Ever since I was five, I have been enamored by large, predatory cats. I would read National Geographic, Zoo-books, and even page through wildlife encyclopedias to learn about their behavior and sketch copies of the images I found within.  Watching shows like Jonathan Scott’s “Big Cat Diary”, I would dream of becoming a big cat researcher, if such a thing exists, and no cat held my eyes to the screen like the leopard; reclusive and shy, (much like my younger self who often spent recess in the library drawing leopards and pumas) and ferocious when provoked, (unlike myself ever).

So after the first week in Naivasha and half a week in the Maasai Mara had yielded nothing but tracks, I was becoming slightly pessimistic. People spend years in the Mara and never see a leopard, so what hope did we have on this one week jaunt that was primarily focused on raptors.

One morning, we drove down the bumpy road that follows the Olare River that adds its volume to the Mara river. Though our instructors specialize in the study of raptors and vultures, the unsaid objective of the morning was to find a leopard.

During our first few days on the national reserve, we had seen almost every large mammal that the Mara was home to, excluding the rare, endangered rhino. Lions, hyenas, cheetahs, buffalo and elephants all struck us with the awe that comes from seeing characters once confined to the pages of books, and the screens of TV and movies, standing in full size. And yet, once observed, they all became somehow ordinary in comparison to the leopard; intangible and still prowling the forests of our imaginations.

That said, by the time our last safari ended, we had become superstitious and refused to speak the name of that which had eluded us for the entire trip. Each time we spoke of our intentions to find a leopard, we would stumble across yet another cheetah or lion and, as ridiculous as it might seem, I would return to base camp feeling disappointed.

The word “leopard” was thus replaced by the word “sheep” and spawned such ridiculous and hopeful phrases as, “That looks like a sheep tree if I ever saw one!” or the ever optimistic, “this here’s sheep country. I can feel it.” So when we saw another jeep parked in front of a dense thicket of Balanites and Acacia, we all assumed that the object being gawked at was just another buffalo or lion. When we pulled up alongside the vehicle and our drivers exchanged some Kiswahili, however, my instructor Shiv, with whom I had running bet on concerning who would be the one to spot the first leopard, smiled and said, “Well Roger, it looks like we both lose”. My eyes widened and turned to the brush in front of the other van.

The leopard was a small one; the son of an old female named Olive who was well known to those who made a living in the area. It was lounging in the shade of a small acacia tree, his rosettes of spots and white-tan coloration blending in almost perfectly in the tall red oat grass.

Dropped jaws and gasps quickly transitioned into eyes glued to cameras that clicked and beeped until we appeared and sounded like some large insect, clicking like a cricket and flashing like a lightning bug in midday.

St Lawrence students (including me on far left) drop our jaws on seeing the leopard hunt a mongoose. Photo by Munir Virani

Close by, a small group of mongoose foraged in the dirt and carelessly edged closer to the dozing cat hidden in the bushes. Then, either from the sound or smell of the carefree viverrids, the gorgeous cat arose into the morning light and stalked with rolling shoulders into the shady cover of a young Croton. Once the group of mongooses skittered close enough, the leopard, as we now felt comfortable enough to call it, laid back its ears, crouched as only a predator can, and launched itself toward its unsuspecting prey. At first, the chaos was slightly comical; the mongooses squealed and split in every different direction while the young cat was left confused at which one to go for. But after narrowly missing the first lucky mongoose, the leopard dove into the obscurity of brush and leaves after a less fortunate individual that was finally slain on the other side of the thicket. We were speechless at our luck. Not only had we seen a leopard on our first trip to Kenya, we had just witnessed a successful hunt, (albeit on a slightly less than meaty prey item), but successful nonetheless. After this drama unfolded, everyone seemed to have a content look about them and we gladly settled in to our seats for another ride back to camp for lunch while the leopard enjoyed his own, unique meal.

