Volunteer Melanie and her fellow volunteers broke all the 'rules and guidelines' of a first game drive mere hours into their volunteer experience with the Masai Mara Big Cat, Wildlife Research and Conservation project by seeing both lion and leopard on their very first outing into the reserve. Read on to hear about the data collection they are helping with, and the sights they witnessed! The Data Collection Sheet was relatively simple to fill out, even for the first time: Your name: Melanie Dittmer Date: 2nd June, 2014 Time: 6:03 PM GPS: S 1.37426 E 35.39087 Location: Olare Sampu Species: Lion
I circled “next to bush” and “sleeping and resting” to describe location and behavior, and marked “4” in the column for “Adult Males”. I could hardly believe our luck! The last time I went on a safari, the only cats we saw were a pride of lions walking from bush to bush so far away you could barely distinguish them from a gazelle. (Or at least, I could barely distinguish them from a gazelle.) Now, here I was, in the Maasai Mara, not five meters away from Simba himself. It’s a dream come true! The king of the beasts was taking a catnap with his relatives, not concerned in the least about the seven humans in a big vehicle admiring him from nearby. These particular lions had not been seen in the conservancy in over eight months, so the sighting was a big deal. “We’ll stay with these guys until sundown,” Stratton informed us brand-new volunteers. “There’s no better way to spend an evening than with four lions!” Little did he know, he was wrong on both accounts. We had been parked watching the lions, taking pictures, and chatting casually for not even thirty minutes when all of a sudden Michael, our driver and volunteer coordinator, perked up his ears. “I hear a leopard,” he muttered to Stratton, who immediately became alert.
On a whim, we left the lions and drove back into the bush, the volunteers in the back seat looking at each other in bewilderment. We were hearing more sounds than we could count, not one of which seemed to us to resemble a leopard. In addition, all of us knew very well that leopards are not easy cats to find. They’re smaller than lions, usually travel alone, and have excellent camouflage. Despite the odds of the search, however, we followed Michael’s ears. His ears led us around a different road, where Stratton’s ears picked up the sound of baboons calling a warning. We trailed the monkeys instead, hoping against hope that we would see the white flash of a tail or a silhouette of a cat slinking through the brush. And then all of a sudden, there she was. She was just sitting up at the edge of the bushes, watching us. Right there, clear as day, a leopard. She was, Michael and Stratton guessed, a leopard that they had not seen before in the conservancy, making the sighting even more special. “You’re not supposed to see a leopard on your first day,” Lincoln would tell us later, “so you’re breaking all the rules!” We thoroughly enjoyed being rebels for the evening.
We followed her for nearly an hour before losing her in the bushes. The light was fading fast, so good pictures were few, but our eyes could focus just fine. She was beautiful, rather small, but with perfect rosettes characteristic of leopards. She was practically posing for us, slowly pacing in front of the car, or lying down and rolling around playfully, quite comfortable even with us so near. She was in heat, coughing every so often, a rare sight for all of us. We enjoyed the pleasure of her company for as long as we could before heading home. The Southern Cross twinkled brightly over the acacia trees as we rode happily back to camp, and I couldn’t help but think this was only the beginning of our great adventure. This might be the only time we see a leopard like this, and I know none of us will ever forget it. Are you passionate about wildlife and big cats? Why not join our research volunteers in the Masai Mara, or elsewhere in Africa?