Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. He is the author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), Dragons: A Natural History (1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals (2001), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), The Menagerie of Marvels (2014), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is widely considered to be his cryptozoological magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016) - plus, very excitingly, his first two long-awaited, much-requested ShukerNature blog books (2019, 2020).

Dr Karl Shuker's Official Website - http://www.karlshuker.com/index.htm

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Friday 29 December 2017


The exquisite artwork on the front cover of David C. Xu's wonderful book (© David C. Xu/Coachwhip Publications)

December 2017 may seem rather early for anyone to put forward a major contender to receive in a year's time the accolade of Best Cryptozoology Book of 2018, but in my opinion the truly exceptional work by David C. Xu to which this present ShukerNature blog post is devoted, and which is officially published at the beginning of next month by Coachwhip Publications, more than justifies being nominated for such an honour.

When David very kindly asked me a while ago if I would pen a foreword to his book on Chinese cryptozoology, I was delighted to do so, because Sinian mystery beasts have always fascinated and frustrated me in equal amounts – fascinated by those select examples recorded in Western-language publications, and frustrated by the certain knowledge that there were many additional examples hidden from my investigative capabilities as I do not read or speak any of China's native tongues.  And my latter suspicion was more than confirmed by the incredible diversity of such latter beasts that David's book revealed to me as I read through it in advance of preparing my foreword.

So now, as an exclusive pre-publication taster of what to expect in this incredible, thoroughly engrossing volume, and with David's kind permission, here is my foreword to his book, reproduced in full:

I consider myself very fortunate to possess at least a working knowledge of several different European languages, which has enabled me to research and bring to international cryptozoological attention via my writings a considerable number of fascinating but hitherto-obscure cryptids that had never previously been documented in any English-language publication.

However, there is one massive geographically-based archive of cryptozoological information that until now has remained largely unattainable for me, due simply to the frustrating fact that I have no comparable knowledge or experience of any of the languages indigenous to that vast country in question – the latter country being, of course, China. True, down through the ages, a number of English-language books have chronicled some of the most famous and spectacular of its mythological fauna – such as the Chinese dragons (long, etc), Chinese phoenix (fenghuang), Chinese unicorn (qilin), celestial stag, and winged hua fish. A smaller number of cryptids have also been highlighted internationally, in particular the yeren or Chinese wildman, the blue tigers of Fujian, the aquatic monsters of Lake Tianchi, and the bizarre 'hippoturtleox' of Tibet. Nevertheless, to adapt one of Sir Isaac Newton's most quoted of quotations, to me these are little more than just a few pebbles or seashells lying on the beach, perhaps a little smoother or prettier than some others, but with the great ocean of Sinian cryptozoology lying all undiscovered before me – but not any more!

Thanks to the superb book before you now, the vast and previously-concealed, unseen menagerie of Chinese mystery beasts is enshadowed and encrypted no longer, its fascinating panoply of scientifically unknown animals laid bare at last to an international readership that has waited so long for a knowledgeable guide adept in English to lead it into these secret creatures' enthralling domain.

Having been wholly immersed in cryptozoology from both an investigative and a chronicling standpoint for over 30 years, whenever I read any new such book nowadays I expect to be (and generally am) already familiar with the majority of mystery beasts presented within it – but not this time! To my surprise but total delight, page after page in this extremely comprehensive volume unfurled extraordinary cryptids that I had never previously encountered – confirming my long-held suspicion as outlined earlier here that China's crypto-chronicles held all manner of treasures formerly hidden from me by virtue of my inability to read any Sinian language. And I have no doubt whatsoever that countless other readers similarly limited linguistically will experience the same thrill of discovery as I did when first reading this book, and am still doing when re-reading it.

After all, where else could a non-Chinese cryptozoological reader readily encounter (and especially all within the same single volume) such captivating creatures as cyan lake goats and aquatic oxen, coffin beasts and mountain crashers, elusive water monkeys (one of my favourite 'new' cryptids) and blood-sucking blanket beasts, the tamarisk children and the water man-bear, false-eyed ungulates, and wolf-pack interlopers, a bewilderment of mystery big cats and an extraordinary diversity of man-beasts all meticulously disentangled and delineated, relict chilotheres and living chalicotheres (or at least some mystifying cryptids very like them in appearance), vanishing three-humped camels (another particular favourite of mine) and colour-changing deer, living dragons and latter-day unicorns (not so mythological after all, it would seem), giant birds and birds with four wings, a veritable plethora of putative prehistoric survivors, and even a supposed flying centipede, plus many, many more. Some are undoubtedly more folkloric than factual, but in every instance their case makes compelling reading.

The history of each cryptid is chronicled comprehensively, followed by an equally detailed assessment of the various possible identities on offer for it, and concluding with a very valuable bibliography of sources. There is also a very considerable number of illustrations, including some very eyecatching reconstructions of what many of the cryptids under consideration here may look like, based at least upon eyewitness descriptions.

Today, thanks to the ease with which specialised books on mystery animals that would once have struggled to find a mainstream publisher can now appear in print due to POD technology, e-readers, and other advances, cryptozoology is experiencing a veritable Golden Age within the publishing world, with more titles appearing – and staying – in print than at any other time in this subject's history. In short, crypto-readers nowadays can all too easily find themselves in the previously unexpected but thoroughly delightful position of being spoilt for choice when deciding which book(s) to buy. So here, as a gift from me to you, is a personal recommendation – buy this book, and I absolutely guarantee that you will not be disappointed.

True, I have to confess that when I first read its subtitle I had to suppress an instinctive inward shudder, because I have seen the phrase "Complete…Guide' or similar appear so often in book titles across a vast range of subjects, only for a reading of the books to reveal all too readily how inappropriate and grandiose was the application of such a title to them – but not in this instance. David Xu must be very heartily congratulated, because he has prepared a truly exemplary work of cryptozoological scholarship and erudition, one that in my opinion can stand alongside any of the greatest works on mystery beasts ever published, and, in terms of its specific subject, one that has absolutely no peers or competitors of any kind. It is, quite simply, unique, one of a kind, a cryptozoological sui generis – there really is nothing else like it in existence, and its comprehensiveness is such that I consider it highly unlikely that there ever will be.

So, if you're looking for a fascinating, entirely original cryptozoological book to read (and I am obviously assuming that you have already purchased and read all of mine!), then this is the book for you – it really is as simple as that.

David's book can be ordered here on Amazon's USA site and here on Amazon's UK site – if you do so, I guarantee that it will be one of the most spellbinding cryptozoological books that you will ever read, because it is a monumental landmark in the literature of unknown animals.

The back cover of David's book, containing more information concerning its contents (© David C. Xu/Coachwhip Publications)

Monday 18 December 2017


19th-Century engraving of the Malayan or Javanese stink badger, native to Java, Sumatra, and throughout Borneo (public domain)

If you have ever wondered what was the very first cryptozoological investigation that I ever undertook, wonder no longer – because here it is.

In my previous ShukerNature blog article (click here), I documented the little-known but fascinating crypto-case of a still-unidentified Argentinian mammal captured alive and even nurtured for a while by renowned British dog trainer Barbara Woodhouse that she vehemently claimed to have been a pouched skunk – a creature not presently known to the zoological world. However, that was not my first encounter with a mephitic mystery beast, as will now be revealed.

During the mid-1980s, in what turned out to be my debut within the fascinating field of cryptozoological investigation, I was able to assist in revealing the true identity of another skunk-dubbed zoological enigma. Namely, the alsatian-sized, tree-climbing Javan 'skunks' reported by the Antara News Agency on 14 May 1977.

A common hog-nosed skunk Conepatus leuconotus, at up to 3 ft long one of the largest skunk species, from North and Central America, as illustrated by Louis Agassiz in 1918 (public domain)

The baffling report in question was quoted in full within the book Living Wonders: Mysteries and Curiosities of the Animal World (1982), authored by John Michell and Bob Rickard, which is where I encountered it, and it reads as follows:

Giant skunks, probably survivors from prehistoric times, have been discovered in the jungles of north central Java. The skunks are as big as German shepherd dogs [aka Alsatians] and can climb trees. B.O. Naing-golan of the Central Java Animal Lovers' Association said one of the giant skunks was captured and killed by shepherds recently on the slopes of the Ungaran mountain in Central Java. He deplored the fact that the giant skunks are not included on the list of protected species.

