The Zanzibar leopard was officially declared extinct 25 years ago, but the classification has been called into question after a wildlife biologist caught the elusive predator on camera.
“To find rare animals is difficult. To find extinct animals is frankly impossible,” biologist and tracker Forrest Galante told InsideEdition.com. “I absolutely lost my mind at the fact that we had accomplished the impossible, and we had found an extinct animal, something the world had written up as gone forever."
A Zanzibar leopard was briefly spotted walking into the frame of a hidden camera for Galante’s new show, "Extinct or Alive," before disappearing back into the trees.
“I couldn’t believe what I was looking at,” he said. “Everything I’ve worked on for years and years came into fruition in one second.”
Galante explained the breakthrough moment came as they were reviewing footage after about two weeks into filming on the island, located off the eastern coast of Africa.
They were moments from erasing the footage, believing there had been nothing on the tape, when suddenly, what he believed was the Zanzibar leopard came into view.
“I just erupted — I just started screaming," he said. "I went back to being a college athlete. I couldn’t control myself. I’m not someone who drinks a lot or has ever done drugs, but I blacked out."
The show’s camera crew captured his many emotions in those few minutes following the discovery: Silent with disbelief, sobbing with surprise, and screaming in victory.
"That’s what my show’s about," Galante said. "It’s about hope, and the hope the things we human beings have wiped off the face of the Earth may be hanging on by a thread."
He explained that leading up to their expedition, Galante had a list of several extinct animals he believed they could find, based on whether the environmental conditions like habitat and prey were still present for the animal to survive.
The Zanzibar leopard was at the bottom of the list, due to a rampant mythology that the Zanzibar leopard was evil.
Local legend has it that the Zanzibar leopard worked in conjunction with the witch doctors.
"[The island nation] is inundated with cultural beliefs of witchcraft," Galante said. "Leopards did an evil bidding by witch doctors so they were hunted to extinction. Anything bad that would happen, they would say the witch doctor sent the leopard to do their bidding."
There is also a local rumor that when Zanzibar leopards were hunted to extinction, witch doctors brought African leopards from the mainland to continue to do their magic, and Galante said there was always the possibility if they spotted a leopard that it would be of a different species.
“The truth is, I’m a scientist and science is the only thing that holds valid weight,” Galante explained. "I do not have genetic evidence that this is the Zanzibar leopard. What I have is a leopard on a trail camera."
But, he explained that certain physical traits caused him to believe it would be a Zanzibar leopard. The predatory cat was smaller in posture, typical of the species since its prey are smaller, and moved lower to the ground than a bigger or more confident leopard species.
Its markings, which appear more like a spot than a rosette, also pointed to the fact that he had the cat he was searching for.
“I’m the last person on Earth giving those species a shot,” Galante said. "It is unfair to give up on those animals that other people may have written off, that we deem as gone or unimportant or extremely rare.”
His team is continuing to work with local park rangers to test samples of DNA collected in the area, with hopes of confirming the Zanzibar leopard’s ongoing existence.
Animal Planet's "Extinct or Alive" airs June 10 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.