Leopard!

Stephen Quinn
December 10, 2010 share
Artists for Conservation

Dec 6th - Today we began yet another grand adventure! Guy had arranged for us to stay in a small cabin way up in the mountains of the Aberdares National Park called "Rhino Retreat". It is a small outpost built by the Kenyan army in the 1990s. The cabin was created for the use of a gallant group called "Rhino Ark" that formed to make a last ditch effort to save the remaining Black Rhinos in this giant national park. Murray's Dad was a founder of the group and Guy's Dads soon joined in the effort. "Rhino Retreat" was a favorite hide away in the mountains for the Combes family, who were always active in "Rhino Ark'. Jeff and I felt priviledged to be included as honorary family members and be guests as such a special place.

 "Rhino Ark" raised the funds to encircle the entire Aberdares National Park with a 10-foot high electric fence to keep the poachers out. There are now 8 to 12 Black Rhinos left in the Aberdares and this is a giant national park. How they monitor and assure their protect, I do not know, but the electric fence encircling the park is a great help in keeping the rhinos in and the poachers out.

As we entered the park through the wired fence, the habitat immediately changed to a lush verdant green forest. We immediately encountered wildlife. Sykes or Blue Monkeys in the trees. Common and Black-fronted Duikers dashed across the mud-rutted vehicle path. We drove higher up on the mountains and crossed a unique high altitude mooreland that to the uninformed looked like rolling hills of heather, gorse and sedges. Once on the other side and descending we immediately saw game. Cape Buffalo were everywhere and warthogs with little hoglets in tow as well. We began to see many Bushbuck but the best was yet to come. As we rounded a bend in the road, Jeff asked "What's that up ahead" and both Guy and Murray shouted in unison - "Leopard!!!!!". Ahead on the road a big leopard was slowly walking ahead of us in the same direction. As we watched, the leopard would stop periodically sniff at the roadside grasses, scratch the soil with it's hind legs and lift it's tai and spray the soil and nearby bushes with scent, just like an alley tom cat. He was marking his territory and seemed fully engrossed in his activity, so much so, that as we rolled closer, he ignored us. Both Jeff and I jumped up on the roof of the landcruiser - Jeff with his camera and I with my sketchbook. The leopard entered some heavy vegetation up ahead on the right side of the trail and disappeared. We thought we had lost him. But as Murray rolled us closer and we came around the bend, there he was reclining on a glassy knoll at the trail side no more than a FEW YARDS from mid-beam of the vehicle. It was actually a bit alarming that we were so close to the animal and totally exposed as we were on the top of the landcruiser but, what the hell, what a chance to sketch! Murray whispered up from the driver seat that we should be ready to jumped back inside if the big cat moved towards us. The big cat looked up at us with cool yellow green eyes and, being as close as we were, I thought there was no way we could ever escape if he really decided to come after us. Akeley was attacked by a leopard that he had wounded while collecting specimens for the Chicago Field Museum in the late 1800's. Seeing this cat so close it made me wonder how he possible could have survived. This leopard had massive big neck muscles and powerful shoulders and upper forelegs.  We were so close I could look directly into its eyes. For a moment, it looked directly into mine and I felt a deep primal heart throb in my chest. I had the strangest feeling when it looked directly into my eyes. I stared back and, watching it's pupils, got ready to move if I saw them enlarge like a house cat readying to pounce on a mouse. But it turned its regal head in dignified disinterest, constantly smelling and sampling the air, as though aware of a world of scent odors we could not begin to imagine. We were so close I could see that it had many engorged ticks behind it ears and on the sides of its upper neck. I think these are probably difficult areas for the poor fellow to clean so the pests could get firmly attached and were difficult for him to dislodge. He sat long enough for me to make one ten-minute sketch and, then, as we followed him, a few more quick gesture drawings. The one longer sketch was while he was grooming. After staying for quite a while, we decided to leave him in peace. Guy and Murray told us it was the first time they had ever left a leopard, rather than having it disappear on it's own, and the sighting was remarkable for its close proximity and duration. The only other leopard I had ever seen was a brief view in Samburu, up in a tree, from across a river and I was ecstatic. This was INCREDIBLE!

When we finally arrived up at "Rhino Retreat" it was getting dark. We had dinner on the patio/veranda which is at ground level and only about 50 feet from a waterhole in the "back yard". There was a herd of magnificent Cape Buffalo at the waterhole nearby while we dined. The lights directed at them keeps them a bay and out at the water and they are no danger - though they are very close. I told Guy and Murray that, if they ever visit me in New Jersey, we can sit on the back deck and watch chickadees and titmice come into my bird feeder but Cape Buffalo might be a hard act to follow.

 

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