Skunks, of course, are not the size of alsatians, they do not inhabit Indonesia or anywhere else in the Old World per se (but see the end of this blog article for a pertinent taxonomic tail-note), and they are not typically arboreal. Consequently, in an attempt to find out more regarding these Javan anomalies, I penned a letter of enquiry to the ISC Newsletter – the now-defunct International Society of Cryptozoology's quarterly newsletter – which was duly published in its winter 1985 issue. And here it is:

My letter as published in the ISC Newsletter (winter 1985) – please click image to enlarge it for reading purposes

After reading it, Gerald L. Wood, author of all three editions of The Guinness Book of Animal Facts and Feats (1972, 1976, 1982), kindly wrote to me on 26 June 1986 and revealed that he too had been greatly perplexed by the above-quoted news agency report after having first encountered it. Consequently, he had fully investigated its strange claim of zoological impossibilities – as a result of which he had successfully uncovered a startling error of etymology as the explanation.

All three editions of Gerald's wonderful book The Guinness Book of Animal Facts and Feats (© Gerald L. Wood/Guinness Publishing)

Gerald had discovered (but had not publicly revealed) that these 'skunks' were in fact skinks – i.e. a type of lizard. Moreover, they were of very much more modest proportions than would befit an alsatian dog!

The Solomon Islands giant (prehensile-tailed) skink Corucia zebrata – at up to 32 in long from nose-tip to tail-tip, it is the world's largest extant species of skink but hardly compares with an alsatian dog! (public domain)

Here is a photocopy of Gerald's letter containing these revelatory details that he kindly sent to me:

Gerald's letter to me re Java's giant 'skunks', written on 26 June 1986 – please click image to enlarge it for reading purposes

To provide an official, published response to my enquiry, a copy of his above letter was later published by the ISC Newsletter in its autumn 1986 issue, thus bringing to an official close another longstanding cryptozoological conundrum.

Gerald's letter as published in the ISC Newsletter (autumn 1986) – please click image to enlarge it for reading purposes

Incidentally, I've never actually identified with confidence the precise species of skink, giant or otherwise, to which the confused Antara News Agency report was referring. So if there are any herpetological specialists out there reading this blog article of mine who could offer any suggestions, please do post them here, as I'd very greatly welcome them – many thanks indeed!

Solomon Islands giant skink at rest – note its very long tail (public domain)

As for the tail-note that I promised earlier: in recent years, taxonomic revisions based upon comparative DNA analyses have led to all of the New World's ten or so species of skunk being split off from the mustelids (family Mustelidae) and rehoused in their very own distinct taxonomic family, Mephitidae. Moreover, they are no longer of exclusively New World distribution either, because those same DNA-based analyses revealed that the two species of Asian stink badger (the afore-mentioned Malaysian or Javanese and the Palawan ) are more closely related to the skunks than they are to badgers or to any other mustelids. Hence these too are now housed within Mephitidae. (Also, since my ISC Newsletter enquiry was published, the two stink badger species have been reassigned to a single genus, Mydaus, by some taxonomists.)

This in turn means that if we use 'skunk' as a general, informal collective term for all mephitids (rather than just the true, New World contingent), there really are skunks in Java after all – but nothing like the giant tree-climbers erroneously created by the Antara News Agency report!

An engraving from 1887 of the Palawan stink badger, native to the western Philippines (public domain)

My sincere thanks to the late Gerald L. Wood, whose encouragement readily given to me during my fledgling years as an investigative cryptozoologist were – and always will be – very greatly appreciated by me.

Gerald L. Wood, one of my earliest cryptozoological/animal superlative correspondents and friends (© Gerald L. Wood), and my much-treasured signed copy of his Guinness Book of Animal Facts and Feats, 3rd edition (© Gerald L. Wood/Guinness Publishing/Dr Karl Shuker)

This ShukerNature blog article is expanded and updated from the original section contained within my book From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings: From the Pages of Fate Magazine.


Friday 15 December 2017


The late Barbara Woodhouse on the front cover of one of her books, No Bad Dogs: The Woodhouse Way (© Barbara Woodhouse/Summit Books – reproduced here on a strictly educational, non-commercial Fair Use basis for review purposes only)

I've said it before, but it's well worth repeating - mystifying creatures can turn up in the most unexpected locations, and the following example is certainly no exception.

To those of us of a certain age, the name Barbara Woodhouse is fondly associated with the staccato cry "Walkies!", uttered by a Joyce Grenfellesque lady of the genteel English schoolma'am variety that, sadly, seems to have quietly expired in these much more thrusting, belligerent modern times. She acquired national - indeed, international - fame rather late in life, aged 70, when in 1980 her idiosyncratic show 'Training Dogs The Woodhouse Way' was first screened on British television and soon attained cult status, as a result of which she became one of the most recognisable, and parodied, personalities of the '80s.

The Fontana paperback edition of Talking To Animals that I own (© Barbara Woodhouse/Fontana Books – reproduced here on a strictly educational, non-commercial Fair Use basis for review purposes only)

Nevertheless, there seemed to be no connection between the redoubtable Ms Woodhouse and cryptozoology - at least, that is, until the 1990s, when I was reading through her autobiography Talking To Animals (1954), and, while perusing a section concerning her life as a young woman training horses in Argentina, stumbled upon the following fascinating, but very perplexing, paragraph:

Shortly after the storm [she had been describing the aftermath of a very violent storm that had hit their estate the previous evening], the foreman's little son came rushing up to say that all his pet rabbits had gone and that in the cage instead was a baby skunk. The mother had perished in the storm and lay dead by the cage. How that living little skunk had got into the undamaged cage, and the rabbits out of it, was beyond our understanding. In the mother's pouch were two dead babies. Experts cannot account for a skunk with a pouch, and try to persuade me that she was a 'possum. But she was no 'possum: she had the bushy tail of a skunk and was identical with the skunk picture in Cassell's Book of Knowledge. She did have a pouch: I examined her closely.

Woodhouse then went on to describe how she attempted to care for the alleged baby skunk by rearing it and feeding it in a cottonwool-lined pocket of her riding skirt, noting that it successfully fed and survived in this makeshift pouch for a week before ultimately dying after escaping from the pouch one night and becoming severely chilled.

An engraving from 1848 depicting the Andean hog-nosed skunk (public domain)

Skunks, of which there are at least ten recognised species, were traditionally classed as mustelids (members of the weasel family), but more recently, based upon genetic studies, these infamously malodorous mammals have been allocated a taxonomic family of their own. However, although they do exhibit quite a diversity of morphologies, none of them has a pouch – a taxonomically-significant anatomical feature specific to marsupials. Moreover, only the hog-nosed skunks (genus Conepatus, constituting 4-5 species, depending upon opinion) are native to South America, and only two of these species are known to occur in Argentina – the Andean C. chinga in some of this vast country's northern regions, and the Patagonian C. humboldtii throughout much of its southern portion.

The Patagonian hog-nosed skunk (© Payayita/Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)

Consequently, I find myself in agreement with the unnamed experts who claimed that Woodhouse's 'pouched skunk' was a 'possum - or, to be accurate, an American opossum, of which many species in several genera have been described. Having said that, the fundamental problem with this identity is that none of the known species of American opossum bears any real degree of similarity to a skunk.

True, the black-shouldered opossum Caluromysiops irrupta has distinctive black shoulders, a black dorsal stripe, and dark feet and tail that contrast markedly with the much paler fur on the rest of its body, but it is hardly skunk-like. And the distal portion of its tail is unfurred and rat-like, thereby bearing no resemblance to the uniformly furred tail of a skunk.

Photograph of the black-shouldered opossum (© owner's identity unclear to me; I found this picture on Globalspecies.org's page for the species – it is now reproduced here on a strictly educational, non-commercial Fair Use basis for review purposes only)

Conversely, there is another species, Glironia venusta, which is actually known as the bushy-tailed opossum because of its unusually thick, densely-furred tail; however, it lacks any black-and-white fur colouration reminiscent of a skunk's, and as with the previous species its tail's distal portion is unfurred.

Illustration of the bushy-tailed opossum (© owner's identity is unclear to me; I found this illustration on Wikipedia, and it is now reproduced here on a strictly educational, non-commercial Fair Use basis for review purposes only)

Even the yapok or water opossum Chironectes minimus, whose distinctive black and pale grey fur may conceivably invite comparisons with skunks by observers poorly acquainted with these latter mammals, can be readily eliminated from further consideration by virtue of its very slender, wholly unfurred tail.

