Black Panther: The melanistic form of common leopard

Rahul Ashem *

Making the local people understand the importance of wildlife and keeping them involved in decisions making is the only solution toward conserving leopards. Melanism is a common form of leopards which is either all black or very dark in color including its spots.

Out of all the big cats' family, the leopard is the only known species for its ability to adapt in a variety of habitats. The feline has a clear cut yellow marked with black rosettes. Sometimes, the body color varies considerably in intensity from gold to tawny in commoner forms. The head is spotted with powerful jaws and a long tail. The underside of the body is totally white in color. Black Panther is the melanistic form of common leopard often mistakenly taken to be a different species. The animal is more frequent in densely forested areas in comparison to open moderate forests.

Globally, 14 recognized subspecies of common leopard are found worldwide, of which 4 species are distributed in the Southeast Asian countries (India, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan and Bangladesh). They are Panthera pardus fusca, Panthera pardus pernigra, Panthera pardus sindica and Panthera pardus millardi. The Indian subspecies, Panthera pardus fusca is scattered in all the National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuary and periphery of the forested areas, absent only in the arid desert and above the timber line in the Himalayas.

At present, the number of leopard population in the country is more than 13,000 in numbers. The felid is declared as endangered species under Schedule I of Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and included in Appendix I of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).

Leopards are versatile animal i.e. secretive, nocturnal and mostly solitary in nature. The feline is a good climber and exist mostly on the periphery of the forested areas. They sometimes are prone to venturing into human habitats for easy prey like sheep, goats, stray dogs and poultry. In spite of its nocturnal habit, the animal can be seen at any time of the day and will even hunt during daytime.

Leopard has the habit of storing large kills in trees, although most of its hunting is done on the ground. Such practise is more common in areas where other large carnivores are present in that surrounding environment. It takes on a wide variety of prey species – reptiles, small birds and medium-sized mammals, to large mammals such as deer, wild boar, wild buffalo etc.

The animal has a fairly large home range and travel widely to visit each part of its range at regular intervals of time. The feline communicates by scent, urine, secretions and faeces, along commonly used routes and at conspicuous places along trails and territorial boundaries. As the population is widely distributed in our knowledge, the animal is still limited at the local, state and range-wide scales because reliable data on leopard population trends are missing from large portions of their range.

Physically, the spotted cat closely resembles jaguar but is of lighter built. The leopards are commonly known as Black Panthers (Panthera pardus fusca) in Asian and African countries. While in America, it is known as Black Jaguars (Panthera onca). The term "Melanism" is the development of the dark skin or its appendages. The melanistic form of common leopard is inherited as a Mendelian, monogenic trait relative to the spotted form. Historically, melanism is the medical term for black jaundice.

Panthera onca is conferred by a dominant allele while the Panthera pardus fusca is honoured by a recessive allele. Ghost Striping is the scientific term used for the presence of excess black melanin in Black Panther. In Asia, they are reported in densely forested areas of south western china, Myanmar, India (Assam) and Nepal.

Recently, in Manipur, a Black Panther was killed in Kachouphung khul, near Ukhrul Myanmar border. The village is under the Kamjong tehsil (Ukhrul district), 67 kms from the capital Imphal. Therefore, it is the need of hour to conduct studies on the status of leopard within the protected areas and its usage of wildlife corridors in the State.

The most common method used for identifying the leopard ecology is the linear method. The work is done directly in the field by using digital calliper to record the track length, track width, track pad width, pad length, pad curve, stride size etc. Different age groups (Cub, Sub adult, Adult) can be classified on the basis of distinct differences in the relative length of track length, track width, pad width, pad length etc.

It is also possible to identify species from the scat (leopard scat is much larger than tiger, less coiled having a larger distance and diameter between two successive constrictions within a single scat. For simple verification, Leopard pads are smaller, toes narrower and smaller in size as compared to tigers. It feeds on smaller species of herbivores found in its range such as monkeys, rodents, reptiles, amphibians, birds, fishes and wild pigs.

It is notorious for picking up feral dogs around forest areas. An extremely agile creature, it spends most of its resting time on top of trees, using land only to move locations, but rarely to rest or nap. Leopard commonly share its habitat with other large cats such as the tiger in India.

Despite occurring all over the country, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and natural resources (IUCN) classifies the common leopard as vulnerable species. It is due to the multiple threats across its home range like habitat loss, logging and fragmentation, conflict with livestock, loss of prey, killing for the illegal trafficking and parts and in some areas, unsustainable legal trophy hunting.

Furthermore, trade in leopard skin and teeth for use in traditional rituals and ceremonial dress is also common in some areas. Poisoning of carcasses by livestock owners to target large carnivores is another rapid threat to the leopard populations. Elimination of the leopard's natural prey is creating more conflict with humans, putting the predator at even greater risk.

The animal also dies in road accidents passing through in and around the protected areas. Though, little survey and awareness program on leopard population has been conducted, they are easily killed by poachers. The abundant growth in the human population has also resulted in the extensive degradation of the wild life habitat, which poses as the main threat to the conservation of wild felids.

Panthera pardus fusca belongs to the old world mammal of the family Felidae. They are essentially solitary and territorial animals. The species is protected under national legislation across its range. They are still vulnerable to habitat loss and fragmentation. Therefore, the right time is to conserve and protect the leopard population in the wild for long term survival.

Basic research programme on leopard ecology like movement, range, feeding ecology, habitat utilization and human animal conflict must be done at local, state and national level for conserving the magnificent predators. It is also important to establish anti poaching effort with the forest department in the protected areas as well as periphery so that illegal hunting and trading of leopard is reduced.

Awareness must be raised among the local villagers about the importance of conflict issues and conserving the leopard species for long term basis. Whenever an animal is killed inside the forested area, concern the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), a Veterinarian, representatives of NGOs working on wildlife conservation in the area or panchayat so that better action can be taken up against the poachers, killers or whoever the village authority.

Leopard population density across the species range is known to track the biomass of principle leopard, prey species, medium size and large wild herbivores. Being the predator species, leopard plays an important role in maintaining the health of the ecosystem.

* Rahul Ashem wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is a BA student, Mount Everest College, Senapati
This article was posted on October 22, 2017.

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