A leopard can't change its spots, but it can change colour!
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News item dated
17 Apr 2012
This week conservationists announced the discovery of a male leopard with a strawberry-coloured coat, spotted in South Africa’s Madikwe Game Reserve.
The leopard has been seen before by tourists in the reserve; however it wasn’t until recently that safari guide and photographer, Deon De Villiers, sent a snap of the strawberry-coloured big cat to experts at Panthera, an American wild cat conservation group, to try and deduce the cause of its odd colouration.
As African leopards normally have tawny coats and black spots, this is a very rare leopard. Luke Hunter, President of Panthera, suspects the pale leopard has erythrism, a genetic condition that’s thought to either cause an underproduction of dark pigments or an overproduction of red pigments. “It’s really rare – I don’t know of another credible example in leopards”, said Hunter, “it’s surprising that [a photo of the leopard] didn’t come out sooner, because he’s relatively used to vehicles”, he added.
Usually only seen in raccoons, Eurasian badgers and coyotes, erythrism is very uncommon in carnivores. “There are some spotted leopard skins and melanistic specimens – black panthers – in museums with red undertones, but fading probably contributes to that”, said Hunter. Melanism refers to an undue development of dark-coloured pigment in an animal’s skin, fur or plumage and is the opposite of albinism.
The strawberry leopard is thought to be healthy and unlikely to suffer any ill consequences from his pinkish hue as it still provides some camouflage, which leopards rely on to hunt prey. Hunter expressed more concern about the leopard drifting into Madikwe reserve’s surrounding game farms and subsequently losing the strict protection offered by Madikwe and becoming fair game for legal trophy hunting.
By Lucas Lowe