Illustration of a yapok from Dr Richard Lydekker's volume A Hand-Book to the Marsupialia and Monotremata (1896) (public domain)

As for the thick-tailed or lutrine opossum Lutreolina crassicaudata (aka the little water opossum), its pelage (especially in females) also has dark and light markings, though these are far less prominent than those of the yapok; however, it has a thicker tail than the yapok, but this is still far less bushy than that of a skunk. Moreover, of the species noted here, only the yapok and the thick-tailed opossum are native to Argentina anyway.

Taxiderm specimen of a thick-tailed opossum at Italy's Museo Civico di Storia Naturale di Genova (public domain)

So what could Woodhouse's pouched skunk have been? I have even considered briefly the possibility that the adult female animal found dead was a genuine skunk that was heavily pregnant, and that the shock of the storm had caused one of her babies to be born prematurely, with Woodhouse mistaking this mother skunk's vagina and uterus for a pouch! However, this all seems highly improbable, especially as Woodhouse was someone with considerable experience from a very early age at caring for and handling animals.

I would have dearly loved the opportunity to contact Barbara Woodhouse in order to elicit more details concerning her baffling little beastie, but, sadly, she died in 1988, well before I discovered her account of it in her book. There is still one way, however, of shedding, perhaps, just a little more light on this mystery.

Exquisite 1800s engraving of a yapok (public domain)

Does anyone out there have a copy of Cassell's Book of Knowledge, which I am assuming must date from around the 1920s or 1930s, bearing in mind that Barbara Woodhouse was born in 1910 and lived in Argentina for more than three years during her 20s? If so, I'd love to see its picture of a skunk, because this would give some idea of what her supposed pouched variety looked like (bearing in mind that there are several very different skunk morphologies, depending upon the species in question). That in turn may provide clues as to its real identity – unless, of course, by any remote chance it really was a pouched skunk, and thereby constituted a still-undescribed and dramatically different species?

And don't forget to check out my next ShukerNature blog post, here, to read about a very different but equally memorable skunk-affiliated anomaly.

This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted from my book Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times.

Wednesday 6 December 2017


Chromolithograph from the PZSL, 3 March 1885, depicting the first Grahamstown pseudo-melanistic leopard as it would probably have looked in life, based upon its pelt's appearance (public domain)

To date, my very first book, Mystery Cats of the World, originally published in 1989 and now long out of print (but not out of copyright, incidentally), has yet to be republished. Regrettably, however, considerable chunks of its content can be found in uncredited and sometimes extensively plagiarised form on the Net within a number of websites. Consequently, unless readers of those particular sites are already familiar with my book, they will probably be entirely unaware that it is the original source of such material.

To redress at least a portion of this very unfortunate and frustrating situation, I am therefore presenting herewith the full text from my book concerning one of the most eyecatching but rarest categories of feline enigmas on record. Namely, pseudo-melanistic leopards, and their potential relevance to the identity of certain cryptozoological cats. My book was the first to document this very intriguing, thought-provoking subject in detail, including the discovery of pseudo-melanistic leopard specimens in both Asia and Africa, but once again its coverage has since been copied profusely online by others yet with very varying degrees of associated acknowledgement. I am also expanding its coverage, by incorporating some additional information and illustrations that I have encountered with regard to such cats during the period of almost 30 years that has passed since my book was published.


In certain parts of Asia, black panthers (i.e. melanistic specimens of the leopard Panthera pardus constituting a visibly distinctive morph resulting from the expression of the recessive non-agouti mutant allele of the agouti gene and described in more detail later here) are more common than the normal, spotted wild-type morph of the leopard. Conversely, pseudo-melanistic individuals from this continent are exceedingly rare, so much so in fact that I have only ever read of one confirmed specimen. It was originally documented in 1915 by H.O. Collins, as referred to fully below, within the Bulletin of the South California Academy of Science. Here is its noteworthy history.

Normal spotted wild-type version of the leopard (© JanErkamp/Wikipedia - CC BY SA 3.0 licence)

One of the magnificent and mysterious feline skins on record was purchased in December 1912 by Holdridge Ozro Collins from G.A. Chambers of Madras [now Chennai], India. Its predominant colour was an elegant glossy black and was described in 1915 by Collins as follows:

The wide black portion, which glistens like the sheen of silk velvet, extends from the top of the head to the extremity of the tail entirely free from any white or tawny hairs.

