Every photographer has a ‘bogey critter’ - the one they are always unlucky with. Mine has been the leopard - or chewi in Swahili. I’ve near-missed them all over Africa, India and Sri Lanka more times than I can count, and have had such bad luck my nickname for a while here in camp was Miss Mufa - it’s an Argentine phrase for cursed luck! Last year my curse seemed to have lifted, with leopard sightings in Botswana and Rajasthan, but on this trip leopards had been spotted every day for a month...until the day I arrived...then a week with no sign...I was beginning to think my bad luck had returned.
I know I’m not alone - the leopard is probably the most elusive animal in the Mara and it’s very common for visitors to leave only having heard rumours of one in the area.
But these guides are the best, and they wouldn’t give up on finding me a leopard. Through spending time with them I’ve learned that tracking down this cat is an art involving multiple senses.
So I thought I’d share a few tips from the wonderful Serian guides on how to track our most challenging and beautiful cat.
Use your ears:
Listen for warning calls - guinea fowl, francolin and monkeys in particular go crazy when there’s a leopard around.
Out on the plains you can get many clues from the grazers too. Topi, impala, warthog, zebra and Thompson’s gazelle will all snort a warning when there is a big cat around.
A leopard’s own call is very distinctive: think a cross between a cough and a bandsaw and you’re getting there.
Use your nose
Catching a whiff of a carcass can sometimes lead to spotting a leopard with a kill.
Use your eyes
Also keep an eye on where the topi, Thompson’s gazelle’, zebra, warthog and impala are looking - when they all stare fixedly in one direction you can bet your bottom dollar there is danger crouching there.
Drongos and rollers may also be a giveaway as they will divebomb a leopard who encroaches on their territory, giving his location away to potential prey.
Sometimes after rain a very fresh footprint can give a clue which way a leopard is on the move.
In the trees look for huge hammerkopf nests - they make a perfect shady mattress for a hot weary leopard to rest up on during the heat of the day.
Even a large lump amongst the branches and foliage, that doesn’t look quite right from a distance, can be a leopard -maybe even with a kill it has dragged up there. And of course the classic clue is an elegant tail hanging down from a tree.
Talking of tails, just the white tip twitching can be the only clue that a cat is hidden deep in a bush. Designed for cubs to follow, the bright white tip is also very handy for tracking her as dusk falls and she’s on the move hunting.
Even the best, most experienced guides, spotters and trackers need a little luck along the way and a lot of patience. Guides William and John searched for 5 hours to find this gorgeous young female leopard, and driver Bogela stayed out with me for another 7 hours after that, waiting to get the shots and helping me write this, with only leftovers from breakfast to eat all day! A heartfelt thank you to them for helping me out of my bad luck phase - just a few days later head guide Onyango stayed with me all day as two leopards mated in the aptly named Leopard Gorge of Mara North Conservancy....I’m Miss Mufa no more!!!
This blog was originally written during my second tenure as Photographer In Residence at Alex Walker's Serian safari camps, Kenya, during January/February 2018.