One photo shows a melanistic leopard — better known as a black panther — cautiously but curiously poking its head out from behind a tree. Another shows the same cat, tail raised and ready to spring as it stalks prey in the jungle mists.
The photos went viral this week, accumulating millions of views as people hailed the leopard as the second coming of Rudyard Kipling’s Bagheera, the beloved leopard from The Jungle Book.
Both photos come from the lens of Shaaz Jung, known as the “Leopard Man of India” for his astonishing shots of the majestic cats taken deep in the country’s jungles and forests.
“When people see these pictures, they think there are several leopards, but actually there’s just one black panther where we are — one melanistic leopard in the dense forest of Nagerhole. So it was like finding a needle in a haystack,” Jung told BusinessInsider.
The leopard has been named Saya by local wildlife enthusiasts, and he’s a bit out of his element in the deciduous Kabini forest, which is also home to a tiger preserve. Normally, leopards like Saya live in dense jungle, where the thick canopy and lack of light play to their advantage.
Jung patiently followed Saya, snapping photos of the big cat hunting, fighting and courting potential mates.
“He’s not just surviving, he is thriving,” Jung said.
Jung is a wildlife photographer, NatGeo’s director of photography for films and a big cat specialist in his own right. He also photographs India’s tigers, and his shots reveal a connection to — and a deep appreciation of — these regal apex predators who have been pushed back by human development and the resulting habitat loss.