by Nick McIndoe
Will Burrard-Lucas is one of the world’s top wildlife photographers, known for utilising “BeetleCam” and camera traps to capture close-up images of Africa’s most charismatic and dangerous wildlife, often at night. However, one animal has captured his heart more than any other—the leopard.
Born in the UK Will spent three-and-a-half years of his childhood living in Tanzania. He explains that the leopard became the “holy grail” because while on safari with his family, they spotted other animals like lions and elephants quickly. “In that whole time, I only ever spotted one leopard. I can still picture that moment like it was yesterday, it’s very special to me.”
Will’s leopard obsession came full-circle in 2019 when he photographed a young African black (melanistic) leopard (Panthera pardus pardus) in Kenya—the first scientifically verified sighting of a melanistic leopard in Africa since 1909. These pictures are the subject of his new book: The Black Leopard: My Quest to Photograph one of Africa’s most Elusive Big Cats.
As a young man about to enter his final year at secondary school, Will was on holiday with his family in British Columbia when he snapped his first wildlife photograph, using his mother’s film camera—a black bear.
It didn’t take him long to realise that wildlife photography brought together his greatest passions: nature, travel, creativity, technology, and adventure.
Will joined the digital revolution in 2002 with the purchase of his first DSLR camera—a Minolta DiMAGE 7i. While developing his photography skills he was also studying for a master’s degree in Physics at the Imperial College in London.
At the same time, he met his now wife, Nat and the two bonded over a love of travel, where Will would photograph something, anything, any chance he got. Although his reputation and online presence as a photographer was growing, he realised that his business and websites were not yet profitable enough to sustain him, so he followed his father into an accounting career.
Will says it took around six years to get his photography business to the point where on 30 April 2010, he took a leap of faith and became a fulltime wildlife photographer—“It was now or never”, he says.
BeetleCam was first used in July 2009. Will had always craved close-up, immersive images of Africa’s iconic wildlife—the sort of animals that would maul or trample you to death if you got too close, such as lions or elephants.
Being the technically innovative, entrepreneurial type, Will set about building BeetleCam—a strong remote-control buggy, that would carry a camera up to an animal. He says that his physics degree helped with understanding the electronics and programming. He was also able to self-teach topics such as remote-control, and robotics. Will learnt how to trigger a DLSR camera using a signal from a remote control, and to wire the buggy so that it could be steered.
The first design was basic and lacked any protection, save for a camouflage cover. Will was banking on the animals being weary and not getting too close. In Tanzania in July 2009, after capturing exciting images of elephants, the plan came unstuck.
A lioness picks up BeetleCam and runs off with it! Fortunately, she lets go and Will manages to retrieve the buggy, albeit torn, and covered in saliva. Despite two large incisor holes through the camera itself, he replaces it, and repairs BeetleCam. Most importantly, the memory card and images survive the mauling.
Will is also known for his expertise in photographing wildlife at night, and for his use of camera traps. He saw the night as one of the final frontiers in wildlife photography and says there are few sights as spectacular as the African sky on a clear, moonless night. After experimenting with crocodiles in a shallow stream, Will captured his first BeetleCam night shot in Zambia in 2013—lions.
Inspired by fellow photographer Steve Winter’s camera trap photos of snow leopards in the Himalayas, Will was determined to capture images using high-quality, easy to set up camera traps during his time in Zambia. A camera trap is a stationary camera set up that can be left outside for days, even weeks at a time. When an animal passes in front of the trap, a sensor triggers the camera automatically.
Will’s passion for photographing African wildlife at night and use of camera traps, leads directly to photographing the black leopard.
In August 2018, the disappointment of a cancelled trip to Madagascar gave way to excitement at the possibility of photographing a melanistic leopard in Kenya instead. Will explains that the first decent images he saw of a wild black leopard were in a 2016 issue of Wild Planet Photo Magazine. He says these pictures made “his pulse quicken” more than any other wildlife photo he has seen.
This black leopard was photographed in the Nagarhole Tiger Reserve, also known as Kabini Forest in India; therefore, is the Indian subspecies (Panthera pardus fusca).
Black leopards are often called “black panthers”, a non-scientific term for any large cat that is melanistic—an excess of the dark pigment melanin, resulting in black colouration—in reality, of the big cats, only leopards and jaguars have ever been seen in melanistic form.
In India, black panthers are not common, but restricted to the forested areas in the south of the country.
Black panthers are most common on the Malay Peninsula. In fact, until September 2015, when a “classic” leopard was photographed on a camera trap, it was thought that all Indochinese leopards (Panthera pardus delacouri) living on the Peninsula were melanistic—even the local Orang Asli people had never seen a spotted leopard.
It is thought that melanism gives leopards in Southeast Asia an evolutionary advantage of stealth when hunting, as they blend into the dense tropical rainforest.
Will knew that no one had ever captured quality images of a black African leopard, certainly not at night.
It’s worth noting here that while the resulting images are Will’s, he acknowledges the team around him that allowed it to happen, particularly Steve and Annabelle Carey, owners of Laikipia Wilderness Camp, and Luisa Ancilotto, on whose land the black panther was photographed.
Upon first enquiring with them, Will learnt that three black leopards had been seen in the area at regular intervals. He arranged to first arrive at Laikipia in January 2019, during the dry season when tracks would be easier to find.
Will can’t speak highly enough of Steve, Annabelle, who, despite having a business to run, generously allowed him to leave his camera traps for as long as needed to capture images of a black leopard. Also, the guides who lugged heavy camera gear in the Kenyan heat, and expertly examined trails for the best places to set up the cameras, as well as cleaning the lenses etc after the second trip in August 2019 when Will left the camera traps for several weeks.
Before heading to Kenya, Will was invited to speak at Nature in Focus, a photography festival in Bangalore. In lieu of payment, he asked if organisers could arrange for him to spend a few days in Kabini—home of the Indian black panther he had previously seen pictures of.
Will was guided by photographer Giri Cavale and managed to capture photos of the panther—an animal he describes as so black, the only details he could make out were its yellow eyes—“Did it really happen?”
Will captured his first image of an African black leopard after three nights, and describes it: “It was a jaw dropping moment. I knew there might be a chance to photograph this black leopard, but never expected to as safari guides who have been working the African bush their whole lives had never seen him. But I got the photographs [mostly at night] of two black leopards, and it’s a dream come true!”
What made the photographs even more meaningful for Will is that they were contributing to science, being used by San Diego Zoo Global who were conducting a leopard conservation program in Laikipia. They were able to confirm that these were the first scientifically documented sighting of a melanistic leopard in Africa since 1909.
Will returned to Kenya in August 2019, and as well as capturing more images of the young black African leopard who he had named ‘Blacky’, and also who he believes to be Blacky’s father—‘Big Spotty’, and his mother—there is a 25 percent chance their cub is black if both leopards carry the recessive gene for melanism.
He believes (or hopes) that the images will inspire people to travel to Africa and join a wildlife safari to try and spot the black leopard—this can only be a good thing for leopard conservation as funding comes from these safaris, and people protect what they love.
Will says his next book will probably be about lions as “That’s where it all began”.
For the full story, buy a copy of The Black Leopard from https://willbl.com/product/black-leopard/
It is a stunning book, and the images are simply breathtaking!