IUCN Red List

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.




‘Dynasties’ and lions — it’s not always good to be King.

Finally. The curtain is about to go up on Dynasties in the US, on BBC America (Saturday, Jan. 19 at 9E/8C, and subsequent weekends).

And while the audience is likely to be nowhere near as sizeable or far-reaching as that which watched Dynasties’ debut on BBC One in the UK last November, viewers in the most crowded, competitive media market in the world will finally be exposed to Dynasties’ tough, uncompromising look at the animal kingdom. (True to form, BBC America’s five episodes will air out of sequence with their original BBC broadcast; BBC America is opening with Lion (this weekend, on Jan. 19), followed by Chimpanzee (Jan. 26), Tiger (Feb. 2), Painted Wolf (Feb. 9) and finally Emperor (penguins, on Feb. 16).)

Dynasties, from many of the same producers and  filmmakers who brought you Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II, is unique for two reasons.

©BBC/Natural History Unit

©BBC/Natural History Unit

One, each episode revolves around a single animal family or clan and tells a tale of succession. Each hour-long episode focuses on a clan patriarch, or matriarch, as they fight for survival against a variety of threats, from the elements and climate change to human-wildlife conflict and —  shades of Shakespeare — murderous family members determined to usurp the throne and upset the natural order of things.

Secondly, each episode of Dynasties has a pointed environmental message, missing from many earlier David Attenborough-narrated nature programs, in which we learn that many of the threats facing the wild kingdom today are the result of our own actions, whether it’s contributing to climate change through our voracious consumption of the Earth’s dwindling resources or, more directly, as in this weekend’s opening episode, Lion, pastoral herders in Kenya poison a pride of lions to stop the lions from preying on their cattle, a critical source of income in many impoverished local communities.

Camera crews, field biologists and anthropologists followed each family group — lions in Kenya, tigers in India, painted wolves (African wild dogs) in Zimbabwe and penguins in Antarctica, over a period of four years, and witnessed some remarkable, never-seen-before behaviour over that time. It is the first time so many different, disparate variety of animals have been followed so closely over such a long period of time in their own environment, and that alone sets Dynasties apart from the other Attenborough programs.

©BBC/Natural History Unit

©BBC/Natural History Unit

It also means, inevitably, that countless hours of film footage didn’t make it into the final broadcast version. The filmmakers’ behind-the-scenes stories are compelling in their own right, and that’s one reason I’ve decided to share some of them here, each week, before that week’s episode airs.

That means starting with Simon Blakeney, self-described dad and producer with BBC’s Natural History Unit, who followed a pride of lions in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve as part of the team that put together this weekend’s opener. (“Spent the last few years working on Dynasties with an amazing group of Lions,” Blakeney tweeted at @simon_blakeney. “All opinions my own!”)

Blakeney penned a handful of short essays about filming Lion, for BBC One’s main website when the series first aired, including a trenchant analysis of the perils facing Africa’s remaining wild lions today. (Little-known fact: Just 2,000 wild lions remain in Kenya, the land that made Born Free famous, but more sobering than that is the knowledge that Kenya, and the Maasai Mara, the northern extension of the world-renowned Serengeti ecosystem, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the few remaining strongholds for wild lions left in the world. Period. End of story.

©BBC/Natural History Unit

©BBC/Natural History Unit

Naturally, Blakeney hopes the lions’ story doesn’t end there, and Dynasties is designed in part to shed further light on the lion’s plight, to an audience that might not otherwise realize just how perilous the situation is — as well as showing directly, day-by-day, how tough a lion’s life is, even at the best of times. One of Dynasties’ great strengths, as television and as mass  communication, is that it’s unflinching and uncompromising in its view. When a pack of two dozen hyenas decide to annihilate a young, inexperienced lion who’s wandered too far away from the safety of his pridemates, or an otherwise tough, self-confident lioness is forced to abandon her ailing, sickly cub, to move on with that same pride, Blakeney and his team of fellow filmmakers were there to record every moment — and a lot of that ends up on the screen, whether it’s painful to watch or not.

Some of the most memorable footage he got didn’t make it into the final cut, Blakeney admits. That’s just  one of the harsh realities of documentary filmmaking. An hour might sound like a long time — actually, each episode clocks in at just 48 minutes, give or take — but in a format where every second counts, four years of filming inevitably means a lot of compelling footage won’t see the light of day.

©BBC/Natural History Unit

©BBC/Natural History Unit

Decisions about what to leave in and take out invariably come down to subjective opinion and the vision to see a project through to its end, in a way that is coherent, disciplined, tightly focused and communicates something vital and important to the audience.

A personal favourite of Blakeney’s, in which lions exercise a peculiar habit of hunting wart hogs during those times of the year when their regular food source, the annual wildebeest migration, moves on to greener pastures — which is about six months of the year. (Lions are territorial, unlike some predators which simply follow the wildebeest across national borders from Kenya into Tanzania and back again, depending on the rains; lions stay where they are. Also, there are other lions, in other prides, with territories of their own, who will fight any intruder, great or small, to the death — literally — to protect their own.)©BBC/Natural History Unit

“The warthogs live out on the savannah and they’re very quick,” Blakeney posted on the BBC site. “They would outrun lions in a straight race. If they’re being chased, the warthogs will often bolt off into one of their many burrows, usually old aardvark burrows or similar. . . . This could involve a lot of digging. The cubs in particular weren’t very good at digging because they were smaller and not as strong as the adults. The warthogs would get pretty disgruntled and they’d scoop up big facefuls of mud with their snouts, and then chuck them at the lions as they were trying to dig them out.”

