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AG Maasai Mara Kenya

In search of leopards in the land of elephants

Once described as a land “teeming with buffalos and rhinos”, today Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve is arguably the land of the elephant. While the rhinos may be long gone, the 104km² reserve is home to a multitude of species, which are drawn to it by the mighty Ewaso Nyiro River — the lifeline of northern Kenya.

elephant-herd-samburu

The colours fade. The world turns to dust. I shield my eyes against the glare.

The contrast is startling. Gone are the lush greens and earthy browns found on the slopes of Mt. Kenya, only to be replaced with the dusty grey expanse that marks the start of Kenya’s famed Northern Frontier.

elephant-road-sign

I’m heading for Samburu National Reserve, which lies just  a mere 118km from Nanyuki. While few would consider it a journey  worth taking ,  I find the transformation to be of note. Not just the landscape, but the people are distinctly different too. As the road travels further north, the ethnicity of the inhabitants indicates that Kenya shares a border with Somalia somewhere beyond the horizon.

I stop frequently along the road to gaze at the barren expanse dotted with the odd shrub and tree before me. The wind kicks up the dust. The silence is beautiful. But no more than a minute later people start emerging from the desolate landscape. I cannot understand where they come from as there is  no indication of any habitation nearby. The question they have is always the same — “Do you have any food? Give me some food.”

Once I arrive at the reserve, the gate formalities are straightforward. There’s no hassle or long wait. I get the impression that not many a visitor frequents these parts. I pay for my entrance, camping and vehicle fees, then I set forth into the reserve. Before entering I try to get directions for every leopard spotted in the last week — the animal I’m most eager to spot — but I get a rather vague reply of “check the hills ,  they like those places”. Samburu is one giant hill of a place. But no worries, off I go.

entrance-to-samburu

And while I scrutinise the landscape for any sort of feline specimen, I notice that Samburu is truly the land of our generously proportioned four-footed friends  – the pachyderm (NB. The term pachyderm actually refers to all large, thick-skinned mammals i.e. rhinos, hippos and, of course, elephants).

landscape-samburu

The reserve is teeming with elephants. You can barely go around a bend in the river without tripping over a trunk, but I wasn’t complaining! The elephants are calm and completely unperturbed by vehicles and come right up. It’s a good sign  –  the elephants feel safe. Samburu is doing something right.

baby-elephant-samburu samburu-elephant-herd

I headed off in search of my campsite for the night and found a lovely secluded stretch of river bank that had my name written all over it. After avoiding stepping on the 6-foot crocodile in the bush next to me while I was having an Earnest Hemingway moment, I wisely moved my tent up a small inclination away from the river.

camping-samburu

This incident got my appetite going and soon I started happily watching two perfect yokes frying in my little saucepan, which I then immediately neglected in favour of getting a shot of the croc that had interrupted my moment only a few minutes earlier.

crocodile-samburu

This is where everything went wrong. Never abandon your yoke. Ever. Before I had even raised my camera to my eye, I heard the tell-tale sound of theft. I turned and saw not one, but two vervet monkeys making a run for it with my loaf of seeded bread. I gave chase  –  the obscenities escaping my mouth came naturally, alongside some new combos that surprised me. Halfway through my pursuit the culprits dropped the bread and you could see the indecision spread over their faces – retrieve the bread or run? I pushed the advantage and rescued my bread from the ground, shaking off the sand with delight. Small victories. The crocodile must have been in on it.

monkey-samburu

Needless to say my yokes were overdone by the time we had resolved our little dispute. Having seen the behaviour of the resident vervets, I paid the camp caretaker to watch my belongings as I headed back out into the bush to look for more accommodating wildlife.

And I found plenty of it from Grevy’s zebras, of which a recent citizen science census estimates there to be 2,350 in Kenya, to gerenuks and the spectacular tawny eagles. Then there were some more elephants, of course.

gerenuk-samburu eagle-samburu

As the sun dipped behind the surrounding hills I came across two lionesses who ignored me and instead fixed their hungry gaze on the herd of zebra and oryx nearby. It didn’t take a mind-reader to know what either of the two parties were thinking.

lion-samburu

After a night’s sleep at my campsite, I was on the move again by the time the sun crested the horizon the next morning  –  determined to find that elusive leopard. Instead I ran into the two lionesses from the evening before on a secluded bend in the river. They casually walked past my window giving me a not-so-casual stare and then draped themselves across the road to enjoy the breathtaking view over the Ewaso Nyiro. I left them to it.

As luck would have it I was to have my encounter with the leopard. Six cars parked around a single bush were indication enough that there was something special hidden in the bushes. I hung back – I would like to say out of respect for the animal, but the number of cars in front of me made the decision for me.

leopard-samburu

The leopard refused to show its spots and, as everyone slowly lost interest and drifted away in search of other game, I was left alone staring at a bush. The leopard decided hide-and-seek time was over and, as it made its getaway, I snapped a picture in which we all but locked eyes. Then it was gone. I had seen my leopard  –  I headed for the reserve’s exit and retraced my route back up onto the Laikipia Plateau and slopes of Mount Kenya. I had seen my leopard.

Maurice Schutgens

Born in the Netherlands but raised at the end of a tarmac road in a remote Ugandan village, Maurice was always going to end up living in Africa. After a brief stint in Europe he returned to this great continent to pursue a Master's in Conservation Biology at the University of Cape Town, which was followed by several years of traipsing across the globe in search of adventure and stunning wild places. For the last few years Maurice has been based in Kenya and is working towards securing a future for African elephants and the landscapes on which they depend. He is a passionate conservationist, amateur explorer and his camera is always with him! You can folllow more of his adventures on Facebook and on his website.

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