A Volunteer Shares his Once-in-a-Lifetime Big Cat Experience!

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Today’s Big Cat Monitoring Drive started not only with glorious sunshine but with fantastic news… Brian had received a call from the incredibly hard working rangers that a leopard had been spotted with a kill up a tree. The first leopard of the season for me! The adrenaline started pumping. I ran around camp collecting my camera gear and double checking all my batteries and SD cards. I wasn’t going to miss this chance!

Driving to the sighting I suddenly had the overwhelming feeling that maybe there would be other vehicles? How many? I’ve heard horror stories of vehicles surrounding the tree a leopard had been in and all the camps being fined. However, this year has been exceptional in many ways.

Vehicle driving through the Kenyan African bus, with big cat wildlife research volunteers on board.

As we got close to the area the leopard had been spotted I very quickly realised we had been to this exact location almost every other day. How is this possible? Had she been here every time and we had just driven past her? Brian quickly answered my suspicions “Most likely, yes”.

Standing about ten meters high in a tree there she was. Incredible. But where was everyone? Don’t get me wrong I’m not complaining that it was only us with a gorgeous leopard. It was just different.

Every so often she would have to rearrange the kill as it slowly started to fall from the tree. As she did so she would pause for a minute and soft call into to vast bushes. Further down in the valley, resting in the enormous trees reaching out over the river bed, were Vervet monkeys that were alarm calling relentlessly. We couldn’t see them, but Brian was sure that her cub must have been hidden away in the bushes. He knew that her name was Spot and she had a cub under the age of one.

One hour passed.

Having eaten all but the skin of the impala she had killed, she made her way down the tree. Which lens shall I use? I’ve got a split second to make this decision if I’m going to get the shot I want. All set. Staring down the barrel, I hold my breath steading my arms like a sniper eyeing up a target. All the noises around me drowned out by the intense focus. Prrrttttt.

Did I get It? No time to check as she was now walking right towards us. Not frightened. Not alarmed. Not a worry in the world. Looking into the eyes of one of the most revered animals in the world is like no experience you can have anywhere else in the world. I would love to describe it to you but truly hope that you all are able to experience it one day for yourselves. Walking right past us and down into the river bed she was off for a drink. Thirsty work.

She popped back up after a couple of minutes and sat no more than five meters from us and began grooming herself. This was now the perfect opportunity to get the Identification photos we needed to help the Mara Predator Project out. Not quite head, shoulders, knees and toes but close enough. Ears, whiskers, nose and side profiles doesn’t have the same ring to it.

One hour passed.

photography of leopard in Africa forest

I looked to Brian who had popped his ears just outside the window. “What is it”? I asked. He had picked up distant lion calls. So had the leopard. Too far off to worry her too much. Lions and leopards now that would be something! Leopard up the tree, lion looking up at her, who am I kidding, too good to be true.

Crash.

And in the blink of an eye the leopard has darted up the tree as a lioness sprints out the bushes growling and teeth showing. What has just happened? I sat there in awe. Had what I thought actually just happened in front of me? I knew all too well however that it’s never that easy.

Ever present around such illustrious hunters, scavengers. A little hyena keeping their distance watched the chase unfold. Thankfully our leopard escaped unharmed.

“We should try identify this lioness before it gets too dark” Brian says. Couldn’t agree more. She has given up on the leopard and now wandered off into the darkening abyss. Catching up was easier than we had anticipated as the unmistakable large black mass and loud grunting of a buffalo echoed out through the evening sky. After bullying the leopard up the tree, the ever-present karma had found its way into the lionesses life. She was being chased by a large buffalo. Diving down into the same riverbed she had just chased the leopard into, she made a narrow escape.

Resorting to red light, as all natural light had gone from the sky, it suddenly became very evident where all those lion roars Brian had heard earlier had come from. Eyes reflecting back at us from everywhere. We were now sitting in the middle of the Sampu Enkare Breakaway pride.

Had this really all happened in one night? The adrenaline I had felt at the start of the game drive had doubled if not tripled by the time we arrived back at camp. Beaming from ear to ear we sat around the dinner table and shared our experience with the others in camp.

This is a very special place and to experience something like that makes the work we do even more fulfilling. Protecting these animals to live as they should so that we may be the lucky ones and be allowed to witness nature at its finest.

Words, images and video by Tom Roper, volunteer at our Big Cat Wildlife Research and Conservation Project in Kenya.

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