I have just returned to the UK from another action-packed week in Kenya's Masai Mara, staying at Entim Camp. Visiting as I did in February meant that the migration was far away in Tanzania and as a result, the park was blissfully empty (of vehicles) compared to the peak visitor months of July/August. And yet the big cats were still there in abundance and less stressed by the number of cars, they were more willing to show themselves, as I found out to my delight when it came to leopards.
I wrote on my final Facebook update as I left camp that I'd been lucky enough to see 10 different leopards on this trip but on further investigation of my Lightroom library on my return, I found in fact that that had been an over-excited claim and that the number was nine, of which I got to photograph eight. This is still a record for me on a week-long trip however and enough of an excuse for me to do a blog post on my favourite cat! I'm not quite sure why I have such a thing for leopards but a *thing* I do. I love their mystery, their elusiveness (let's face it we all have a little latent instinct for the chase) and then their elegant beauty when you finally do find them. They don't give a damn and will preen and pose and then disappear without a backward glance....devastating!
The first viewing was the poorest but perhaps the most typical of what many people's experience is when it comes to leopards....an intriguing view of spots. Leopards are notoriously shy and this one, having been followed by a vehicle down from Rhino Ridge, felt the need to blend away by the time we showed up. It was the eagle eyes of my amazing driver Henry Sadera which finally located this male but alas as dusk drew in we saw no more than this view.
The following morning (day two) was better and for the couple sharing my vehicle those two days, their first proper view of the face of a leopard. High in the trees, and alerted to us by hyenas underneath, we saw this leopard, known as 'Pump House Male' close to Serena, up with his kill.
There was a hat-trick in store on day three, starting with this big old male close to Double Crossing. I've photographed this cat before, in a tree in glorious light back in September, so it was nice to see him again. He was sporting a new scar just below his eye however and my driver explained this was as a result of a fight with another big male which he had witnessed quite recently.
And then within an hour or so we came across that rival, so close by it is little wonder that the two have been clashing over territory. So handsome!
That night as we drove back down the entrance road to camp a sudden movement caught our eye and briefly, another leopard showed her face. It was almost dark by this point and my camera gear was half packed away so with a mad scramble and a ridiculously high ISO I managed to grab this shot before the cat disappeared into the night. In chatting with the camp staff that evening it turns out that this leopard regular patrols the area of Entim Camp but is rarely seen, so it was a lucky spot.
And then blow me down if we had the same luck (and circumstances) the next morning (day four). About 1km from camp, driving in the direction of Rekero, another small female leopard dashed in front of the vehicle in the near-darkness. This time it was so dark (another overcast morning) I couldn't even see her through the view-finder so I was unable to grab a picture. Henry and I then speculated about which leopard it might be, given that another nearby favourite of mine (Bahati) hasn't now been seen for over a month. But no, Henry concluded it was too far from her territory. His thought was that it might be Binti, a daughter of Olive who had moved into this area some time ago but is hardly ever seen having become incredibly shy.
The following afternoon (day five) we set off south in the park and after an hour or so of driving came across a tree with the remains of a kill but no leopard in sight. Another vehicle confirmed they'd seen a leopard nearby in the past hour and so we started to circle and search. Once again it was the amazing eyes of Henry which spotted the spots (or rather the tail) - this time in another nearby tree. As had been the case for much of this week, the sky was grey and overcast and it was difficult to photograph the leopard in the darkness of the tree. I opted to expose for the cat here and not worry about blowing out the sky.
Within about a half an hour this same leopard made its way down the tree and I was able to get this photo before it reached the ground and attempted a hunt in deep undergrowth.
Day six delivered no leopards, despite a trip to the Serena area and the frustration of tales of two different leopards seen just a few minutes before we'd arrived. If a leopard doesn't want to be seen then it just won't be seen! A quick sighting of some hidden lion cubs on the way back to camp however meant the afternoon had not been a total waste. If you want to see leopards you have to be prepared to put the time in and know that it won't always pay off.
Day seven arrived (my final full day) and we set off to visit Molibany Primary School, which Entim Camp is supporting through the 'Pack for a Purpose' initiative. We had an appointment with excited children to deliver new desks donated by the camp, as well as two suitcases of materials and stationery by UK donors, so little time for safari that morning. Our luck was in however and not far from the school, in the Double Crossing area, we received news that another of Olive's daughters, Saba, had been seen in a tree. We raced to the spot and we treated to this view, albeit once again against a bright, grey sky.
Within a few minutes she decided to come down the tree, backwards in this case down the vertical trunk and she gave me a haughty glance here as she descended. We had time to get these photos and the one that is at the start of this blog and still get to the school on time.
On my final afternoon we headed back to the Serena area in search of two of my favourite leopards (the two who had eluded us a few days before), Siri and her handsome son Shujaa. The same frustrating pattern of near misses and recent sightings plagued again us until finally we received word that Shujaa had been seen and was on the move. By the time we caught up with him he was about to disappear into undergrowth and I managed just four photos, panning this time as the light was fading fast.
So that's it - nine different leopards in just seven days! It is fair to say, given my passion for this particular cat, that we did concentrate more time on looking for leopards than you do on a normal safari, but that said we also saw our fair share of lions, cheetah and even black rhino, so the trip was diverse despite the focus of this blog. For me the number of leopards sightings was all the more remarkable given that I didn't see at all two of the most usually reliable leopards, Bahati and Siri. In Siri's case she simply eluded us but there are still regular sightings. In Bahati's, as I mentioned earlier, she hasn't been seen for over a month. The optimistic speculation is that she is off with cubs somewhere and I'm very much hoping that that is the case and that I might get to meet them on my next visit in a month's time. But who knows, as Henry explained, sometimes, for no known reason, a leopard moves on from its territory and is not seen again, like Binti who used to show herself easily.
P.S. I was only able to identify by name four of the nine leopards, so if anyone reading can shed any light on the identity of the others I would love to hear!