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The white gaze: Why is Western documentation the measure of African reality?

Recently, a range of publications reported on the documented sighting of the elusive African black leopard in Kenya by biologist Nick Pilfold. Many claimed it was the “first sighting” in a century, thereby discrediting local accounts.

In early 2018, global conservation scientist Nick Pilfold and his team of biologists deployed a set of camera traps throughout the bushlands of Loisaba Conservancy in Laikipia in the hope of capturing on film a black leopard sighting. After months of waiting, they managed to shoot rare footage of the scarce black leopard.

“Since childhood I have been fascinated by stories of black panthers. For me, no animal is shrouded in more mystery, no animal more elusive, and no animal more beautiful. For many years they remained the stuff of dreams and of far-fetched stories told around the campfire at night. Nobody I knew had ever seen one in the wild and I never thought that I would either. But that didn’t stop me dreaming…” said the blog of Will Burrard-Lucas, who shot the images.

Leopards are listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. This particular leopard is pitch black as a result of melanism, a gene mutation that causes the over-production of pigment. It has rosette patterns on its body, which are visible on the infrared imagery used at night.

“The opposite of albinism, melanism, is the result of a gene that causes a surplus of pigment in the skin or hair of an animal so that it appears black,” National Geographic states on its website.

“Melanism occurs in about 11% of leopards globally, but most of these leopards live in South-East Asia,” Pilfold told CNN.

They spotted the juvenile female travelling with a larger, normally coloured leopard, presumed to be her mother.

“Coincidentally, our observations are very close to where the fantasy Marvel comic country of Wakanda is suggested to be located,” Pilford marvelled.

Nothing here to ‘discover’

Despite the fact that it is highly unlikely that there have not been sightings by locals in the area, and even given that the National Geographic website clearly stated, “Melanistic leopards have been reported in and around Kenya for decades, but scientific confirmation of their existence remains quite rare,” publications still reported this sighting as a “unique” instance.

“African black leopard photographed for the first time in over 100 years, scientist says,” CNN reported.

“Black leopard spotted in Africa for first time in 100 years,” National Geographic announced.

“Ultra-rare black leopard is photographed for the first time in 100 years in Africa,” the Daily Mail trumpeted.

The claim has caused great controversy and riled up Kenyans on social media, who found it the slap in the face that it was.

Burrard-Lucas has since posted an update on his blog, saying, “For clarification, I am not claiming that these are the first photos of a black leopard taken in Africa. I do, however, believe that they are the first high-quality camera trap photographs. The headline “First in 100 years” is derived from a quote attributed to scientists from San Diego Zoo stating that my images, in combination with their video footage, constitute the first scientific documentation of such a creature in Africa in nearly a century.”

Read: The Western Media’s Coverage of Africa Disturbing

The white gaze

According to The Guardian, “the white gaze” is a phrase that resonates in black American literature. Writers from WEB Du Bois to Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison have discussed it at length.

Morrison once said, “Our lives have no meaning, no depth without the white gaze. And I have spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books.”

“It takes courage for a black person to speak to a white world, a world that can render invisible people of color, unless they begin to more closely resemble white people themselves – an education, a house in the suburbs, a good job, lighter skin,” Stan Grant writes in The Guardian’s article.

The concept of the white gaze is used to reflect the black American experience in white America, but it can easily be compared to the Western narrative of Africa and how the world views the “dark continent”. Africa has been molded into a civilisation so in need of intervention that the West has rationalised its continuous plunder. Not only does the world validate the exploitation of Africa’s people, it agrees to strip it of its resources, it fetishises its culture, sensationalises its death and discredits its discoveries.

Africa has been molded into a civilisation so in need of intervention that the West has rationalised its continuous plunder.

Even though oral tradition has upheld Africa’s societal norms and values for millennia, the reported sightings of the black panther by locals over the decades did not count as fair indication of their existence until they were validated using Western mediums of documentation.

The reported sightings of the black panther by locals did not count as fair indication of their existence until they were validated using Western mediums of documentation.

Oral tradition has been proven a reliable source as African non-literate societies have from time immemorial used the oral mode. Oral tradition is an integral part of the transmission of their history, customs, traditions and folklore as one generation taught another.

Begging the question: Why was oral tradition not validation enough for further study before now? Why did it take a white saviour’s dream to “confirm” local accounts and turn the world into believers?

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