Week Twelve: Big Game

The ants were on the move. I pulled my head back below the open roof and called to the driver, “Hey…. wait…. Dickson, can you stop here?” Our guide dutifully brought the modified Land Rover to a shuddering halt, stopping just a few feet away from a ribbon of safari ants two inches wide that rippled across the rutted jeep trail. I thought my fellow photographers might appreciate the chance to see the ants through the open windows, but I was a little surprised when Dickson suggested we step outside the vehicle to have a closer look. Normally, visitors to the Masai Mara are conditioned to put a healthy amount of metal, glass, or electric fencing between themselves and the wilds of Africa.

I grabbed my camera and was almost out the door when Dickson, in an urgent, tight voice suddenly hissed, “Leopard hunting!” I noticed that our guide did not just say “leopard”… he said “leopard hunting” - a phrase that is several degrees more spine-chilling if you’re not expecting it. Out of the corner of his eye, Dickson had spotted a leopard within the frame of the side-view mirror, and the lethal-looking feline had been slinking just behind our vehicle. Within seconds, three photographers popped their heads out the top of our vehicle like prairie dogs, and the rapid clicking of shutters followed the leopard’s descent into a narrow gully. We drove to a different vantage point and watched the creature stride purposefully behind a curtain of exposed roots before it turned a corner and disappeared.

Chasing big game on the northern Serengeti plains brings on a rush of adrenaline, making it difficult to want to leave rare animals alone, especially when one is in pursuit of the perfect picture. Some creatures are so used to tourists that they won’t even stir in their sleep when a vehicle approaches, but leopards are notoriously shy, and this cat was no exception. We lost track of the leopard in the gully and had to radio out for help in relocating it. Soon, the ravine was surrounded on all sides by vehicles whose passengers were all hoping to catch a glimpse of the rare animal. Normally, our safari group spreads itself out across the vast wildlife preserve, but this was the last morning game drive, and the rules had been relaxed. Our own vehicle saw the cat only briefly after the masses arrived… spots of brown and black upon ghostly white fur, drifting through the grasses… brief flashes of a nervous animal.

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