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On the hunt trail of a beautiful leopard - Caroline Alamy

I have been twice in Maasai Mara Reserve in Kenya, staying both times at Melting Pot Safari, a camp with guides trained for photographers. The daily safari routine is quite straight forward: you wake up before sunrise, grab a quick snack, get in the car and drive up to the ridgeline to capture the sunrise. Then you spend the morning driving around, observing wildlife and you come back to the camp at lunch time. Which is also when the sun is the hardest and most animals are sleeping. You have another game-drive later in the afternoon until sunset.
Usually, you get the chance to have one full-day game drive during your stay: you leave the camp early morning and come back only at the end of the day. It is quite tiring for the driver but it enables you to go a bit further.

Sunrise from the ridgeline, always a good motivation to wake up early
On August 14, we got our so long waited full-day game drive with Mark, our guide-driver. We had been in Kenya for 4 days already.It was just the middle of our trip. We had been lucky so far: Cheetahs, lions, elephants, hyenas, hippo, giraffes… we got to see the beauty of Mara. But no great sighting of leopards. The day before, we found one sleeping, hidden,… and surrounded by 20 cars. In my previous trip to Kenya I got super lucky on leopards, and had several encounters with the beautiful Olive. I was secretly hoping to live that type of moments again. But with nature, you never know!
So we left that day, just happy to be here, thrilled by the smell of early mornings, ready to purely enjoy what nature would bring: a cute group of playful lion cubs with their mother, vultures, ostriches. And we even got swamped on the way. Got pulled out by another jeep. And off we go!
A happy family met on the way
Good thing for us, another jeep was in the area and managed to help us out
They kept arguing together when they were not messing up with their mother!
At 11am we reached a bushy area. Jeeps were packed and lining around a tree. They were standing for 5 minutes and then would leave the way to the next one queuing. The reason for such a traffic jam: Bahati, a female leopard, was sleeping on the ground. Mark guessed, by the size of her belly, that she was here to hunt. The area was full of wilderbeests. But he also knew that, because of the disturbing crowd, she would not do anything and would lay on the ground instead. So we took our “tourist shot”, left her alone, and got our lunch near the river, maybe 5 minutes away from Bahati spot.
We came back 45 minutes later. All the cars were gone. We were completely alone. We went back to the tree and… of course Bahati had already left. “She is gone for hunting, she must be quite close, let’s find her.”, Mark said.
We were driving around and around, super slowly, super cautious. The wildebeests were there. Plenty of them. But no sign of Bahati.
The “tourist shot” after queuing for a bit
I was searching, scrutinizing all the branchs, herbs, ground. Without much hope, to be honest, as I had been pretty weak so far at spotting animals. Massai guides are beyond impressive. They can smell cheetahs walking 200 meters away completely out of sight. They can spot, with the naked eye, a hyena 300 meters away, and describe its face covered by blood. I would struggle to see the animal with binocular, so its face?…And, regularly, I would proudly show a big stone which I thought was a lion…
So, me, finding a leopard in the middle of the bush? No way. I am counting on Mark. And the more we drive around, the more desperate we are.
So you can imagine my surprise when a dotted yellow bottom and tail came in my field of view. My heart litterally jumped. Bahati was less than 1 meter away from our car. “She is here!!!, she is here!!!”, I yelled (which is obviously the last thing you should do, but good news is, my voice doesn’t carry far).
Mark braked immediately. “She is about to hunt, get ready, she is about to hunt”, he urged us.
Bahati is getting ready to jump on the baby wildebeest
Bahati was holding the baby wildebeest very firmly on the ground…
And, indeed, Bahati started to slowly and carefully flatten on the ground. We could distinguish a baby wildebeest and his mother in the background. Bahati flattened her body completely. Her ears were pointed out. She started to move her bottom and…she jumped. In one jump she grabbed the baby wildebeest at the throat. There were a few short frightened screams. The wildebeest mother ran away in the bush. The baby wildebeest collapsed on the ground. Bahati was holding him firmly at the throat. He was still and suffocating.
Everything became weirdly quiet. Seconds after seconds you could see the breath of the wildebeest slowing down, until stopping. Completely.
There was, I think, less than a minute between the moment we spotted Bahati and the attack. Everything went so fast. It was so bushy that I had trouble with the focus of my camera and I messed up my pictures of the jump. We were so close that my 300mm lens was more an issue than anything else. My hands were shaking out of stress. It was the first time I witnessed a hunt, and a kill. I remember Mark thought I was thrilled as I had tears in my eyes. I was actually really sad for the wildebeest. The screams…
We spent the next 2 hours completely alone with Bahati. She was still a young leopard, and the wildebeest, even though baby, was big for her. Bahati was exhausted. She stayed for quite a while on the ground, panting next to her kill, without even touching it. She ripped off a bit of the fur. But then went back to rest. She was surrounded by a vivid green crown of leaves, under a soft lighting. Perfect for pictures.
…until his last breath
It was fast but intense… after the kill, Bahati kept panting
Bahati started to rip off the fur… before resting again
After a good 45 minutes, Bahati started to drag the wildebeest’s body on the ground. We thought she would climb on a tree with it – this is common for leopards to do that to protect their food from others.
However, after a few meters, she just stopped and laid again on the ground. She was still panting.
She struggled to drag the killed baby wildebeest…
…and had to rest for a while
Every now and then, she would make a few steps, surprisingly towards our car, without the wildebeest, and then lay again. Eventually she was really close to our jeep. She looked at us several time. We were completely quiet. She was so close that I could only use my 70-200mm and I was not able to have her entire body into the frame. I love close-ups, shooting details (eyes, fur etc.), so I enjoyed ! And being so close to a beautiful big cat like that…
Time for some close-ups!
Such beautiful eyes

