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The iconic black panther

Many people, visiting wildlife establishments or lucky enough to go on safari, get much pleasure from viewing the “Big cats”. Powerful, beautiful, deadly, intelligent and rare, they excite many of us probably more than any other group of creatures. If asked, many of these “Big cat” fans would probably not agree on which cat species is the most magnificent. A sizeable proportion might suggest the Black panther, unaware that this particular cat is not even a species in its own right.

Photo of a black panther sitting in a tree. By Jon Isaacs 2023
Black Panther 1, Photo Copyright Jon Isaacs 2023

It is the melanistic (or black) colour variant of ordinary jaguars from South America or leopards from Africa and Asia. The colouring can vary, especially in strong light, from an almost chocolate brown to pure black but the coats often still show traces of the typical markings of the species.

In 2018, the wildlife photographer Will Burrard Lucas heard about a black leopard in Kenya, Africa. Such creatures are incredibly rare and almost impossible to photograph. Using camera traps and ingenuity, he managed to photograph it. This feat has now culminated in the publication of his book “The Black Leopard” which features stunning photos of this almost magical creature. (March 2021)

Meanwhile in India in 2017, photographer, Shaaz Jung, had come across another black leopard in the Nagarhole National Park. He was to spend the next four years tracking and photographing the life of this creature and filming a documentary for National Geographic. Often, he would spend a whole week tracking and trying to photograph this panther for a few seconds of sighting and filming. Whilst the Indian black panther can be found in several states, it is still an extremely rare animal, which like most leopards is shy, secretive and rarely seen.

In 2019 I had the chance to go on the first Wildlife Worldwide group trip to try and see this legendary creature. In a small group of seven, we flew to India and then drove for hours to Kabini lodge on the edge of the NagarholeNational Park where the panther called, predictably by the guides, “Blackie” resided. Later, it was given the name of Saaya, hindu for shade or shadow, which seemed appropriate for an animal who has survived by living in the shadows cast by the forest.

Upon arrival, we heard that the panther had been seen and superbly photographed that very day. On the negative side, it was the first time anybody had seen it for over a month. The chance of seeing it during our stay seemed remote

It is difficult to accurately explain how hard it is to find one animal in a forest. The panther was shy. It had to contend with other male leopards and tigers which would kill it if the chance arose. Its home range is huge, covering many square miles of often dense forest. Indeed, a couple of years earlier, Saaya had fought a huge male for control of an area and had suffered horrendous injuries, almost losing an eye. After such an encounter he would disappear for months to lick his wounds and to recover.

Photo by Jon Isaacs of a Black Panther lying on a branch in a treetop.
Black Panther 2, Photo Copyright Jon Isaacs 2023

We had seven days, fourteen trips, in which to try and locate Saaya, and with a couple of river trips and safaris in a different zone of the forest to be included, we would be down to less than ten trips in areas where it was occasionally seen.

Thus it was that on day six, when we were searching for a male tiger that had been seen at a water “Tank” at one end of the park, that a mobile sounded to tell our driver that Saaya had suddenly appeared with Cleopatra, his latest female, and was lying in a large tree at the other end of the zone we were in. I had the misfortune to be in the seat above the rear axle of the jeep as we roared off. No seat belts to restrain me on a dirt road with numerous bumps, ruts and bends. For miles we careered along, dust everywhere and me hanging on to the bar with both hands for dear life. Sometimes we were going so fast that my bottom flew off the seat and I hit my head on the tarpaulin roof. I really thought I was going to die, either in a crash or through having a heart attack! Somehow I survived and, eventually breasting a rise, there in front of us was a queue of jeeps with long telephotos craning towards the trees on the far side of the road. Gingerly we crawled into a space between two jeeps. The other tourists weren’t giving an inch and we still couldn’t see the panther. Eventually one of the jeeps moved just enough so that we could also creep forward into a slightly better position. Our guide spotted Saaya and nearly had a nervous breakdown trying to give us directions as to where it was sprawled, in the distance, over a large limb. Eventually he succeeded and, through the twigs , leaves, branches and long telephoto lenses waving about, we could actually see and photograph this famous cat.

Long past the time when we should have left the park we were still sat there in awe. As the gloom descended we finally departed. Explanations as to why we were late and how many lenses and cameras we had used and had to pay a fee for, still had to be faced at the exit gates with a new group of rigorous and officious park wardens but we didn’t really care. We had seen and photographed the black panther of Nagarhole!

It was to be over three years after my sighting of Saaya, the Black panther of Nagarhole, before David was to draw his current masterpiece of a Black panther. The panther he has drawn is unmarked and in its prime. A truly beautiful specimen and piece of work. I was thrilled when David chose my suggestion of Sayah, the Arabic for shadow, to identify this picture. However, deep in the jungle of Nagarhole, my latest information is that Saaya or Blackie still survives. He is probably past his prime now, heavily scarred facially and trying to hold on to the territory he has ruled for several years. I’m not aware of any melanistic cubs being sired but, wouldn’t it be great, if the dynasty of black panthers were to continue to roam the shadows of forests around the globe?


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