Picture of a Black Lion

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Do Black Lions Exist?

Black Lion
Netlore Archive: Circulating via social media, this viral image supposedly documents the existence of a "melanistic" or black lion on a game refuge in Africa. Image originated on DeviantArt.com ©2012 ~PAulie-SVK

Description: Viral image / Hoax
Circulating since: June 2012
Status: Fake

Analysis: Alas, this animal, gorgeous as it is, doesn't really exist. The picture is an admitted hoax, created by manipulating the color palette of an image of a white lion (which does exist) photographed at the Cango Wildlife Ranch in Oudtshoorn, South Africa. Voila, all-black lion.

According to the Global White Lion Protection Trust, white lions are a genetic anomaly unique to the Timbavati region of South Africa. They are considered "technically extinct" in the wild due to over-hunting and efforts are underway to preserve what specimens remain.

Black Lions Could Exist

Although an all-black or "melanistic" lion could theoretically exist (and probably has existed, somewhere), I've run across no documented sightings of such an animal, only anecdotal reports such as that in George Adamson's 1987 book, My Pride and Joy, of an "almost entirely black" specimen spotted in Tanzania. Nor have I found any legitimate photographs of black lions, though there seem to be an ever-increasing number of fake ones circulating on the Internet (more examples can be viewed on zoologist Karl Shuker's blog).

Sarah Hartwell of MessyBeast.com reports that in 2008 several large black lions were supposedly seen roaming the streets at night in Matsulu township near Mpumalanga, South Africa, but government officials found no evidence to support the rumors and concluded that residents probably mistook lions with dark brown markings for black ones in the darkness.


Melanism is a rare congenital condition involving an abnormal increase in the amount of dark pigment (melanin) naturally present in a given organism. Most life forms, including microorganisms, have some amount of melanin present in their bodies. An abnormal decrease in the amount of melanin normally present in an organism results in the opposite condition, albinism.

Among the mammals in which melanism has been observed are squirrels, wolves, leopards and jaguars. An interesting bit of related trivia is that the term "black panther" doesn't, as many people assume, refer to a distinct species of big cat, but rather to melanistic leopards (in Asia and Africa) and panthers (in Central and South America).

Photoshop Fun and Games

The manipulation of images to create the appearance of rare-to-impossible pigmentation and other physical abnormalities in animals is a popular Internet pastime. One viral photo depicts an alleged specimen of a brightly colored "rainbow owl," for example, while another shows a "golden zebra." An image purportedly documenting a pig-nosed fish that "tastes like bacon" has circulated since 2013. And yet another viral image — or rather, set of images — supposedly documents a cobra with anywhere from three to seven heads. A snake the size of a semi-truck supposedly captured and killed in the Red Sea appears in another set of viral images. All of these "amazing" images are hoaxes.

By the same token another popular image — real, not fake in this instance — shows an actual melanistic fawn photographed near Austin, Texas, and an actual albino fawn is depicted in this image.

Sources and further reading:

Black (Melanistic) Lion
Manipulated image on DeviantArt.com, June 2012

10 Facts About White Lions
Global White Lion Protection Trust, 2011

Photo: White Lion Pride
About.com: Animals / Wildlife


Mutant Big Cats - Black Lions

My Pride and Joy by George Adamson
Simon and Schuster, 1987 (p. 54)