Looking for the big cat in Kenya’s less known wildlife parks
When the cloud swallows our 12-seater Cessna, we are in the midst of enjoying a great view. Through our windows, Kenya’s landscape is transforming from rich barren browns into large swathes of unbroken green. Ever so occasionally, as we swoop down, we see tiny moving black dots. These could be humans or part of the great African wild. Then the cloud hits us, and everything turns cotton white.
We are on our way to Chaffa Airstrip in north Kenya, and with no view to take in and savour, we retire to our thoughts. Suddenly, our collective reverie is interrupted by the pilot’s radio, which crackles out a warning: “Traffic! Traffic!” The pilot consults his radar to learn that there are indeed two aircraft in the air zone. Our amusement turns to panic as we realise that the pilot has no clue whether the planes are a safe distance away or headed straight for us. He, however, does not panic. He lifts himself almost completely off his seat, and, like a bus driver on a foggy night, forms a hood over his eyes with his right hand and tries to peer through the clouds outside the windscreen. The radio warnings are repeated, their decibel level rising alarmingly. Then, almost as abruptly as the initial interruption, we emerge from the cloud into a bright blue sky. That is when we get a fleeting glimpse of the two planes—one is flying a few metres above and another, a similar distance below—before another cloud swallows us again.
We land with a loud thud and rattle in what appears to be the middle of nowhere. The airstrip is unpaved and has nothing but a red flag to announce itself. Around it, the semi-arid wild stretches out as far as the eye can see. The pilot jumps off and stomps his feet on the ground, as though he is examining a cricket pitch. “Aaah,” he tells a passenger, “You are lucky.” The previous day, a plane had landed on a similar airstrip not too far away. It had been raining and the airstrip muddy. The aircraft had to be pulled out of the muck, tugged by a jeep while passengers pushed from behind.
We are on a trip to Kenya’s more exclusive parks: the Shaba National Park, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and Loisaba. Unlike Masai Mara, where Africa’s famous animals are easily spotted but are also over-commercialised and overrun by tourists, we are to travel to less-known places where the wild retains its wildness and human habitation is sparse.
When we reach Joy’s Camp at the Shaba National Reserve, we are greeted by a beautiful woman who manages the resort. As I sit with her for dinner, she, a White Tanzanian, has fascinating stories to tell—of a village of Black children with blue eyes (because visiting British soldiers have secretly slept with local women, and the women along with their children have been cast off to live on their own), of Chinese road construction workers barbecuing entire lions. When I express a wish to see a big cat make a kill, she laughs and says that let alone a kill, no big cat has been spotted in the park for many months. A leopard used to frequent the resort, but that stopped some three months ago. Apart from reclusive big cats, Shaba’s wildlife is as beautiful as its terrain is harsh. Beautiful birds with unimaginably rich colours perch on the most desolate trees. The land, of volcanic rock, is semi-arid. Very little grows here, but the area has its own version of the ‘Big Five’ called the ‘Northern Five’: the oryx, reticulated giraffe, gerenuk, Grevy’s zebra and lesser kudu.
The resort is a collection of small luxurious tents, each separated by considerable distance. An electric fence runs around the premises but animals are known to stray in. So guards escort us during the nights, and each of us is given a walkie-talkie, torch and whistle, along with the instruction: “Please don’t run if you see an animal.”
On my first night, I find a snake in my room. Later, just as I am almost dozing off, the roar of a lion resonates through the camp. I switch on my walkie-talkie. The manager is on the radio issuing orders to her staff. I not only keep the whistle and torch close by, but also a stick I had fashioned out of a fallen branch. And in that luxurious tent, under what I imagine is a canopy of stars, with the rustle and rumble of the African wild in the background, I listen to the reassuring commands of a Tanzanian woman in a language I do not comprehend, and go to sleep.
A few strange events occur the following morning. I find my binoculars’ pouch in the commode; either I had in my sleep tried to eat this article in fear of the lion, or some animal, disgusted with such a voyeuristic tool, sneaked in and tried to flush it away. Elsewhere, a fellow journalist on the trip gets seduced by birdsong and walks over an electric fence, not realising that an electric fence has electricity running through it.
We try searching for the source of the lion’s roar the entire day, but it is only later in the evening that we spot the cat’s pugmarks. This discovery is made close to a stream, and by the direction of the paws, the animal seemed headed for the resort.
The African wild may be tough, but its dwellers are ingenious. Birds like the Weaver build nests by the dozen on a single tree (all facing the west to soak in the sun’s warmth as it sets), but live and hatch eggs only in one—to confuse predators. Some trees release bitter chemicals when grazers chew their leaves. And every few kilometres, you encounter huge piles of rocks. Local tribes bury their dead under such mounds so that lions do not get a taste of a corpse’s flesh and turn maneaters. We are also told that lions, which are otherwise unfazed beasts, have been found to let men dressed in red pass by without harm. The sight of a man in red, it is claimed, reminds the cats of Masai men, who dress in red and used to hunt them until some years ago.
When we travel to Lewa Wildlife Conservancy a few days later, the sight of a big cat continues to elude us. Here, in this 60,000-acre-large conservation park, so large that it has two airstrips and several streams and hills, the animals are less shy of humans. Giraffes are so nimble-footed they have learnt to walk in between electrified wires on the ground. And elephants simply cover these wired paths with uprooted trees and walk across. But as the days pass, we become somewhat delirious. One companion claims he saw a leopard leap from a tree into a bush, but our hour-long circumambulation of the tree yields nothing. Another comes screaming one morning, claiming she heard a big animal breathe nosily near her cottage.
The locals have powerful eyes. They spot animals located a hill away and can tell what they are doing without the use of binoculars. But after some time, we also become somewhat partly adequate at this task. Each one of us, by the end of the trip, has developed a knack of spotting certain animals. But while my companions discover their talents with the more exceptional birds and animals, including one who could spot the Secretarybird (a bird whose long black legs and white wings give the impression that it is wearing a white shirt over black trousers), my abilities stay restricted to the humble hog.
As we near the resort towards the evening one day, I make the driver stop his vehicle. A few yards to my left, a few bushes jostle with unusual vigour. Aiming binoculars and camera zooms, we all turn our attention to the bushes, only to discover that I have done it again—I have spotted another wart-hog, this time with an infant. Squirming in my ordinariness, I apologise and we prepare to drive on. But in a flash of a few seconds, something happens. There is a quick movement to and from a tree behind the animal, and its cry fills the air. We look carefully to ascertain what we had just witnessed. The wart-hog is present near the bush, as before, but its infant is missing. Instinctively, we look up at the tree. That is when we see it. Dripping blood, with the kill in its mouth, a leopard in silhouette against an evening sun.