©BBC/Natural History Unit

©BBC/Natural History Unit

For all the hardship and tough times Dynasties’ lions went through, Blakeney had some fond memories, too. The filmmakers found themselves getting close, sometimes uncomfortably close, to their subjects, even thought they consciously tried to be as unobtrusive as possible, for ethical reasons as well as reasons artistic. (It never ends well for a wild lion who becomes habituated to human contact, intentional or otherwise.)

“On another occasion, about nine months in, one of the adolescent males walked round the back of the Land Rover I was sitting in,” Blakeney recalled, “and just appeared right beside me. If I’d wanted to, I could have reached out and stroked his mane as he walked past. I was on the radio at the time, which had quite limited range, so I was sitting right at the edge of the seat and hadn’t seen him coming. I jumped out of my skin when he suddenly emerged on the open side of the car. It’s easy to forget how big they are until you are up that close.”

©BBC/Natural History Unit

©BBC/Natural History Unit

The picture facing Africa’s wild lions is concerning. The IUCN Red List of threatened species officially lists lions as “vulnerable,” which is to say their future is far from assured.

Small-scale conservation groups, such as the locally-organized Ewaso Lions group in Kenya’s northern, semi-arid Samburu district, are doing what they can to lessen human-wildlife conflict, but the issue is complex and the problems are many.

Dynasties, in its own small way, hopes to spread the message to as many ordinary, everyday people — people who will probably never be able to see a wild lion in their lifetimes — as possible. If for no other reason, that makes Lion worth watching.


World Giraffe Day 2018 — the long and the short of it.

On this summer solstice, please spare a thought for one of the world’s most recognizable animals. Today’s as good a day as any to recognize and celebrate the longest-necked animal on the planet — the longest day (or night, depending in which hemisphere you happen to be right now) of the year.

Celebrate but, hopefully, not commemorate.

Because one of the more underreported, overlooked environmental stories of the year is that the giraffe, that iconic animal and the stuff of countless fables and children’s storybooks, is now on the endangered species list.

According to the world-respected wildlife biologist and giraffe expert Dr. Julian Fennessy, giraffe populations have crashed by nearly half in just the past three decades, numbers even a Trumptard can understand.

Giraffes are now extinct in seven countries in which they used to thrive. Since a giraffe only has one offspring at a time, and the gestation period is 13 to 15 months, it doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out the entire species might be facing the immutable law of diminishing returns.

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

The Australian-born Fennessy is co-founder and executive director of the Namibia-based — yes, Namibia again — Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) (https://giraffeconservation.org) and co-chair of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group.

Fennessy initiated genetic research that found there are four species of giraffe in Africa, of which two — the Northern giraffe and the Reticulated giraffe — are among the world’s most critically endangered mammals. Even the familiar, and relatively common,  Maasai giraffe isn’t out of the woods entirely.

©Giraffe Conservation Foundation/GCF

©Giraffe Conservation Foundation/GCF

Taken as a whole, the giraffe — as defined as a single species — is now listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of endangered animals.

Oddly, despite the giraffe’s profile in popular culture, little was known about them, let alone giraffe conservation, when Fennessy first founded the GCF as a modest, UK-based NGO in 2009, with just a handful of staff members.

“There had never been a full-time giraffe person before,” Fennessy told the South China Morning Post’s Tessa Chan earlier this month, before a Royal Geographical Society lecture in Hong Kong on the plight facing this gentle, graceful mammal.

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

The GCF has been conducting extensive population surveys in Uganda in cooperation with that country’s Uganda Wildlife Authority, using individual photographic markers and computer files. Population surveys used to be done from the air, using planes and helicopters, a process which is notoriously unreliable, Fennessy says, even with an animal as large and easy to spot as a giraffe.

“They have a (coat) pattern like a fingerprint,” Fennessy explained, “so we can ID them and over years build up a database.”

©Giraffe Conservation Foundation/GCF

©Giraffe Conservation Foundation/GCF

Fennessy believes conservation efforts have gained ground in Uganda, thanks largely to his group’s efforts, and in GCF’s home country of Namibia, but giraffes still face a poaching crisis in other African countries where they’re clinging to life — Ethiopia, South Sudan, Cameroon and the constantly war-torn  Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Giraffes are sometimes killed just for their tail, for use as a fly swat.

“So they kill a whole giraffe and leave it, just for the tail,” he told the Morning Post.

People can become actively involved beyond being simply an armchair conservationist through donation, by sponsoring a giraffe or by helping with funding efforts.

giraffe pixabay inset.jpg

Just as importantly — perhaps even more so — Fennessy asks that anyone considering a safari in Africa can support responsible ecotourism by asking the travel company what they do for conservation on the ground and — and this is the critical part — how they support local communities that live with and around wild animals.

The Johannesburg-based NGO African Parks actively vets safari companies and is willing to share information with anyone who asks.

If there’s one benefit to living in these times, Fennessy says, it’s that the world has become a small place: It’s easy to share information and learn new things at the click of a mouse.

As African Parks’ Andrea Heydlauff told a National Geographic-sponsored audience at the Half-Earth Day 2017 conference in Washington, DC, “what’s fantastic is that wildlife can rebound. Nature knows what to do. They just need to be given the space and security in order to thrive. And where wildlife thrives, people thrive.”

Reason for hope.



©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons