Yes, leopards and black panthers are the same but I have to add that the phrase “black panthers” refers to any melanistic (black) large wild cat. As a consequence it also applies to jaguars and pumas (there are no black tigers or lions). They are also called melanistic leopards. Melanism is a genetic mutation which causes the coat to become charcoal black with faint markings which can be detected under the right light.
The leopard is predisposed to being black which is why the phrase “black panther” probably applies more to leopards than any other large cat. In terms of common usage, ‘black panther’ applies first to leopards, then to jaguars and finally to pumas in that order.
Although melanistic leopards are rarely seen in Africa they are not uncommon in southern India and they occur frequently in Java and Malaysia. In the latter countries about half the leopards are black. In a study1 using modified camera traps to highlight the spots on the coats of black leopards, they decided that the population density of this particular variety of leopard is around three per 100 km². It varies from place to place quite naturally but you can see that it is quite a high number.
The scientists said that, “In Java, the critically endangered Javan leopard has a substantial proportion of melanistic individuals in the population”. They also confirm that in southern Thailand melanism in leopards is common. In both these instances they cite 2008 and 2009 research studies. We have to take into account that population sizes of cats like the leopard in places like Thailand and in Asia are declining, therefore for strict accuracy we need to constantly update the data. Sadly, due to a lack of commitment, it is not carried out.
In Africa, black leopards have been reported in the Aberdare Mountains of Kenya. This is an area where you will also see black servals. In the following places you will also see black leopards: the foothills of the Ruwenzoris, the Ethiopian Highlands, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of South Africa. Although I stress once again that this information is dated 2002 or earlier. Things change. We must recognise this fact. In the future, perhaps not too distant future, the information on this page will sadly be out of date and the numbers will have decreased.
In terms of captive leopards taken from zoo data we know that black and spotted cubs can be born in the same litter. Melanistic females tend to have smaller litters than females who are spotted in the conventional way.
It is also worth noting, at the other end of the spectrum, that there were or are albino leopards. They are white with pink eyes. They have been reported in India, China, East Africa and Zimbabwe although they are very rare. And if there are any left in 2021 their numbers are declining.
Study refered to as 1: Melanistic Leopards Reveal Their Spots:Infrared Camera Traps Provide a PopulationDensity Estimate of Leopards in Malaysia.
SOME MORE ON MELANISM: