Will Burrard-Lucas scrolled through photo after photo, seeing only hyenas. Then "a pair of eyes surrounded by inky darkness ... a black leopard! I couldn't believe it," the British wildlife photographer says of capturing some of the first scientific evidence of black leopards in Africa in a century. (See his images here.) Per the Washington Post, there've actually been numerous reported sightings of African black leopards, and a photo of one was even taken in 2007. What's notable this time around is that for scientists to confirm it's a black leopard, they need to see its spots, which can't be captured by a camera in the daytime. That's why Burrard-Lucas' nighttime infrared images stand out. Captured with a camera trap in Kenya's Laikipia Wilderness Camp, they show the leopard's rosette markings in incredible detail.
"It took a few days before it sank in that I had achieved my dream," Burrard-Lucas writes on his blog, noting he was guided by locals who'd seen the animal. The BBC describes it as a 2-year-old male. Researchers from the San Diego Zoo working in parallel with Burrard-Lucas captured their own footage of a female black panther in the same region. There are "definitely two, possibly three," zoo researcher Nicholas Pilfold tells AFP. In a report on the evidence in the African Journal of Ecology, Pilfold notes the last confirmed scientific evidence of a black leopard in Africa was in Ethiopia in 1909, per the Guardian. Scientists can now begin to study why melanism—the genetic mutation that causes an excess of the dark-colored pigment melanin—is present among African leopards; it's more common among those in southeast Asia, where the dark coat helps them hunt prey in shade-filled tropical forests, reports National Geographic. (More on the elusive animals here.)