He goes on to say:

In the tiger, the stripes are black, of an uniform character, upon a tawny background, and they run in parallel lines from the center of the back to the belly. In this skin, the stripes are almost golden yellow, without the uniformity and parallelism of the tiger characteristics, and they extend along the sides in labyrinthine graceful curls and circles, several inches below the wide shimmering black continuous course of the back. The extreme edges around the legs and belly are white and spotted like the skin of a leopard....The skin is larger than that of a Leopard but smaller than that of a full grown Tiger.

The cat had been killed in Malabar, south-western India, earlier in 1912, and so unusual was its exceedingly handsome skin that Chambers had been totally unable to classify it, so that he wondered whether it could actually represent some hitherto unknown form of felid. To obtain an answer, Chambers had sent it to Madras's Government Museum for official identification. He subsequently received a letter from J.R. Henderson of the museum, who stated that, although the species was certainly leopard, it constituted a variety that he had never before seen. Collins also sought scientific advice concerning its status, and learnt from Dr Gerrit S. Miller Jnr, curator of the Smithsonian Institution's Division of Mammals in Washington DC, USA, that it was indeed a black leopard, but not of the normal melanistic type.

A normal melanistic leopard, aka black panther (© Qilinmon/Wikipedia - CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

In fact, this remarkable skin was that of a pseudo-melanistic leopard, an extremely rare mutant known even today from only from a handful of specimens. In a normal melanistic leopard (i.e. black panther), its coat's background colour is abnormally dark, but its coat's rosettes are unchanged (so they can often still be spied in shadow-like form against its coat's dark background colouration, rather like a pattern on watered silk, when viewed at certain angles and in certain lighting conditions). Conversely, in a pseudo-melanistic leopard its coat's background colour is normal (orange-yellow) but is largely obliterated by abnormal fusion (nigrism) and multiplication (abundism) of the rosettes.

In extreme cases of pseudo-melanism, as demonstrated by Collins's specimen, this fusion and multiplication of the rosettes can be so extensive that virtually the entire upper body is covered in a solid mass of black colouration, with only occasional gaps present through which its coat's normal background colour is visible (appearing as orange streaks or spots). Faced with such a bizarre skin, it is little wonder that its owners had wondered whether it constituted a major zoological discovery.

King cheetah (© Steve Jurvetson/Wikipedia/Flickr - CC BY 2.0 licence)

Incidentally, less extreme occurrences of nigrism and abundism in the cheetah Acinonyx jubatus are responsible for the ornately striped and blotched pelage of a rare but very distinctive morph dubbed the king cheetah Acinonyx jubatus var. rex, which was once mistakenly thought to be a separate species from the normal spotted version. There are also a few visibly-comparable leopard counterparts to this cheetah variety on record, which I have duly referred to in my writings as king leopards. One Indian specimen, recorded as recently as 2012 from the Parambikulam forests in Kerala's Palakkad district, has sometimes been referred to online as a pseudo-melanistic leopard but its extent of abundism and nigrism is much less pronounced than that of the Malabar specimen or any of the Grahamstown specimens discussed below – instead, it is a classic king leopard.


Surprisingly, and in stark contrast to the extremely abundant black panther of Asia, very few records exist of melanistic leopards in Africa. Considering that this latter continent has numerous localities whose habitats and climate correspond closely with those in Asia that support black panthers, the reason for this anomaly is quite obscure. In fact, the only areas from which true (i.e. non-agouti) melanistic leopards have been recorded with certainty are Ethiopia and Cameroon, plus the forests of Mount Kenya and Kenya's Aberdares mountains.

Yet, if we also take heed of the many unconfirmed reports of predominantly black, leopard-like cats from several other African regions, it would seem that African panthers of one form or another are (or were) more widespread - and varied - than science supposes.


A mysterious felid of quite remarkable appearance was killed by a Mr F. Bowker during the early 1880s in a hilly, scrub-covered district 40 miles northeast of Grahamstown, in South Africa's Eastern Cape Province, and its flat skin was sent by him to German-born British zoologist Dr Albert Günther at London's Natural History Museum, where it remains today. Its coat's background colour was tawny, brightening to a rich orange gloss on the shoulders. Rosettes were virtually absent, being replaced mostly by numerous small separate spots, but these had coalesced dorsally to yield an unbroken expanse of black, stretching from its head right along to its tail base. In contrast to this specimen's richly hued upperparts, however, its underparts were principally white with large black spots, as in typical leopards, and it also bore the facial markings characteristic of this species. Its total length was 6 ft 7 in (including a 2.5- ft tail).

