Rera Melanistic Leopards/Black Leopards in Sri Lanka
Rare Black Leopards have been recorded from Sri Lanka from time to time.
Reports of their sightings have been mentioned by Sir James Emerson Tennent, W. W. A. Philips, Harry Story and DJG Hennessey in their respective books, Ceylon, Mammals of Ceylon, Hunting & Shooting in Ceylon & The Green Aisles. Tennent observes that "There is a rare variety of the leopard which has been found in various parts of the island, in which the skin, instead of being spotted, is of uniform black"
The recent capture of a specimen, sadly the victim of a cruel death, is very exciting as earlier there was no solid evidence in the form of a live specimen or an identifiable carcass.
The black colouring is due to excessive black pigment, melanin, which produces a beautiful glossy black fur coat. Although black their rosettes or spots are still faintly visible. The black leopard is said to be somewhat smaller than their tawny coloured cousins. Melanism is said to occur particularly in mountainous and densely forested areas, which would explain why sightings and carcasses found in Sri Lanka, are all from this sort of terrain. Significantly no records or even rumors of such animals exist from lowland forest of Sri Lanka.
The benefits of melanism are difficult to interpret, perhaps it serves as a camouflage in the dark & dense forests. Genetic research has found four independent origins for melanism in the cat family, suggesting that there must be some adaptive advantage.
As melanism in leopards is a recessive gene, two black parents will produce black cubs and two normal leopards can have black cubs, melanistic and non melanistic individuals can be litter mates.
The black leopard is quite common in the sub continent, particularly in the Malayan peninsula. A camera-trap study done in Taman Negara National Park found that all specimens were melanistic. Kenneth Anderson, a Scotsman who hunted in the southern states of India, records the hunting down of the black panther of Sivanipalli, apparently only for his skin as a trophy. However melanism in the cat family is not restricted to leopards. It is a frequent occurrence among Jaguars in the dense forest of the Amazon and Central Americas. It has also been observed amongst the other members of the family such as Servals, Puma’s etc.
In Africa the melanistic leopards are said to be more aggressive, as claimed by the safari hunters, however these claims are yet to be verified by study of the behavioural patterns.