The Black Panther – a mythical animal that connects us with our ancient past.

Photo Credits: Laikipia wilderness camp

Back in 2018 I was lucky enough to see my first Black Panther in Nagerhole national park in the south of India during our small group Black Panther wildlife tour. One sharp echoing Grey Langur alarm call was all that was required for our expert guide, Arjun, to locate him. Two dead spotted deer fawns lay at his feet and allowing us the briefest of time for photos, he picked them up and melted into the forest.
As I prepare to visit Laikipia wildlife sanctuary in September 2023 for another potential encounter with this stunning feline – this time a female known as Giza – I found myself asking what it is that draws humans towards these melanistic variants and how has it manifested in our behaviour towards them over the centuries and indeed, millennia?

Black panthers have played an important role in African mythology and are revered in many African countries. They are a symbol of power, darkness, death and then rebirth. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Pepi the king must pass through the ceiling of heaven by wearing a Black Panther skin draped across his shoulders. This was to show that he was transitioning from the earthly domain to heaven and the presence of the black panther would help him do this.
Of course, in Europe, we have no wild Black Panthers (well maybe a few escapees hey?); before Christianity spread through the western world, many apex predators, such as bears and wolves were worshipped as animal gods at various forest temples scattered throughout the land. Of course, we have the famous story of Romulus and Remus and the foundation of glorious Rome, but it was also a god for many northern tribes. According to Roman accounts, the ancient Britons worshipped a deity known as “Cunomaglus” (“Wolf Lord”) and several cults grew up around this ‘Wolf God’.

Back to the Black Panther story and how the relationship between humans and this iconic big cat changed over the years. Cameroon kings were in awe of this black shadow and any of them captured in the kingdom had to be handed over and he would eat the eyes and tongue of the black panther in order to ingest its savage power.
As the colonial powers divided up Africa during the shocking period of what is called the ‘scramble for Africa’ at the now infamous Berlin conference of 1884, even more white colonizers arrived onto the continent and big game hunting was one of their most popular past times. Of course, the famous idea of the Big 5 was popularised in this period, so you can image how pleased these serial killers would be, to find out there was a black leopard in their area. Given the fact that a big cat has zero chance to fight back against a high powered rifle, we can clearly see that the respect and reverence for the Black Panther, at least from the colonizers, had gone and the dead animals skin is now purely a trophy to showcase their casual violence and indifference to the natural world.

Fast forward to the modern world where anything is marketable with the right promotion and a simple google search will throw up thousands of examples of how modern commercial companies have associated their brand with the beauty, strength and agility of this famed big cat and I doubt any of those profits go back to helping protect the few wilderness areas which are home to Black Panthers?
Yes, modern photographers are ‘trophy hunters’ in their own way and rare animals, such as Snow Leopards and Black Panthers, have become incredibly popular with wildlife photographers; not all of whom are ethical in their pursuit of the ‘Perfect’ photo. However, they generally cause no direct physical harm to the animal, and it is up to the management of local conservancies and national parks to be more proactive in the way they manage tourism and increasing visitor numbers. Because done correctly, the photographs will not only highlight the plight of some of our most rare species, but also contribute towards the local villagers, who co-exist with these most beautiful of big cats and have done for centuries.