A jeep arrived. It was past 2 pm. People would start to come back. We decided to leave, happy to have lived such an intimate moment.
We learnt the next day that Bahati didn’t eat much of her kill, she let it on the ground and hyenas stole it.

Me and Bahati 🙂

My favorite photo of this encounter with Bahati

If you want to see more pics of leopards and from safaris in Kenya, this is here.

Quick Photo Tips

It is challenging in wildlife photography, especially from a jeep, to go away from documentary shots and be artistic. When you are lucky to stay next to an animal for a few hours, it is a great opportunity to try new things once you got 1-2 shots that you like:

  • Composition: The subject is surrounded by an environment which may be interesting to include in the picture. Always try to look at the entire frame you are shooting. Does everything make sense? Is something cut while it should not ? If your equipment allows it, try to have different point of view: include the landscape, then make some close ups (eyes, paws, fur, ears), portraits, etc.
  • Mode: if you tend to use the Aperture, or Speed mode, try to go Manual. You have time to make experiments. See what you get when you change the speed-aperture-iso combination and the white balance. Does it look better slightly under-exposed? or over-exposed? How does it turn out if you have a warmer white balance? or a colder one?
  • Observe and anticipate: Taking pics in a safari is great but what is even better is understanding your subject, the animal, its behavior. I tend to get pissed when I hear someone shooting a sleeping animal with burst mode. Observe your subject, understand what he is doing, anticipate what he will do next. Take out your eyes from the camera and just observe. You will feel when something is about to happen, you will guess by the body posture, and you will shoot at the right time…which leads to…
  • Be selective: A friend of mine has a very interesting approach: he only shots pictures he would like to print and have on his wall. When you behave like that, you will be much more careful at when you shoot, how you shoot, the parameters, the framing etc. Instead of having 30 ok and similar shots; you may have one stunning picture. And you save so much time when sorting everything !
  • Tripods in a jeep may be challenging, if not impossible…Bring a “bean bag” (it looks like that) with you and place it on the window, on the roof of the jeep, to help you get stability, especially if you have a heavy lens. You can easily make one at home by filling a bag with dry beans, rice, buckwheat etc.
  • My parameters : Most of the pics you see on this page of Bahati in the bush are done with ISO above 1000, the widest aperture (f2.8 and f5.6) I could get and fast speed (from 1/500 to 1/1000).

Quick Travel Tips

  • Your safari guide/driver is key. A good one will not only go where he heard there is a good sighting happening but, above all, he will look for the animals himself. He knows them, their habits and their behaviors; he knows how to read the footprints on the ground, his senses are super developped. He deeply enjoys searching for the animals, and he can teach you what he knows. I got amazing safari experiences. The guides I was lucky to have played a huge part. In Kenya, I highly recommend Melting Pot Safari. 
  • Noise, screams, can frighten animals. As much as surprised, or happy (or scared!) you are, try to refrain. Be quiet, calm, super patient. You will maximise your chance to have an interesting sighting, on top of respecting the animal.
  • Depending on where you do your safari, you may experience crowd, jeeps surrounding animals and disturbing them. This is not ideal for you and even less for the animals. As much as it is tempting, don’t ask your guide to go in the way of the animal just for you to have a nice pic. Animal should be first. Let them the space they need.

 

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