopards are commonly called Black Panthers, these are also known as Black Leopard and this term also applies to melanistic Jaguars.

Black Panthers are found in the dense tropical rain forest where the sunlight is low. The dark coloration acts as better camouflage in low sunlight conditions of the forest floor. These cats normally hunt on Chital, Black-naped Hare, Langurs, and Mouse Deer.

Close examination of the color of the black panthers will show that the typical markings known as rosettes or spots are still present, but are hidden by the excess black pigment, giving an effect similar to that of printed silk.  The color variant in black panthers occur mainly due to recessive allele, this means heritable characteristics are controlled by genes which are expressed in offspring only when inherited from both parents. While in melanistic Jaguars this occurs due to dominant allele that is by a single dominant male. The theory behind the melanistic cats is quite complex and researchers are still working on the reproduction cycle of melanism. Records have shown that normal male Leopard courting with black leopard produce offspring with combination of both normal leopards and melanistic leopards or both black leopards but there is no possibility of the two being born as normal leopards.

During the last 18 months, from 2015 until now, Nagarahole National Park, on Kabini tourism zone has been a hot spot to spot the rare Black Panthers. It’s still a mystery that how, when and from where these Black Panthers ventured into Nagarahole. There is strong belief that it may possibly have moved from Wayanad region in Kerala.

Nagarhole National Park (also known as Rajiv Gandhi National Park), is a national park located in Kodagu district and district in Karnataka state in South India. Nagarahole is named after Nagarahole (Cobra river in the local language, Kannada), a winding river that runs eastwards through its centre. Situated in the two districts of Mysore and Kodagu ( Coorg District) in the state of Karnataka. The vegetation here mainly consists of north Western Ghats moist deciduous forests with teak, rosewood, sandalwood, and silver oak trees, others include crocodile bark and others.

This park was declared the 37th Project Tiger Reserve in1999. It covers a large area of forest approximately 634 sq.kms including all of Nagarhole National Park, which is under consideration by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee for selection as a World Heritage Site.

The park has rich forest cover, small streams, hills, valleys and waterfalls. The park has a healthy predator-prey ratio, with many tigers, leopards, elephants, gaurs, doles, spotted deers, sambar deers, barking deers and also the rare mouse deers.

Black panthers prefer the dense tropical rain forest where the sunlight is low. However Kabini, Nagarahole tourism zone is exceptional, as not many areas are as dense as preferred by these cats. I have spotted Black Panther at Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve on 3 occasions and the density of these black panthers is highest in the region, however chances to spot them in such dense forests is never easy and a rare sight. On the other side of Kabini, the Black Panther (male) in particular, which has been in the limelight, has adapted quite well to this type of habitat and it has been spotted on several occasions especially resting on a tree. I have been lucky to spot him on 2 occasions at Kabini, once on the ground while it was seen having a territorial fight with another male which was a normal spotted leopard and fortunately the Black Panther won this battle and is now seen covering a large territory within the tourism zone. During this fight the Black Panther also had few injuries that I was lucky to document. Black panthers in other forests especially at Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve are extremely shy, however this cat at Kabini has got quite accustomed with humans and the safaris vehicles.

Traditionally the thought is black panthers have an advantage for night time hunting. However the researchers strongly believe that is easier for other species or a prey to spot solidly patterned animal versus one whose markings are broken up.

However the fact is a tiger with its stripes or a leopard, jaguar, or cheetah with its spots are more difficult to see in dappled vegetation than a purely solidly colored animal would be. The big cats are opportunistic and hunting may not necessarily be at night, which is a misconception. I have seen tigers, leopards, lions hunt during broad daylight.

The Black Panther spotted at Kabini is a male and is it amazing to see him cover a large territory and scent mark by spraying urine on the tree trunks, which a typical behavior that big cats posses.  It will be interesting to see this Black Panther court with a spotted leopard and Nagarahole forest may soon spot more black panthers in future. Having adapted and comfortably managed in a tiger country this Black Panther will go a long way into wildlife research studies.

The conservation status of leopards as per the IUCN is Vulnerable and near threatened species. These cats declining in numbers very fast for several reasons like poaching, losing habitats, man-animal conflicts, and deforestation. It’s sad to know the leopard skin and body parts are increasingly showing up in wildlife trading markets mainly in China.

Conservation efforts are in progress, however in India we are yet to use technology of camera traps to study Black Panther population. This technology can enable the researchers using infrared flash camera traps to study the spot pattern that is clearly visible with these technologies.

Praveen Siddanavar  is native of Belgaum, an engineer by profession and a natural history photographer by choice. He started his professional career with KPIT at Pune, he also lived and worked in London, UK for over 6 years and setup two Indian subsidiaries in London and in 2004 he returned to India and has now settled in Bangalore with his wife and two daughters. Currently he works with KPIT, Bangalore as Center Head.