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The Leopard’s Tale

By Jonathan and Angela Scott

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One morning, in July 1978, as I sat in my vehicle photographing the Marsh Lions, I noticed another car flashing its headlights, a sure sign that the driver was either stuck or had seen something special and wanted to share it with me. It turned out to be Joseph and my heart missed a beat as he told me that a leopard had been sighted with two young cubs in the Leopard Gorge area. He smiled hugely, enjoying my delight at his good news. Apparently the female was very shy and almost impossible to observe, fleeing at the first sight or sound of a vehicle. But her cubs were bolder, sometimes appearing at the entrance to one of the many caves situated among the rocks in the Gorge.

Day after day I searched the area, scanning each tree and rocky outcrop with my binoculars until, late one evening, I found them. As I approached a large eleaodendron tree on the south side of the Gorge, I glimpsed a slight movement among the leaves. Before I could stop the vehicle a dark spotted shape dropped from the branches and slunk away to the rocky lip of Leopard Gorge.

It was the female at last. My heart pounded wildly. I inched the vehicle forward, hoping to catch a further glimpse of her, but she had gone. As I neared the tree I noticed the carcass of a six-month-old wildebeest calf sprawled in the grass. There, crouched over it, wide-eyed and bloody-faced, were the leopard’s two cubs.

I sat motionless, spellbound at my first sight of the tiny leopards. For a long moment we stared at each other until I foolishly tried to reach for my camera. Careful as my movements had been, they were nevertheless too sudden for the wary cubs, who streaked across the open ground to the safety of the rocks.

I waited for a few minutes before starting the car and then drove down into the Gorge itself. Though I searched the area carefully I could find no further trace of mother or cubs. They had vanished, yet I knew they were close by. With so many cool, shady caves to hide themselves in, the leopards would not have travelled far.

During the next year I had reports from drivers and friends of the cubs’ whereabouts, though I only saw them myself on a handful of occasions. Their mother remained a mystery animal, shy and intolerant of vehicles. I was told that the cubs were a male and a female, though I never got to know the young male and I received no further reports of his whereabouts once he was eighteen months old.

The female cub, or Chui, as the leopard is known in Swahili, grew into a magnificent animal. Sometimes months would pass during which I would see nothing of her. Then, as if by magic, she would suddenly reappear from her secret world: treed by the Marsh Lions along the lower reaches of Leopard Lugga, chased from her kill by hyenas of the Ridge Clan or just quietly resting on some comfortable rocky ledge.

Once Chui had proved herself capable of killing sufficient prey for her own needs, contact with her mother virtually ceased. The desire to feed by herself and lead a solitary existence seemed to outweigh any further benefits that a life with her mother might provide. When the two separated, towards the end of 1979, Chui was about eighteen months old. She had retained Leopard Gorge and its surrounds within her own home range, thereby overlapping the area used by her mother.

As Christmas 1980 approached Joseph once more brought good news. A leopard with two very small cubs had been seen at the entrance to a cave situated high up among an enormous rocky outcrop at the east end of Leopard Gorge. It was Chui, now almost three years old and accompanied by her first litter. Joseph and I slunk furtively around the vicinity of the Gorge, trying to avoid precipitating a torrent of vehicles from the other camps. News of leopards invariably spreads like wildfire in the Mara and would quickly have turned the area into a mad house, ensuring Chui’s early departure with her cubs.

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