The Kabini tourism zone has been a hot spot for watching wildlife and not just for tigers and leopards. A Black Panther has been in the limelight for the past year and half. It’s still a mystery how, when and from where this Black Panther ventured into Nagarahole. There is a strong belief that it may possibly have moved from the adjoining forests of Wayanad, Kerala or was existing in Nagarahole and was never spotted before.

But what’s a Black Panther, Really? Many of us have the mistaken belief that black panthers are a separate species. This is not true, it’s not a separate species, but rather a Common Leopard with a gene that produces dark pigment.

Melanistic leopards are commonly called Black Panthers, they are also known as Black Leopard and this term also applies to melanistic Jaguars. Black Panthers are usually found in dense tropical rain forests, where the penetration of sunlight is low. Their dark coloration acts as better camouflage in the low sunlight conditions of the forest floor. These cats normally hunt on chital, black-naped hare, langurs, and mouse deer.

Black Panther on the ground

Photograph: Praveen Siddannavar

Close examination of the color of the Black Panthers will show that the typical markings known as rosettes or spots are still present, but are hidden by the excess black pigment, giving an effect similar to that of printed silk. The color variant in black panthers occur mainly due to recessive allele, this means heritable characteristics are controlled by genes which are expressed in offspring only when inherited from both parents. While in melanistic Jaguars this occurs due to dominant allele that is by a single dominant male. The theory behind the melanistic cats is quite complex and researchers are still working on the reproduction cycle of melanism. Records have shown that normal leopard courting with black leopard produce offspring with combination of both normal leopards and melanistic leopards or both black leopards but there is no possibility of the two being born as normal leopards.

Black Panthers prefer the dense tropical rain forest where the sunlight is low. Therefore Kabini, Nagarahole tourism zone is exceptional, as not many areas are as dense as typically preferred by these cats. I have spotted Black Panthers at Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve on 3 occasions and the density of Black Panthers is highest in that region, however chances to spot them in such dense forests is never easy and a rare sight. On the other side Kabini, the Black Panther, which has been in the limelight, has adapted quite well to this type of habitat and it has been spotted on several occasions especially resting on a tree. I have been lucky to spot him on 3 occasions at Kabini, once on the ground while it was seen having a territorial fight with another male which was a normal spotted leopard and fortunately the Black Panther won this battle and is now seen covering a large territory within the tourism zone. During this fight the Black Panther also had few injuries that I was lucky to document. Black panthers in other forests especially at Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve are extremely shy, however this cat at Kabini has got quite accustomed to humans and the safaris vehicles.

Black Panther on a tree

Photograph: Praveen Siddannavar

Traditionally the thought is black panthers have an advantage for nighttime hunting. However the researchers strongly believe that is easier for other species or a prey to spot solidly patterned animal versus one whose markings are broken up.

The Black Panther spotted at Kabini is a male and it is amazing to see him cover a large territory and scent mark by spraying urine on the tree trunks, which is a typical behavior that big cats posses. The Black Panther at Kabini has recently been seen courting with a normally coloured female leopard, sooner or later one can expect to see more Black Panthers at Kabini. I strongly believe that this panther is well adapted and comfortably managed in a tiger country like Nagarahole & will go a long way into wildlife research studies.