The time when curiosity almost killed the cat

According to Wikipedia

“Curiosity killed the cat” is a variation of the proverb – curiosity killed the cat – that includes the rejoinder “but satisfaction brought it back.” Although the original version was used to warn people of the dangers of unnecessary investigation or experimentation, the addition of the rejoinder indicates that the risk would lead to resurrection because of the satisfaction felt after finding out.

I had a first hand experience of literally “witnessing” this proverb last week, on my solo trip to Maasai Mara.

After a not-so-exciting afternoon game drive, as I was returning to the camp, my driver Simon got a call informing him that 2 leopards had been spotted at the location we had left minutes back –  after a futile search for these very animals. The sun was about to set and darkness was fast descending. He quickly reversed the jeep and reached the spot in time to find 2 jeeploads of tourists keenly  looking towards a spot, dimly washed with twilight. My eyes needed a little time to figure out what they were looking at – two leopards lounging on the fallen trunk of a tree, looking into the bushes and beyond.

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The first sighting of the 2 leopards
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The wary older one
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The curious younger cub

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One was visibly much smaller than the other but I couldn’t make out if it was an older brother or the mother. Anyone who knows me even a little bit, knows about my love affair with these very beautiful but shy grey-eyed cats. As I sat enraptured, feasting my eyes on these two cats, I noticed two young elephants benignly progressing towards these spotted felines, while merrily chomping on the plucked grass. Although the little one was closer to the pachyderms, the older one had wisely slipped off the log and disappeared into the long grass as they came closer.

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The young elephants and the little cub – look at their relative sizes
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The restless and the curious one

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Check the position of the tree trunks to follow the progress of the elephants
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The older one makes a hasty escape

The little one was as fascinated with the trunked giant as I was with her. She refused to budge and kept watching it. For a split second, there may just have been a change of mind, induced by the instinctive feeling of possible danger, because she jumped off the log for a moment.  But seconds later, she jumped back on it, even more curious!

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Back on the log, but at the spot where the older one was initially
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Open challenge or juvenile curiosity?
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Coming closer

But now, the elephant was within nudging distance, and not looking too happy at the cub’s public show of defiance. I was getting edgy now as I knew what even a playful nudge of those tusks can do. Then came the trumpeting call of warning. The little one had not an iota of doubt any more about which road to take. In a flash, she was gone and I started breathing again! The mini tusker  kept slamming into the log, with her tusks, with displeasure but soon went back to the more pleasurable activity of munching grass.

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TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT
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Now the cub finally gets wiser and starts to move

My hunch is, these two “kids” encountered each of its kind for the first time and went home all the more wiser. I also think the bigger leopard was probably an irresponsible older brother because he never entered the scene after his vanishing act. Would a mother leave her cub to spar with a tusker, no matter how young the calf may have been?

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This round belonged to the young tuskers

But the unanswered question that remains is: was the cat’s curiosity satisfied and if so, “will satisfaction bring it back?”

PS: Dusky conditions made photography very difficult.

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Of Fig and other leopards

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.

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My first ever leopard sighting
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Gets off the tree
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Walks away
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On to a another tree

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.

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Male Leopard #1
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Various moods
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This one had a fresh gash on its left cheek
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Sorry for the poor pic quality
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He ran away from his territory due to the presence of lions

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…

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Male leopard #2 in Mara North conservancy
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A few 100 meters away this Masai was sleeping peacefully

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.

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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”.

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Good morning!!

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!

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Pretty Girl
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Looking for prey
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Very alert

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.

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Gorgeous Fig

I just kept clicking away to my heart’s content…

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Mesmerising grey eyes
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Did I see something?

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Fig and her cub
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Sometimes dozing
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Sometimes alert

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.

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Fig’s cub
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Playful
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Handsome fella
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What next?
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Trying to munch on the remains of a Thomson’s gazelle

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!

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Fig’s mom Acacia (pic credits – Joseph Lam)
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Fig in 2013 (pic credits – J. Lam)
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Fig’s baby sister Porini (pic credits J. Lam)

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.

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Fig’s dad Yellow (pic credits – J. Lam)

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?

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The sunset I didn’t care for!!

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.

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Fig up on the tree while her cub is toying with the kill below
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Fig trying to coax him up the tree
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Under her watchful eyes the training continues
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A little anxious maybe?
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Bravo, she says as she guides him up
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Mother & son up there but the bat-eared fox has slipped out of her cub’s teeth
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That’s enough for the day, little one!
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Mother lounging in the grass while the cub plays away from our sight
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Time to hug and cuddle

(I have a video of this training but I need to learn how to include it here)

A Lesson in Solidarity

Very rarely does one sight a leopard out in the open the first thing in the morning. Not only did we sight Pretty Girl but we soon realized she was hungry and looking for a kill. She had 2 big cubs who were unfortunately not old enough to hunt on their own. IMG_7090

The gorgeous sight of this magnificent cat, a few metres away from our vehicle, stopped us in our tracks. After scanning the area for a while, she decided to try her luck on the other side of the river. We too moved away and positioned ourselves on the other side.

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Watching a leopard preparing for a kill is a hair raising experience. Not for anything is it one of the stealthiest predators. Unlike lions, it does not hunt in a pride. Unlike a cheetah, it does not chase its prey at supersonic speed. It mainly depends on its stalking and ambushing skills. I will let the pictures speak for themselves….

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We had read about the amazing jungle radar system that protects the herbivores. The zebras have an acute sense of smell. The Thomson’s gazelles have a good ear. The baboons and monkeys send warning calls when they spot a predator. The hamerkops and rollers act like drones and send distress calls when they spot a leopard – they hate the cat as it eats their eggs. But what we did not know was how they boldly challenge their predator after spotting it!

Fortunately for the gazelle, the leopard was spotted and it started to walk away dejectedly towards the bush across the plains. And then the drama unfolded. The little gazelle alerted its mates, who followed it at a distance, and then started charging towards the leopard. We thought that this foolishness will cost the Tommy dearly but the little fellow darted across the leopard and called out to the Topi herd, who came charging at her too. Then the impalas came running. In the midst of all this, a lone buffalo stopped grazing and started to walk menacingly at Pretty Girl.IMG_6267

The way the cat scampered away for cover is a sight I will never forget. A huge group of herbivores converging on their predator who slunk away for cover. What an unbelievable show of might. What an amazing show of solidarity. My hand raised an invisible salute. And the leader of the pack was the little Tommy who was about to be devoured. The anger, the arrogance and the challenge by that little fellow was awe inspiring.IMG_6232

And I could not help but think of the war-ravaged and beleagured people of the world, especially the Middle East. Could they have triumphed if they could show similar solidarity?