Dr Albert Günther (public domain)

Günther had initially entertained the possibility that this singular cat was actually a naturally-occurring leopard-lioness hybrid. However, as he reported on 3 March 1885 in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London (his report also containing the spectacular full-colour chromolithograph that opens this present ShukerNature blog article), Günther's detailed examination of its skin had ultimately revealed certain very specific but taxonomically significant features which, in combination with its already-noted leopard features, persuaded him that, despite its exotic colour scheme, its owner had indeed been nothing more than a leopard after all - albeit of a very spectacular pseudo-melanistic variety (and comparable with the Malabar specimen noted earlier in this ShukerNature blog article).

A year later, Günther received a second, even darker, glossier flat skin from a specimen of this same pseudo-melanistic variety, which had been shot at Collingham, approximately 20 miles from Grahamstown, and subsequently presented as a donation to London's Natural History Museum by its then-owner Reverend Nendrick Abraham (President of the Grahamstown Natural History Society). Utilising the detailed account contained in Abraham's accompanying letter, Günther formally documented this skin on 6 April 1886, once again in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London.

B/w photograph from the PZSL, 6 April 1886, of the flat skin from Abraham's Collingham-derived pseudo-melanistic leopard (public domain)

At least seven other, less striking pseudo-melanistic examples have been recorded (although, tragically, some of these no longer exist), including two pelts and sightings of two living specimens as reported by Abraham in his letter to Günther, but only from South Africa's Eastern Cape Province and none at all since the 20th Century's opening decade, as documented in 1987 by Dr Jack Skead (a former director of the Kaffrarian Museum in King William's Town) within a major review entitled Historical Mammal Incidence in the Eastern Cape. Skead's work was brought to my attention via some references to it in a CFZ Yearbook 1997 article on these exotic-looking leopards authored by Chris Moiser, who with fellow wildlife writer David Barnaby had viewed and photographed a mounted specimen at the Izoko South African Museum in Cape Town two years earlier.

In his PZSL report for 3 March 1885 concerning Bowker's pelt, Günther had dubbed this spectacular pseudo-melanistic leopard variety Felis leopardus [=Panthera pardus] var. melanotica. As a result, sometimes these extremely unusual felids are alternatively termed melanotic leopards.

As noted above, the Izoko South African Museum in Cape Town famously has on display a mounted specimen of a pseudo-melanistic leopard. In his CFZ Yearbook 1997 article, Chris Moiser revealed that this was purchased from a professional taxidermist based in Grahamstown in November 1898, and had apparently been shot 15.5 miles south of that town. Although somewhat faded with age nowadays, appearing brown rather than black, it is still visually arresting, as seen here:

The mounted pseudo-melanistic leopard on display at the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town (© Lew Viergacht)

My sincere thanks to Lew Viergacht for so kindly making his two excellent photographs of this remarkable specimen available to me for inclusion in this ShukerNature blog article.


Well worth considering is whether a comparable variety could be the explanation for a still-unidentified African felid known as the damasia, which dwells - not surprisingly? - in Kenya's Aberdares [already documented in my book as the home of a controversial, diminutive form of spotted lion known as the marozi, as well as melanistic leopards, i.e. black panthers].

The damasia was referred to in a letter sent to The Field by G. Hamilton-Snowball and published on 9 October 1948, concerning his sighting of spotted lions on these mountains. In it, he also recalled that during the 1920s he had shot a creature that he had taken to be a leopard, albeit a very large, dark specimen. Yet when his Kikuyu attendants saw it, they announced that it was not a chui (leopard) but a damasia, and that a damasia was as different from a leopard as a simba (lion) was from a marozi. Apparently the damasia is well known to the Aberdares natives but is always mistaken by non-locals for a leopard.

Painting of a pair of marozis or Kenyan spotted lions, based upon a preserved skin and eyewitness descriptions (© William M. Rebsamen)

Tropical Africa's native tribes frequently classify animals by way of criteria very different from those used by scientists. Often an individual animal that is of a colour or size different from that of normal specimens of the same species, or an individual that is notably more aggressive than others of its own species, is given an entirely separate name by the natives and thought of as being of a form totally different from the more typical members of its species. Therefore it is certainly possible that, despite the Kikuyus' firm denial, the damasia really is just a dark-coloured (pseudo-melanistic?) leopard.

