Thursday, July 7, 2016

Looking for leopards

Leopards are about the rarest of the cat species we see out here and for me at least, they’re the most exciting to spot. Highly elusive, a leopard can disappear into a tiny thicket without a trace. If you see a leopard, it’s because the leopard has chosen to be seen. Because of this, seeing a leopard always feels a little bit magical, as you’ve been specially chosen to witness their majesty.

For ex. a horde of tour cars looking at a cheetah.
However, with the unregulated tourism on this side of the park that magic is often stolen away. My first leopard sighting was of a small leopard head sticking up above the bushes with tour cars surrounding it, one parked no more than 2 meters away. According to rules no tour cars are supposed to go off-track and they’re definitely not supposed to approach any closer than 20 meters to any carnivore. Seeing that leopard just made me feel sad. In addition, finding an animal because you’ve spotted a mass of tour cars take away all the fun of stumbling upon an animal all by yourself. With tourists present, it starts to feel a bit like a zoo and a little less wild.

Leopard late one evening in a tree along Den One Creek.
My second leopard sighting was also one that we were alerted to by a tourist. Just one tourist vehicle this time, parked at the base of a tree. It was past sunset and the mini-bus zoomed off as we approached, apparently thinking we might be rangers (all tour cars are supposed to be back the their lodges by sunset). We drove up to the tree and in the darkness I was just barely able to snap a photo of the leopard, watching us from above the branches. He’d probably been harassed by tourists all day so we didn’t stay long. This tree was near the eastern end of Den One Creek.

Third leopard sighting (4th July AM)
A few days ago I had a third leopard sighting (I know, I said they were rare!). This one was a really nice sighting, even though there were two tour cars present. Both tour cars were keeping their distance, staying on the track about 50m away from the leopard. He or she was relaxing on a mound just at the edge of a thicket near a place where our hyenas used to den. This sighting was also along Den One Creek.

We had two guests in camp that week, but unfortunately we only had one of their phone numbers and their phone was working at the moment! We stayed for about fifteen minutes then started driving back to camp where we managed to intercept our guests, also driving back to camp. I hopped into their car and we drove back to the leopard, but unsurprisingly she was gone. However, we now had a hint about this leopard. Two sightings along Den One Creek made us think that this leopard was living here for the time being.

It was the fourth of July so we decided to game drive and do a sundowner that evening. Just in case the leopard was still hanging about we decided to drive the length of Den One Creek nice and slowly. Now, this is something about leopard sightings: you never find a leopard when you’re looking for one. You only see them just when you’re not expecting one. Two and half years ago when I was an RA here in Kenya I’d stumbled upon a leopard and phone called some guests we had in camp to come take a look. We’d watched the leopard go into a very small clump of bushes and not leave. Alas, when the guests showed up we couldn’t for the life of us, find the leopard. We determined that he must have snuck off. The guests left and we started driving back to the road when the leopard again leaps from the bushes and starts trotting off through the grass just when we were least expecting it!

Leopard 4th July PM in a tree with the skin and legs of a wildebeest. 

However, that night, on the fourth of july, we did indeed find the leopard! We had almost reached the end of Den One Creek and were starting to stare at the bushes with less intensity and started to talk of looking for elephants when boom! Leopard in a tree above Den One Creek! She had the remains of a wildebeest calf with her dangling from a branch. She climbed into a higher part of the tree where she was obscured just a few seconds after we spotted her. If any of us had glanced the other way we wouldn’t have seen her at all. Another minute later she jumped down to the thicket below the tree and was completely gone.

Now that, was how a leopard sighting should be! Not a single tourist in sight and a fleeting glimpse where she posed just long enough to get a few nice photos. We were elated! We continued driving around for another half an hour, enjoying the evening sunlight and then decided to head back to camp. We took the direct route through Coucal Crossing which crosses the farthest western edge of Den One Creek. And…

Leopard 4th July PM walking through Coucal Crossing. 

Leopard! The same leopard was walking through the crossing directly in front of our car. She crouched low as she walked across the open dirt, as if stalking prey, before walking into the bushes. We waited for a few minutes then spotted her again, walking down through the bushes to the left of our car and back into the lugga (creek) behind us.

Leopard 4th July PM disappearing into the thicket. 
This was three leopard sightings in one day, two for our guests! All three of the same leopard. This sighting ranks up with the very best leopard sightings I’ve ever had. You can’t ask for better: no tourists and out in the open giving us an unobstructed view. This also ranked as my best fourth of july ever. What better way to enjoy the holiday than out on safari in the beautiful Maasai Mara with the best wildlife viewing in the world.

Afterwards, we drove up to the hill behind our camp to enjoy a few drinks as the sun went down and the sky got dark. No fireworks for us! Just a stunning leopard gracing us with her presence!

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