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Strawberry leopard in Selous Game Reserve

Since 2020, Lion Landscapes has been carrying out a large carnivore assessment across the vast Selous-Nyerere landscape in southern Tanzania, in close collaboration with Frankfurt Zoological Society, protected area management authorities TAWA and TANAPA, and the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute.

A major component of this survey effort has been a series of camera trap surveys, which involve setting up remotely-triggered camera traps for two to three months to take photos of wildlife, which we then use to estimate population density of lion, leopard, and spotted hyaena. With so many cameras deployed as part of this effort over the past two years – 236 camera pairs so far – it’s inevitable that the cameras end up capturing some interesting and unusual things.

While the field site remains largely inaccessible thanks to the rains, our ecological team have been busy processing the images from the cameras deployed last year in Selous Game Reserve. During this process, they discovered multiple photos of a beautiful and unique female leopard who appears to be what’s called a “strawberry” colour morph. Rather than the usual black spots, this leopard’s spots are reddish brown in colour.



The photos below show the strawberry leopard next to a normal leopard in the same position at the same camera, for comparison:



And below is a side-by-side comparison of daytime photos, with the strawberry leopard on the left and a normal leopard on the right:



It's thought that this unusual colouration is a result of erythrism, a genetic mutation that causes an absence of a normal dark pigment or excessive production of red pigment. This has only been recorded a handful of times in leopards: a study from India in 1993 reported five individuals with the mutation (Divyabhanusinh 1993), and it was first documented in Africa in 2012, in a male leopard in South Africa’s Madikwe Game Reserve (read more about the record in this NatGeo article).

A study in 2016 collated all known records of the mutation across South Africa, which totalled seven (Pirie, Thomas & Fellowes, 2016; read more in this article about the study). More recently, another strawberry leopard was documented in 2019 in Thaba Tholo Wilderness Reserve, in South Africa’s Limpopo Province, where two of the six leopards recorded in the 2016 paper were seen (more details in this article), and a female was photographed in Rajasthan, India late last year (read more in this article).

Although our team never got to see this leopard in person, the camera traps allowed us a peek into her life – which is one of the perks of doing these kinds of surveys. As our ecological team continue processing the thousands of photos taken during last year’s field season, they will be on the lookout for more interesting and unusual things!

 

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