Every photographer has a ‘bogey critter’ – the one they are always unlucky with. Mine has been the leopard – or chui 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 came a week with no sign and 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 the guides here at Serian are the best, and they wouldn’t give up on finding me a leopard. Through spending time with them, admiring their skill and knowledge, 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 Serian guides on how to track our most challenging and beautiful cat.
Use Your Ears:
Listen for warning calls – guinea fowl 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.
Hyenas will often call in reinforcements when a leopard has made a kill, to try and steal it, and the leopard’s own call is very distinctive: think a cross between a cough and a rusty old saw 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.
Remember to look up too. 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 nondescript lump amongst the branches and foliage can turn out to 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.
Hyena converging on one location from all around, or gathered round the base of a tree, can be a giveaway too – if they can’t get the kill away from a leopard on the ground they will often wait for scraps to fall from the branches.
Even the best, most experienced guides, spotters and trackers need a little luck along the way and a lot of patience. Today guides William and John searched for 5 hours to find this gorgeous young female leopard, and driver Bajila stayed out with me for another 71/2 after that, waiting to get the shots and helping me write this, in the sweltering afternoon heat and with only leftovers from breakfast to eat all day! A heartfelt thank you to them all for helping me out of my bad luck phase – I’m Miss Mufa no more!!!
All content © Trai Anfield
Photographer In Residence, Serian Camps Kenya, 2018