In Search of the Black Leopard of Laikipia

Herd of Beisa oryx at Suyian Soul

With three nights to search for the black leopard of Laikipia, spirits were high. Plus the eco-camp on Suyian Soul by the same name, was so enchanting, built of things found around – thatched grass roofs, mud walls and dry branches for pillars. With only six en-suite bandas in surreal surroundings, each overlooking the natural spring and ancient lava flow, it was a magnet for the wilder creatures – hence the trumpeting and roaring.

The veranda in each banda.

Day two. Anne Powys designer of the camp sends us out on an early morning game drive with the guides: Joseph Lekurtut the Samburu moran and Samson Itur the Turkana. Standing atop a rock insel with a 360 degree view of the world, Itur has his satellite tracker hoping to catch signal of the African wild dog that in Maa is called Suyian. They aren’t around but the plains are full of gazelles and antelopes, elephants coated red from the dust and the rest of the northerners. But no black leopard.

The morning light

After breakfast al-fresco under the thorn tree and a hike up the hill to see the water chute surrounded by forest and ancient granite boulders, Anne leads us on a plant walk because Laikipia’s water-stressed plant-life is incredible, adapted to the long, lean periods, like the acacias and the succulents. Anne, born and bred on the land, is also the author of many plant books including the latest ‘Wild Flowers of Kenya and Northern Tanzania’.

The walk reveals more than plants. It’s an ancient land where people buried their dead in rocky cairns and used cleavers and hand axes – so we’re talking ancient ancestors from the Stone Age.

The plan is for a night game drive for the black leopard but the skies open and the hunt is off.

Day three. “The black leopard walked past the kitchen last night when it was raining,” tells Itur pointing to the clear tracks of the leopard imprinted on the soft wet mud. Hopes are high.

A leisurely breakfast is followed by a hunt for the black cat. Of all the cats, the leopard is most elusive and a black leopard even more so. The game drive has us following a lone caracal famous for its long hind legs which helps it hunt for birds in mid-air, large herds of elephants and all the plains game. Lekurtut points to a hybrid of Grevy’s zebra and a common Burchell’s for both are found in Laikipia. “It is the male Grevy’s that mates with the female Burchell’s because the male is taller and bigger,” informs Itur. The hybrid is with the female, with stripes not so broad but with the father’s Mickey Mouse ears. The ears are an easy way to tell the species apart.

Leisurely breakfast under the acacia

It’s followed by breakfast on the plains. “It’s the gateway to haven,” quips Anne pointing north to the long range of the Kirisia Hills. The ancient Samburu revere the forested hills with Kisima the most sacred place. Twenty years ago, l spent a week-long on a camel safari in the hills. Anne is still doing hers on camel back.

Kirisia Hills from Suyian Soul

Breakfast is followed by a hike up the giant granite rocks that show the land below with pint-sized elephants and giraffes. Itur and Lekurtut lead us through the gaps to a cave which features ancient rock art of our ancestors who had now evolved from simple hunter-gatherers to artists. Anne thinks the art dates to 3,000 years ago.

Samson Itur the Turkana guide at the rock art cave on Suyian Soul

It’s the last day. Our only hope is the night game drive rain or no rain. It does rain and the powerful beam catches a spotted – not leopard but genets in the bush. They could pass for baby leopards. Eyes shine but they are of the plains game. Every dark shadow suddenly looks like a black leopard. The rain gets more intense. It’s time to return to camp.

Rare Reticulated giraffes at Suyian Soul Laikipia

Day four. Time to leave after another sumptuous breakfast with Mount Kenya’s peaks faint in the clouds and a walk in the plains. “Look, the black leopards trail,” Itur points to the paw prints on the tyre tracks. Our black leopard was in camp again soon after we finished the night game drive in search of it.

The sneaky cat!

The Black leopard’s paw print!

Laikipia’s Suyian Soul

Laikipia is vast stretching from Mt. Kenya to the escarpment overlooking the rift valleys lakes of Bogoria and Baringo. Suyian Soul is 350 km north of Nairobi on the road-less travelled, dotted with ancient granite kopjes. Driving time is up to 7 hours because of the speed limit, and the last 80kms on murrum road.

Granite rock hill at Suyian Soul Laikipia

Lots of activities like swimming in clear rivers, camel safaris, hiking in the plains or granite kopjes, game drives, yoga under the sacred Shephard’s tree (Boscia angustifolia). A herd of elephants walked past as we were chanting OM.

In the hills, a stream

The cuisine is ‘haute couture’ – delicious salads and desserts, home baked breads and organic meats and eggs plus camel’s milk for tea and coffee.

As l post this, email from Anne: ‘camel herders saw the black leopard yesterday evening.’

Black Leopard

Also known as melanistic leopards, the black colour is a result of melanism, which is a gene mutation that makes the coat look black during day time. But infrared imagery shows the leopards rosettes at night.

Elephant on road at Suyian Soul Laikipia Copyright Rupi Mangat

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