Since genuine black (melanistic) leopards are on record from the Aberdares, it would be interesting to learn whether the natives class them as leopard or damasia. Alternatively, considering that the Aberdares' primeval forests already house one mystery cat, in the form of the marozi, it is not inconceivable that they are hiding further zoological surprises too.


This Ugandan mystery carnivore was described by game warden Captain William Hichens in a Discovery article of December 1937 as follows: "...a fierce man-killing carnivore, the size and shape of a leopard, but with a black-furred back shading to grey below". A ndalawo skin was actually procured on one occasion but was sent out of the country before it could receive formal scientific attention. Consequently, its identity was never ascertained, and its whereabouts are now unknown.

African wildlife authority Captain Charles Pitman had previously recorded in his book A Game Warden Among His Charges (1931) that the ndalawo seemed to be a "partly melanistic leopard" (note the word 'partly', indicating that it was not a normal black panther), practically devoid of spots but displaying a few typical leopard markings on the extremities and round the lower jaw. This more detailed description is reminiscent of that cited by Günther for P. pardus var. melanotica; certainly, pseudo-melanistic leopards have paler underparts, unlike the uniformly-dark melanistic black panthers.

Second view of the mounted pseudo-melanistic leopard at the Iziko South African Museum (© Lew Viergacht)

Based upon pelage considerations alone, it is not implausible that the ndalawo may indeed prove to be a pseudo-melanistic leopard (albeit a less showy version than those from South Africa). However, there is more than just its pelage to consider: the ndalawo exhibits some rather unexpected traits for a mere leopard. For example, it allegedly hunts in threes or fours, and whilst hunting it gives voice to a most peculiar laugh. These traits are indicative of a hyaena.

Yet as Hichens pointed out, the ndalawo is very greatly feared as an exceedingly ferocious beast, whereas even the oldest woman in a native kraal is more than prepared to shoo away a hyaena that comes too close. If the ndalawo is a form of leopard, it is a very unusual one; in fact, out of all of the black mystery cats of Africa discussed here, the ndalawo is surely the one most likely to represent a hitherto unknown felid species.

Vintage sepia photograph of the Iziko South African Museum's mounted pseudo-melanistic leopard specimen as featured in The Mammals of South Africa, Vol 1 (1900), authored by the museum's then-director, W.L. Sclater, and showing how much darker it was a century ago than it is today, light-induced fading having taken its toll down through the intervening decades (public domain); my sincere thanks to Facebook friend Velizar Simeonovski for kindly bringing this illustration to my attention.


Pseudo-melanistic specimens have also been confirmed from other big cat species, most notably the tiger P. tigris, with several examples recorded from Similipal and elsewhere in India (although these are often referred to incorrectly as melanistic specimens by the media), as documented by me in various publications (and also here on ShukerNature).

Exquisite painting of a pseudo-melanistic tiger in life as inspired by photographs of various pseudo-melanistic tiger pelts; produced specifically for me by William M. Rebsamen, it first appeared in an article of mine published by the now-defunct British monthly magazine All About Cats in its January-February 1999 issue, then again later that same year in my book Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999) (© William M. Rebsamen)

In addition, I once saw a close-up full-colour photograph of an exceedingly handsome pseudo-melanistic jaguar in captivity, but unfortunately I have no further details concerning this specimen.


Finally: In addition to the above coverage directly excerpted and expanded from my Mystery Cats of the World book, I have also documented pseudo-melanistic leopards (albeit only briefly this time) in my second, more recent feline-themed book, Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2011), as well as in a two-page article published by All About Cats in its May-June 1997 issue. Within that article, I was granted exclusive permission by David Barnaby and Chris Moiser to reproduce a colour photograph snapped by them in August 1995 during their viewing of the mounted specimen at the Iziko South African Museum, which I did. Regrettably, however, as with my writings about such cats, this photo has since turned up on various websites but without any accompanying credit given to David and/or Chris (hence in my opinion it seems unlikely that their permission for such sites to use it has been obtained, or even sought).

For those of you who may not have seen my All About Cats article, here it is – please click on each of its two scanned pages to enlarge it for reading purposes.

My two-page All About Cats article from May-June 1997 on the subject of pseudo-melanism and melanism in leopards and other big cats (© Dr Karl Shuker)