In 2018 British wildlife photographer Will Burrard-Lucas heard of sightings of a young African black leopard in Kenya. Black leopards had not been scientifically documented in Africa for more than a century. Burrard-Lucas set out to do just that. An innovator who has developed remotely controlled camera technology (the BeetleCam), he has now written a book about that experience. In this extract from The Black Leopard, he talks about his encounter with the elusive predator.

Kenya, April 2019

THE night is black. Clouds blot out the stars and the air is thick with the promise of rain. The monotonous drone of crickets is occasionally punctuated by the eerie alarm call of a rock hyrax.

I turn off my headlamp, plunging everything into total darkness. A move in the wrong direction and I would tumble down a sheer rock face into a jumble of boulders and knotted vegetation. I take a step forward and there is a muffled click and a flash of light as the motion sensor detects me and triggers my camera. I stand still for half a minute, letting the African night envelop me. I feel far removed from the rest of the world.

The camera shutter clicks again as it closes. I turn my light back on and circle round behind the camera trap to review the image. There’s a picture of me on the back of the camera, perfectly lit as if I were standing in a photographer’s studio. Now I just have to wait for the elusive creature to pass this spot, preferably on a clear night when the long exposure will reveal the stars in the sky.

I have a nagging feeling that this ultimate image might never materialize. In the early days of the project, I was capturing photographs of the animal almost every week, but that was during the dry season, when its movements were constrained by the availability of water. The first rain fell four weeks ago, heralding the onset of the wet season, and since then the animal has vanished. Perhaps it has moved territory for good? At least I am still capturing images of other creatures, such as the beautiful spotty leopard that passed by last night.

HeraldScotland:

A leopard cub in the foreground with its mother behind, photographed with BeetleCam in South Luangwa National Park, Zambia, January 2013.  © Will Burrard-Lucas

I close up the camera housing and turn to leave. As my headlamp flashes across a rock, there is a glimmer of reflected light. I peer into the darkness and two spots glow brightly back at me. Eyes! By the spacing of them, they could belong to a leopard. My pulse races with excitement. This might be the same spotty leopard that my camera caught yesterday. The animal is probably forty metres (130ft) away; too far for me to make out properly in the dim beam of my headlamp. I creep closer, hoping to get a proper look. I dare not glance down at my feet as I pick my way through the rocks; if I take the light off the cat for a second then it might be able to see me clearly.

The distance has now been halved to perhaps 20 metres (65ft). It doesn’t occur to me to feel any fear. As the animal holds my gaze, the sounds of the night fade, and I revel in this moment of connection with a wild predator.

I can still see only the creature’s eyes, and wish I had a more powerful flashlight with me.

I take one step closer and the cat starts to move. With a shock, I can suddenly make out the entire form of the animal. Its body reflects no light at all; it is just a black shape cut out from the scene in front of me.

HeraldScotland:

A remarkable cow tusker known as ‘F_MU1’ photographed with BeetleCam in Tsavo East National Park, Kenya, August 2017. © Will Burrard-Lucas

The silhouette of the black leopard passes in front of the rocks. Its movement is the unmistakable feline slink of a cat that wishes not to be seen.

The creature melts away into the undergrowth and I am left all alone. I am breathless with elation as I continue to scan the bush, hoping to catch one last glimpse.

Later, as I make my way down from the rocks, I am overwhelmed with a sense of privilege and euphoria. It seems that the many strands of my life have all come together to bring me to this singular moment in time.

I cannot tell you how long that encounter with the black leopard lasted. For a while, in that remote corner of Kenya, it was as if time had stopped.

HeraldScotland:

This is an extract from The Black Leopard: My Quest to Photograph One of Africa’s Most Elusive Big Cats by Will Burrard-Lucas (Chronicle Books, £26). Visit blackleopardbook.com for more details. Photographs© Will Burrard-Lucas