AboutZoos, Since 2008


Malaysia’s ‘black pan­thers’ finally reveal their leopard’s spots

pub­lished 21 July 2015 | mod­i­fied 21 July 2015

From the frozen forests of Rus­sia to the scorch­ing sands of the Kala­hari Desert, leop­ards are the most widely dis­trib­uted large cat on earth. Their iconic spot­ted coat has been admired and cov­eted by humans for mil­len­nia. But in one part in their vast range — the Malay Penin­sula — leop­ards are almost entirely black in colour.

Black leopard with spots, MalaysiaBlack leop­ard with spots revealed by infra-​red cam­era flash, Malaysia; pic­ture cour­tesy of Uni­ver­sity of Not­ting­ham.By mod­i­fy­ing the infra-​red flash on auto­matic cam­era traps and forc­ing them into ‘night mode’ a team of wildlife experts has revealed the black leopard’s spots.

This research, led by Lau­rie Hedges dur­ing his Mas­ters research degree in the School of Geog­ra­phy at The Uni­ver­sity of Not­ting­ham Malaysia Cam­pus (UNMC), has been pub­lished online on 26 May in the Jour­nal of Wildlife Man­age­ment and will pro­vide sci­en­tists with a new tool to help save this unique and endan­gered animal.

Cam­era traps are increas­ingly being used to study rare and elu­sive wildlife, par­tic­u­larly in trop­i­cal rain­forests. But a sim­ple tweak of the cam­era traps has pro­duced astound­ing images and video of black leop­ards — and their spots. With infrared flash, the seem­ingly ‘black’ leop­ards sud­denly showed com­plex pat­terns of spot­ting. The project was a team effort involv­ing UNMC, the con­ser­va­tion organ­i­sa­tion Rimba, WWF-​Malaysia, the James Cook Uni­ver­sity in Aus­tralia and the Depart­ment of Wildlife and National Parks Penin­su­lar Malaysia.

A tech­nique crit­i­cal for leop­ard conservation

Lau­rie said: “This is per­haps the only known exam­ple of a wild mam­mal with vir­tu­ally an entire pop­u­la­tion com­posed of black indi­vid­u­als and sci­en­tists have no idea why it pre­dom­i­nates in the Malay Penin­sula. Under­stand­ing how Malaysia’s leop­ards are far­ing in an increas­ingly human-​dominated world is vital.”

Gopalasamy Reuben Clements, Hon­orary Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor at UNMC’s School of Geog­ra­phy, said: “Most auto­matic cam­eras have an infra-​red flash, but it’s only acti­vated at night. By block­ing the camera’s light sen­sor we can fool the cam­era into think­ing it is night even when it is day, so it always flashes.”

Because their uni­formly black colour pre­vented us from iden­ti­fy­ing indi­vid­ual ani­mals and thereby esti­mat­ing their pop­u­la­tion sizes very lit­tle was known about leop­ards in Malaysia.
Mark Rayan Dar­maraj, man­ager of a WWF-​Malaysia tiger con­ser­va­tion project »

The black col­oration known as melanism — the over devel­op­ment of dark-​coloured pig­ment in the skin and the oppo­site of albinism — makes it nearly impos­si­ble to iden­tify indi­vid­ual ani­mals. For this rea­son leop­ard pop­u­la­tions in Penin­su­lar Malaysia have been dif­fi­cult to study for large car­ni­vore researchers. Hav­ing revealed their spots field ecol­o­gists can now iden­tify dif­fer­ent ani­mals and begin to esti­mate the pop­u­la­tion size of the species.

Con­ser­va­tion work can now begin across Malaysia

The researchers tested the tech­nique in the Kenyir wildlife cor­ri­dor in north-​eastern Penin­su­lar Malaysia. Lau­rie said: “We found we could accu­rately iden­tify 94 per cent of the ani­mals. This will allow us to study and mon­i­tor this pop­u­la­tion over time, which is crit­i­cal for its conservation.”

The researchers now hope to use their new method to study black leop­ards elsewhere.

Video of a black leop­ard in the Kenyir Wildlife Cor­ri­dor:

(Source: Lau­rie Hedges YouTube channel)

A threat: poaching

Ahimsa Cam­pos Arceiz, from the School of Geog­ra­phy at UNMC, said: “Some places in Penin­su­lar Malaysia where I have used auto­matic cam­eras have lots of prey and for­est cover but evi­dently very few leop­ards.” Wide­spread poach­ing seems the most likely expla­na­tion. William Lau­rance from the James Cook Uni­ver­sity said; “Many dead leop­ards bear­ing injuries inflicted by wire snares have been dis­cov­ered in Malaysia.”

Leop­ard skins and body parts are increas­ingly show­ing up in wildlife trad­ing mar­kets in places such as on the Myanmar-​China bor­der. At the same time, suit­able leop­ard habi­tats are dis­ap­pear­ing faster in Malaysia than per­haps any­where else in the world, as forests are felled for tim­ber and replaced with oil palm and rub­ber plantations.

(Source: Uin­ver­sity of Not­ting­ham press release, 17.07.2015)

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