Daily Nation

Rare black leopard caught on camera in Kenya. So, who deserves the credit?

Who was the first person to reach the summit of Mt. Everest? History records that it was Sir Edmund Hillary, on May 29, 1953, but purists have always wondered if his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, was the first to actually set foot on the summit. Hillary addressed this issue directly in an interview with National Geographic Adventurer contributing editor David Roberts in April, 2003, in a story titled “50 Years on Everest.”

“When we came out toward Kathmandu, there was a very strong political feeling, particularly among the Indian and Nepalese press, who very much wanted to be assured that Tenzing was first,” Sir Edmund recalled. “That would indicate that Nepalese and Indian climbers were at least as good as foreign climbers. We felt quite uncomfortable with this at the time. John Hunt, Tenzing, and I had a little meeting. We agreed not to tell who stepped on the summit first.

“To a mountaineer, it’s of no great consequence who actually sets foot first. Often the one who puts more into the climb steps back and lets his partner stand on top first.”

You may be wondering what the story of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on Mt. Everest has to do with a series of stunning photos published in the past 10 days of a rare black leopard on Kenya’s central Laikipia Plateau, but there is a connection.

It has to do with shared credit, and what the protocol is when a hard-earned wildlife photograph goes viral on social media and becomes front-page news for major news organizations around the world.

Who deserves credit? The person who took the photograph of a rare animal, or the person who found that rare animal in the first place.

©Will Burrard-Lucas 2019

©Will Burrard-Lucas 2019

It’s how that news was reported — on the BBC World News’ main website, for one— that the controversy started. 

Veteran UK nature photographer Will Burrard-Lucas, who leads photo expeditions of his own in Africa for avid shutterbugs and animal lovers, captured the startling image of a black panther — actually a regular leopard with a rare melanistic gene that causes the fur to appear black, though not a pure black exactly but grey, which is why the leopard’s spots, or rosettes, are clearly visible against the background fur when — using a remote-controlled trap camera. It was a local Samburu tracker and research assistant with the San Diego Zoo Global outreach NGO, Ambrose Letoluai, however, who knew where to find the leopard and told Burrard-Lucas where best to set the camera. LetoluaLetoluaii has lived his entire life in Koija, a small  village which borders Loisaba Conservancy, and was hired as a leopard researcher after recalling tales elders in his community had told him about black leopards being common on the Laikipia Plateau.

©Will Burrard-Lucas 2019

©Will Burrard-Lucas 2019

San Diego Zoo Global researchers, working with biologist Dr. Nicholas Pilfold, Ph.D deployed remote cameras as part of a larger-scale study aimed at understanding the population dynamics of leopards on conservation land that, like much of northern Kenya, is shared by both wildlife and pastoral cattle herders. Human-wildlife conflict is inevitable where goats and calves encounter an apex predator like a leopard, and researchers believe more needs to be known about wild animals’ habits if they are to have a chance to survive. Leopards are not critically endangered, but the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists them as “vulnerable” on its official Red List of threatened species.

Black panthers have always held a special place in the human imagination, in part because they’re seen so rarely and in part because they’re such a familiar symbol in popular culture.

Burrard-Lucas got wind of the Laikipia program and its trap cameras, and decided to try to fulfil a lifelong dream to capture a black panther, if not on film exactly, on-camera. Letoluai was his assigned minder — his Sherpa, if you will — and the subsequent images, part luck, part good timing and part insider knowledge, exceeded their expectations.

So far, so good.

The mainstream media like nothing better than a good story, though, and while “Night-time Photos of a Rare Black Leopard” might sound like a good story to some people, “First Black Leopard Spotted in 100 Years” sounds much better.

©Twitter / Will Burrard-Lucas

©Twitter / Will Burrard-Lucas

In a media climate desperate for some good news about the environment for a change, rare photos of an animal that hasn’t been seen for a century is a headline grabber.

There’s just one problem. It wasn’t true. Local media in Kenya, among them photojournalist and staff photographer Phoebe Okall of the Nairobi Daily Nation newspaper, had captured images of a black leopard in the wild just a few years ago.

Many Kenyans, politically sensitive toward any perceived slight by westerners in the post-colonial era of independence, saw this as a double insult: Ambrose Letoluai was being given enough credit for finding the black leopard on BBC World’s main news site, and local, Kenyan photojournalists were not being given any credit for having captured images of black leopards on not one but several occasions prior to “the first capture in 100 years.”

Burrard-Lucas, for his part, found himself caught in the middle. What should have been the crowning achievement of his photographic career — and still might — is suddenly at the centre of an increasingly noisy and fractious controversy.

He posted an immediate clarification on his website: He never said it was the first photo of a black leopard in 100 years. That was something the media added, for effect. He was also more than willing to credit Letoluai  for his work in setting up the camera trap — it’s quite common, and perfectly acceptable, for nature photographers to credit the guides who take them to the rare animals in the first place.

©Ambrose Letoluai 2019

©Ambrose Letoluai 2019

Earlier this week, a reasoned, thoughtful, well-researched — and properly sourced — article in the Washington Post, by general assignment reporters Alex Horton and Reis Thebault, sought to put an end to the controversy by outlining exactly what happened, who did what, where, how, why and, importantly, when.

The damage is done, though, and the outrage on social media sites like Twitter, mostly from Kenyans proud of their heritage and the wild animals they know as their own, continues unabated, even today.

Perhaps, if and when Burrard-Lucas’ images are recognized at some of the big wildlife photo awards, such as the UK Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards in October — which I suspect they just may — Burrard-Lucas and Letoluai can accept together, in person, much like Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay before them.

Enough about that, for now. Here, then, are some key links to the controversy, as it unfolded.




‘But we should not give up:’ elegy for a white rhino named Sudan.

Much of the world may not care, but make no mistake: The planet shed a tear when the last known male northern white rhino died this week.

“The world’s last surviving northern white rhino has died after months of poor health, his carers say,” BBC News reported under the heading Northern white rhino: Last male Sudan dies in Kenya.

Sudan, who was 45, lived at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. He was put down Monday after age-related complications worsened to the point where his carers decided he was in significant pain and unlikely to recover.

Sudan had lived at Safari Park Dvür Králové in the Czech Republic until 2009, when he was repatriated to his ancestral home in the arid thorn-bush scrublands of northern Kenya.

Dvür Králové is the only zoo in the world where northern white rhinos have successfully given birth, but here’s the catch: The last calf was born in 2000.

©Ami Vitale/National Geographic Creative

©Ami Vitale/National Geographic Creative

Sudan’s death leaves just two females, his daughter and granddaughter, of the subspecies.

There are five species of rhinos, of which the white rhino is the largest. There are two subspecies: The southern white rhino, which is native to South Africa and neighbouring countries, is at risk but not yet critically endangered. (Wild populations outside South Africa are hard to ascertain, but it’s believed southern white rhinos may already have vanished from several southern African countries, owing to a recent spike in poaching driven by the insatiable demand for rhino horn in Asian countries.)

“His death is a cruel symbol of human disregard for nature and it saddened everyone who knew him,” Jan Stejskal, an official with Dvür Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic’s Labe (Elbe) river valley region of Bohemia, told the AFP news agency, as reported on BBC News’ main website Tuesday.

“But we should not give up.”

©CITES/Ol Pejeta

©CITES/Ol Pejeta

An elegy — a poem of serious reflection, typically a lament for the dead — might not seem appropriate for an animal, but as anyone who has spent time around animals knows, they’re sentient beings, capable of emotion and, in many cases, the ability to feel pain and know sadness.

What’s telling about the outpouring of sentiment on social media, from those who saw him on a day-to-day basis at Ol Pejeta and by those who barely knew him, except from wildlife films and photo essays in nature periodicals, is how raw and open the emotional wounds are — at least, among those care about about species extinction and somehow finding the right balance between Nature and a fast-growing human population.

It may not be easy to remember now, but northern white rhinos were actually quite widespread, as recently as the 1970s and ‘80s. They ranged from Uganda and Kenya in East Africa to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and  Central African Republic (CAR) in central Africa,  to Chad in northern Africa, and to Sudan itself, after which Sudan was named (obviously). A poaching epidemic in the mid- to late 1980s for both rhino horn and elephant tusks proved catastrophic for one species and near-catastrophic for the other, all to service the demand for use in traditional Chinese medicines and the quaint notion that ground rhino horn is both an aphrodisiac and a cure for cancer. (Spoiler alert: It’s neither.)

©Yaron Schmid/Magnus News

©Yaron Schmid/Magnus News

Rhino horn was also used for dagger handles in Yemen; it’s hard to assess, given the present turmoil in Yemen, exactly how much demand remains for dagger handles.

The World Wildlife Fund declared the northern white rhino extinct in the wild in 2008.

Even the mere idea that an iconic species like a rhino that could still be found in the Congo as recently as the early 2000s should be virtually extinct by 2018 should be cause for alarm, but it clearly isn’t — not when a recently U.S. administration can look at a melting polar ice cap and put it down to a Chinese hoax. The only Chinese hoax is the insistence that rhino horn is a cure for cancer.

(To be fair, China has become politically active in the past year on the issue of climate change and in species extinction, in no small part because many Chinese cities are on the verge of being unliveable, due to air pollution and wild swings in the weather. The current U.S. administration, on the other hand, remains bereft of ideas and unwilling to accept that there’s even a problem.)

Sudan was 45 — or 90 in human terms — when he was put down by veterinarians. He was being treated for degenerative deterioration to his muscles and bones, and was unable to stand. He also suffered from extended bruising and skin wounds. Putting him down was the humane thing to do.

©Joe Mwihia/AP-Kenya

©Joe Mwihia/AP-Kenya

Sudan’s genetic material has been collected and stored, in the hope that science might one day find a way to clone extinct animals from DNA. Rhino IVF (in vitro fertilization) is relatively untested and is considered both an invasive and radical procedure. And expensive. Geneticists, conservationists, veterinarians and wildlife biologists put the price as high as USD $10 million.

Then again, some might argue — and they have a case — that no price is too high where species extinction is concerned, especially a species as familiar and symbolic as a rhino.