Serengeti National Park Stories and Tips

Big Cat Diary: An Encounter with the Elusive Leopard

One lioness is already alert Photo, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

The Serengeti was about big cats.

If Ngorongoro was about elephants, Lake Manyara about birdlife, the Masai Mara about wildebeest – then the Serengeti plains has to be about lions.

But they are not the only big cats found out on the plains. When the herds are up in the Mara then all predators head for the wooded watered Seronera area where the game is all year around. Many big cats have carved out territories in this area and prides of thirty lions have been reported. But on our first morning in the Serengeti we encountered two of the other big cats that frequent the plains.

While my travelling companion did an early morning balloon flight over the Serengeti I got an extra game drive. My guide was eager to get going because a fellow guide had told him about a special predator at the start of the grasslands. We sped off and after about half an hour entered a part of Seronera that has waist high with tall grass. While scanning this tall grass with binoculars my eyeline met with the sight of two Cheetahs. The pair looked slender and elegant through a pair of binoculars. Unfortunately I could not get any photos as they were too far away and the Serengeti Parks service does not allow off-road driving.

But for a few minutes I sat and watched these gorgeous animals. They looked like two males - probably brothers. Life is quite hard in the Cheetah world because the sexes dont mix except to mate. The male cheetahs literally bully the females cheetahs until she comes into oestrus and she will bring the cubs up on her own. The males form bonds with their brothers and stay with them for life. They are also picked on by other predators. Their build is so slender they are no match for lions or hyenas who steal their kills. Our pair of cheetahs were out in the open but moving away into the open grassland. That is where they find their prey such as Thomsons gazelle, wildebeest and Impala. Anything bigger such as buffalo or zebra is impossible due to their slight build.

About mid-day we moved into an area blackened from recent fire. The ground was mainly sand, and the trees that had survived were withered and dead. Our guide said we were in the middle of big cat territory here and their population is so dense that when the fire occured last year a lion fleeing the blaze was attacked by another pride when fleeing to safety. But we had been tipped off about a big cat and when we got there we wern’t alone as it was was surrounded by six safari vehicles. We scanned the arid scrub and gnarled trees with binoculars. There, 50ft away, in the branches of a decrepit tree was a mass of feline limbs with one paw draped over the branch....a leopard.

The most feared predator in Africa was finally in view (although too far away for photos). I could just about see the lolling head, but with binoculars I could see the famous spots on the yellow coat – and the chest move up and down denoting sleep. The cat did not move during the heat of the day and was sleeping off a night of hunting. There is a reason these are so feared . For a start it is far more powerful then a cheetah – able to bring down a zebra. Its an ambush predator relying on stalking its prey and bringing it down at a rush. For its size and weight it is the most efficient killer in Africa and kills by biting the skull or the neck. But because it is so powerful it can drag prey up trees to hide it from prowling lions or hyenas.

They are the holy grail of game viewing and not everyone gets to see one. The leopard was the last of the ‘Big Five’ I wanted to see and we stayed in the vicinity for forty minutes in case it stirred into life while tucking into our packed lunches. I think our guide was hoping it would jump from the tree and stride over to where it was in full view. But, no, to a leopard who had been up all night – sleep was more important.

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