Black leopard is seen in Lorok, Laikipia County, Kenya. Photo: Reuters.

Nairobi/Johannesburg - The Black Panther doesn't only live in Wakanda - the fictional African land in the Marvel Comic film that bears the famous feline's name - its habitat also includes Kenya, new research shows.

Scientists from the San Diego Zoo used remote cameras set up in southern Laikipia county to confirm that black leopards - also called black panthers - are alive and well in Kenya.

"The type of imagery we've collected in the wild has been very infrequent," Nicolas Pilford, one of the researchers involved in the project, told dpa on Thursday by phone.

Kenyan villagers have always said there are black leopards in Laikipia, Pilford noted, and some photos have previously been taken, but now a large-scale study has captured high quality images and video.

Pilford had been studying the leopard population in Kenya, and also researching how to try and mitigate leopard-human conflict, where the big cats go into local communities and kill livestock.

The black leopard is not a different species from the ordinary leopard, Pilford says, it just has a gene mutation causing the excess melanin that accounts for its sleek black coat.

In daylight the black leopard appears not to have spots, but infrared photographs show that in fact it does have the rosette pattern of the rest of its kind.

"We heard about reports of black leopards living in Laikipia county, so what we did was we went and set cameras up in a dense grid in February last year, and in first three months we captured imagery" of the large cat, Pilford said.

Pilford says observation of leopards with melanin are rare in Africa, with most of the black cats found in South-East Asia where they seem to have evolved to better blend in with their jungle surroundings.

To see the animal in arid areas, like Kenya, is unusual, Pilford added, leading to questions of whether leopards there change their hunting strategies because they are not well camouflaged.

"From a conservation perspective it's very important, because it suggests leopards in Kenya might be special genetically," Pilford explained, adding that melanism in leopards has not been observed further south in Africa.

It's not known what the population of black leopards might be in Kenya, Pilford said, adding that it needs further research.

All big black cats can fall under the umbrella term "black panther," according to Pilford, including jaguars and leopards.

Kenyans were celebrating the photograhs on social media this week, with one user @JudeJoroge tweeting: "You know Kenya is the real #Wakanda when they spot and photograph a #BlackPanther in Laikipia."

dpa