Thursday, January 21, 2016

Leopard Luck

The Maasai Mara supports an enormous amount of animals – for those of us from the suburban areas of the United States, where the wildlife pretty much consists of squirrels and the occasional deer, the sheer number of antelope we see on any given day is absurd. But what is the most shocking is the number of carnivores that live here. From dwarf mongooses (the smallest carnivore in East Africa, less than 14 inches long) to the famous lion, carnivores are absolutely everywhere. But the least common carnivores to see, of course, are the big cats. And of the big cats, the leopard is the most elusive.

Leopards are amazing animals – beautifully spotted, powerful, sporting a face that simultaneously makes us awwww in adoration and shudder with well-founded fear. They are stealthy, stalking their prey to within 10 feet before pouncing and killing with a stranglehold to the throat. They are impossibly strong – able to drag a carcass over twice their weight up into trees to protect it from other scavenging carnivores like lions. Leopards can vanish into grass half their height and reemerge over 60 feet away with none the wiser. These animals quite literally cannot be seen if they don't want to be seen.

That is what makes it so profoundly exciting that four days ago, we saw a leopard casually sitting on a prominent mound in our driveway, lazily flicking his tail as we drove home from our evening obs session.

Erin's family was visiting, and her brother John casually asked, "Is that a leopard on that mound there?" I looked, ready to declare it a lion or a hyena or literally anything else but a leopard, but sure enough, there it was! We were thrilled, snapping pictures and watching as it stood up, stretched, and began to walk up the driveway toward us. It passed within a few feet of the car and headed up the road.

As we were thinking about following it, a Mara miracle occurred – another leopard walked out of the tall grass behind the mound.

At first we mistook it for a cheetah, because this leopard was a bit smaller, and more gracile than the other. This led us to believe that the second leopard was a female, and the first a male.

To explain how ridiculous this is – leopards are typically encountered alone unless it is a mother with her cubs. Leopards are solitary, and males and females keep apart until mating, at which point they will tolerate each other for as brief a time as it takes to mate. Then they go their separate ways. So what we were seeing was the prelude to what might have turned out to be leopards mating. The female followed the male up the road (and we followed too, trying not to let them out of our sight) and up onto a grassy hill.

There, they spent about 10 minutes eyeing each other and growling softly in the backs of their throats. We weren't sure which one was growling, or if both were, but it was a sound I had never heard before and will likely never hear again. After the female circled the male several more times, the male snarled and chased the female away over another hill and out of sight, leaving all of us breathless and laughing as the dangerous-leopards-not-30-feet-from-us tension melted away.

We were so glad to be witness to such a rarely-seen event, and share the experience with Erin's family. Incredibly, I have now officially seen more leopards than I have seen cheetahs, servals, or caracals (other felids – cat species – commonly seen here in the Mara). I hope this leopard luck continues throughout the rest of my time here! Their spotted, whiskery faces and intense eyes have bewitched me; I cannot wait to see more!

1 comment:

Terry said...

I am so glad our family shared this sighting with you! Great post!

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science