An unexpected wake-up call at 4:30 in the morning consisted of hyenas howling close to our tents. Although earlier than expected, it was very cool to hear their howls. It made me realize just how close to the wilderness our camp (Ilkeliani Camp) was. Our actual day started off with the usual tea and coffee before heading out in the safari vehicles. On our way to the Mara, we were stopped by a KWS officer telling us we needed to pay at the Talek gate even though we were driving through to get to Olare Orok Conservancy. Once the payments were taken care of, we drove back through Talek towards our original destination. After passing over the virtually dried up Talek River, we drove by the Talek Country Club with an appearance quite opposite of the usual country clubs I am used to seeing. Within less than a couple of minutes we were soon back onto Masai Mara land.

The cool morning air felt refreshing as we all stood on the seats in Kifaru, (our safari vehicle’s name, the other is Dik Dik) looking for different species and snapping photos of the wildlife. We saw our first white bellied bustard today, or as Munir called them, “falcon food.” As the day started to warm up, we spotted many familiar animals such as the mongoose, zebra, impala, topi, warthog, Thompson’s gazelle, olive baboon, helmeted guinea fowl, ostrich, and many more. We spotted a yellow-throated longclaw close to our car, took some good photos.

Yellow throated longclaw. photo credit: Tyler Pidgeon

While passing though a large heard of Cape buffalo, we saw a black-chested snake eagle with a snake in its mouth. The eagle ended up eating the snake while hovering in mid-air! Munir said that if the snake eagle regurgitated its meal back at the nest that the snake could still be alive (pretty gross fact of the day). Not too far up the road we spotted the other group’s car and a very ecstatic Roger pointing to the bushes. It was here where we saw our first leopard! This leopard appeared to be a son of Olive, a well known leopard along the Talek River. It was pretty amazing and shocking to see such a big cat so close yet not too disturbed by the vehicles parked in front of its view. As we were taking photos of the leopard, we noticed a group of mongoose that were wandering closer and closer to our vehicles, and apparently the leopard noticed too.

photo credit: Tyler Pidgeon

The leopard stalking its prey. photo credit: Tyler Pidgeon

He started stalking the group, creeping silently closer and staying hidden among the shrubs. As the leopard sprang from the bushes, the mongooses went ballistic, emitting a blood curdling death wail. It seemed as though all of them were yelling “PREDATOR!!” as they scampered away. The leopard quickly chased a single victim into another set of bushes and successfully completed its hunt. Although none of us saw the actual take down of the unfortunate mongoose, we were all extremely excited to have just witnessed our first kill, especially since it was a treat to see a leopard in the first place. We were also surprised to learn that this was also Munir and Shiv’s first witnessed kill as well.

After the leopard excitement and the arrival of more safari tour vehicles, we decided to move on. Continuing on route to Olare Orok, we came across another male lion. This lion was chilling out in the shade, but soon got up and walked literally less than a few meters from our car! With a morning full of great experiences, we made our way to Olare Orok Conservancy to learn about a different kind of wildlife conservation.

photo credit: Tyler Pidgeon

Today, we woke up to a rather large surprise right outside of Matira Bush Camp. It was going to be a usual sunrise on the Mara when we all piled into our respective vehicles at 6:15 but it changed right outside of the bush camp gate. As the jackals barked in a cluster of bushes we knew something was up. A hyena stumbled out of the bush as we pulled up to find a dead elephant! The carcass was fresh and looked promising for our scientific species identification. We left the carcass to allow for other creatures to find and scavenge the fresh elephant. On our morning adventure we came upon a herd of elephants, one was about to take down an entire tree!

Photo Credit- Liz Grogan

Breakfast was a delicious meal underneath one of the finest fig trees around. While there we were able to get a close up look an anthill. Our newly filled stomachs then found themselves back on the hunt for wildlife and the elusive leopard.

Photo Credit- Liz Grogan

Though we never found that leopard we did happen upon a gigantic herd of topi and a cheetah!

Photo Credit- Liz Grogan

After spotting the only true spotted big cat we happened to look in the sky and see 20 plus vultures forming a kettle above our heads. With 20 vultures up in the sky we decided to check out the carcass again and set up just meters away from the elephant. Much to our chagrin the vultures did not attack the carcass.

Photo Credit- Liz Grogan

Alas 11 o’clock struck and after a wonderful 2 nights at Matira Bush Camp with Anthony and Jonathan (our new friends the owner and head man)  we had to pack up our things and move on.

Photo Credit- Liz Grogan