They say that the pink leopard is the rarest of cats. They are sometimes referred to as ‘strawberry leopards’. Their coat has a faint pink hue due to what must be a spontaneous genetic mutation. It’s the kind of mutation which causes melanism in wild cats which makes the coat dark charcoal with ghost markings. Although black leopards and black panthers are far more common than the pink panther! It’s rather interesting that the well-known film the Pink Panther could have been named after this cat. It isn’t as far as I know but it could be.
Looking at this rather poor-quality photograph you have to say that the pinkness of the coat is very subtle but it is distinct from the usual colour which is, in any case, highly variable. The background colour of the leopard’s coat varies between nearly golden to ochreous or an orange-tawny colour through to pale red, greyish yellow and a buffy-grey and sometimes a deep shade of green/olive (olivaceous). Perhaps then it is no surprise that this subtle spectrum of background coat colours morphs into a pinky colour on exceedingly rare occasions.
This is a distinct colour difference and this pink female leopard was sighted in the Ranakpur region in the Pali district of Rajasthan. In August 2019 Mail Online reported on a “strawberry predator” i.e. a pink leopard in South Africa. This individual was seen eating a giraffe in Thaba Tholo Wilderness Reserve in north-eastern South Africa. The photographs were taken by the reserve owner Alan Watson and his wife Lynsey.
This Indian pink leopard had been spotted by locals but until today, as I understand it, had not been successfully photographed. This individual lives in a vast stretch of forest and we know how secretive and elusive the leopard is anyway.
I understand that the photograph was taken by Udaipur-based wildlife conservator and photographer Hitesh Motwani who was tracking the animal for four days. He believes that the female is around the age of five or six.
The world’s best expert on ‘mutant leopards’, Sarah Hartwell, has an enormously long article on the topic on her website messybeast.com. She goes into great detail. Thank you. She describes pink leopards as ‘erythristic leopards” or strawberry leopards. She also refers to them as red leopards with chocolate brown markings on a reddish background described as rich mahogany. There are also buff leopards with orange rosettes. Sarah Hartwell also refers to a wild erythristic spotted leopard in South Africa in 2012. It was photographed in the Madikwe Game Reserve. The animal was dubbed a “strawberry leopard”. The photograph is good. Sarah provides us with some insights into this genetic mutation. I think I’ll quote her verbatim for accuracy and I know she won’t mind,
“Erythrism occurs when normal black pigments are not produced and red pigment is produced instead. This is possibly the result of the non-extension gene which is believed to be responsible for red leopards (black leopards where red had replaced the black colouration) and which is also seen in domestic cats.”
Sarah Hartwell also says that fewer than five strawberry leopards have been reported and therefore it’s a rare spontaneous mutation or a rare recessive gene. She ventures to state that it is most likely the ‘Extension gene’ which has been identified in domestic cat and referred to as the “red factor” or “black modify” and “agouti modifier”. If they inherit two copies of the recessive form it produces red pigment instead of black. If a normal leopard inherits two copies of the recessive non-extension form the rosettes would be reddish in colour on a normal background colour.
The deputy conservator of forest, Fateh Singh, said that the pink leopard had been sighted occasionally by locals. He said the colour is due to a ‘skin mutation’. What he means is it is due to a genetic mutation which affects the production of pigment in melanocyte cells in the skin which produce eumelanin and pheomelanin. In humans, melanocyte cells produce the skin-darkening pigment which is melanin in the skin to protect it.
P.S. Here is another picture of a pink leopard. The photo is provided by The Times of India. I have cleaned it up as it was far too yellow which masked the pink hue which you can now see. This appears to be a different individual. I’m a bit uncertain about the veracity of this image.