Let me forewarn you that this blog entry has more photos than writing as one can never do justice to a leopard with just words. At least I cannot. So please be prepared for the visual onslaught!!
I have been living in Kenya since April 2014 and I have so far (till March 2016) visited Masai Mara 5 times, Naivasha 4 times, Nakuru thrice, Ol Pejeta & Amboseli twice each, Aberdares & Samburu once and Nairobi National Park too many times to remember accurately.
I was very lucky to spot the Big 5 on my very first visit to Mara. It was a beautiful sighting of a leopard climbing down one tree and up another leafier one to get away from too many prying eyes. That time, I was not aware that animals had names and one can form a personal relationship with them. For me, it was just a visual treat. However, I fell in love with this magnificent spotted animal at first sight.
It wasn’t until June 2015 that I spotted another leopard – in Mara North conservancy. Actually, two robust males. I was thirsting so much for this animal that I was almost trying to will-power it to appear in front of me. And magically, it did, on our last afternoon game drive! I even spotted it before our amazing Masai guide could. I had to blink twice to make sure I was not hallucinating. He passed right in front of our jeep and posed for us for quite a while. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to pack my camera and had to rely on my very basic mobile phone. But it will give you an idea how close it was.
The next day, before leaving Mara, we spotted yet another one dozing in a bush. And within a hundred metres, there was a Masai sleeping peacefully in the open grasslands. What more could I ask for? But how I missed my camera…
Since then, I have seen plenty of game but I had this special bond with leopards and cheetahs. No matter how many simbas (lions) I saw, there would always be a little unfulfilled corner in my mind if I failed to see one of these spotted beauties. Probably because leopards are so very elusive, I was more keen to catch a glimpse of them.
My next leopard sighting was in November 2015 (near Mara Intrepids) but it was a very sleepy one who didn’t give a damn about the curious tourists in the jeeps and vans buzzing around the tree. It had draped itself around a branch in such an elastic way that you may be forgiven to doubt if it had any bones. It absolutely refused to open its eyes to acknowledge our presence and continued to sleep, balancing precariously in their typically lazy way, with an occasional flick of its tail to ward off the pesky flies.
Less than a month later, in December, we visited Mara again. This time, to Olare Motorogi conservancy, which my friends had assured me, was THE big cat terrain. And sure enough, it was!! On our way to the camp, we met the famous cheetah Malaika and her 2 surviving cubs and was also rewarded with her jaw-dropping, adrenalin-rushing 200m impala chase, which stopped right next to our Land Rover Defender. Thankfully, the impala lived to see another day. More about these unbelievably gorgeous cheetahs some time soon.
I had heard of the ‘resident’ leopard Fig in the conservancy from my friends and was very intrigued. How can this terribly private cat be spotted so regularly? But the leopard who revealed herself first was another regular visitor called Pretty Girl. I have written extensively about her futile hunt in “A Lesson in Solidarity”.
We met her once almost every day. She was a magnificent looking cat as leopards normally are but I didn’t think that she was particularly ‘pretty’. There was a menacing look in her eyes and she seemed to be a master of stealth and ambush as I witnessed later.
It hardly mattered whether she lived up to her name or not as I was already in seventh heaven having seen more leopards and cheetahs than lions so far on this trip. Unbelievable, yet true. It seemed that my fervent prayers for sighting these spotted beauties were being answered much beyond my expectations!
During the afternoon game drive, our guide Jackson told us that he was taking us to a place where Fig had been spotted. I was already half in love with this cat even before seeing her. A leopard called Fig? Can it get any more cute than that? When we reached the fig tree, there were some jeeps parked around it already. The beauty of a conservancy is that there are very few vehicles and you can enjoy your game drive without hundreds of tourist vans polluting the place. I was told that Fig was up there with her baby boy. I could see them through the leaves but their faces were not clearly visible. So I waited…
The sun was slowly making its way to the horizon and the place looked serene in the light of the setting sun. And then SHE turned. And my heart stopped for a few seconds. I stared, hypnotized at the most beautiful animal I have ever seen. A perfect creation of nature with the most captivating pair of grey eyes.
I just kept clicking away to my heart’s content…
Then I got greedy. I wanted to capture her cub on film too. But the cub was proving to be very frisky and elusive. And it was facing the other way. Thanks to our intuitive guide Jackson, we managed to park in a spot where I managed to see his face for a very short time but long enough to get some decent frames. He was trying to feed on the remains of a young gazelle that his mother had brought up for him to hone his carnivorous instincts.
At the camp we were staying (Porini Lion), I met Joseph S.T. Lam, a renowned wildlife photographer from Hong Kong, whose photos have been featured in African Geographic. We were privileged to watch some amazing footage of the great migration and other fascinating wildlife moments. He had been coming to Kenya for years and was a popular and regular Porini guest.
While we were stuck in the reception area due to an unexpected and fierce cloudburst in the evening, he told us about Fig, who he had been tracking since she was a baby. “She is the prettiest of them all”, he said and we could not agree more. She is smaller than other leopards but is undoubtedly the most stunning. He also regaled us with his stories of deep sea diving in Malaysia and of his adventures in Mara. Quite a thrilling way to spend the last evening of 2015.
I learnt that Fig was born under a fig tree to mom Acacia and dad Pink Nose and is five years old now. She has a baby sister called Porini, named so because she was born inside Porini Lion Camp, probably near Tent #6. Joseph very graciously allowed me to use some of his photos in my blog. Thank you so much for encouraging me too!
The picture of Porini at this age is especially rare, Joseph said, as she had disappeared without a trace when she was 9 months old. Last year, she was again spotted by a Masai guide and everyone was thrilled and relieved that she is still around. He also pointed out that this picture is precious because it was taken in complete darkness as is evident by the complete dilation of her pupils. Anybody who understands cats, will realise this! Contrast it with my other pictures taken in the sunlight and you will note the difference in the pupil size.
I also heard that Fig had been trying to get pregnant for some time. After some futile attempts, her union with an over-10-year-old leopard (quite elderly by leopard standards) named Yellow made her a mother for the first time, when she gave birth to a male cub last year. He is now 8 months old and is as gorgeous as his mother. However, he is yet to be christened. As is evident from the picture below, Yellow does have a rather yellowish coat of hair.
I will leave you with these amazing pictures of momma Fig teaching her playful cub to carry a fresh kill up a tree. She had just hunted a small bat-eared fox to train him. Behind me, the sun had started to set and it was a resplendent sight with the acacias in the foreground against the brilliant flaming sky. But the rare tutorial happening in front was far more precious – the patience and love with which Fig encouraged her cub to climb the tree with the little fox in his mouth. Was this display of extreme tenderness natural for leopards or was Fig a little more protective and maternal because it was her first child, and conceived not so easily? The way we humans do?
The light had started to fade and I knew I couldn’t get good pictures in this poor light. But my eyes were feasting on a sight that was tugging at the strings of my heart. Here was a sterling example of maternal love and parental responsibility at its best. The cub tried very hard but would need a few more lessons to successfully learn this task.
As the light almost faded out, the mother seemed to indicate that it was enough for the day and started to cuddle her “tired” cub and engage in the so very endearing rituals of feline playfulness. After some minutes of rolling, licking, wrestling and pouncing on each other in the tallish grass, mother and son disappeared into the darkness in the even taller foliage.
And we reluctantly made our way back to the camp with semi-moist eyes and a head full of wonder and gratitude for getting the privilege of witnessing this magical functioning of the animal world.
(I have a video of this training but I need to learn how to include it here)