On safari in Tsavo West National Park, a ‘land of lava, springs and man-eaters’, Gabriella Mulligan searches for the elusive leopard
Years of travelling in Africa, and you still haven’t seen a leopard,” exclaimed the friendly head sticking out of the open top of his van. “No, the leopard is my safari arch-nemesis,” I whispered back, not wanting to disturb the nearby pride of lionesses. Dusk was falling in the Kenyan bush and the ladies were perking up in anticipation of their night-time wanderings. “Well, you’ve come to the right place. Cross over to Tsavo West, and I’d bet my vehicle that you’ll see at least five,” my guide muttered beneath his binoculars. Big words. But dare we believe them? There was only one way to find out.
The other side of Kenya’s largest park is home to leopard, cheetah, lion, wild dog, buffalo, rhino, elephant, giraffe, crocodile, mongoose, porcupine, hyrax, dik-dik, lesser kudu and zebra, as well as more than 600 species of bird. But the next morning, we set off in search of leopard. Tsavo, spanning 22,000sq km across the country’s south-east, is one of the biggest reserves in the world. Split in two by the Nairobi-Mombasa railway, it boasts two very different territories.
Tsavo East offers the stuff of African safari dreams: earth as red as terracotta, tall yellow grass fluttering in the hot wind, cartoon-like hornbills racing alongside your vehicle, and prides of the infamous man-eating lions emerging from behind bushes as the fiery sun sets. Yet it is the memory of its western sector — with its rainforest-like greenery, otherworldly black earth, proud elephant stampeding out of their hiding places among the trees, and the throaty bark of those elusive leopard — that makes the hair on my arms stand on end.
There are multiple entry points to Tsavo West, although the main access roads lead from the gates at Mtito Andei and Chyulu. We entered through the former and arranged our permits with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) rangers there. Before long, it became clear we would be in need of our map, as we drove deeper into the park along a tangle of twisting paths, with a jungle of trees and bushes towering on either side of the road. Prime leopard territory for sure.
The greenery was so dense that we were beginning to doubt whether our eyes would be sharp enough to spot a single animal, when we rounded a bend and had to slam on the brakes. A tower of giraffe blocked the road, grazing the treetop canopy, in absolutely no rush to move on our account. We inched along behind them most of the way to our destination — Severin Safari Camp — a comfortable lodge set in extensive unfenced bushland. Thanks to our lazy, tall-necked companions, we only made it there in time for dusk. On arrival we sipped cool beers on the private deck outside our tent, watching the zebra, wildebeest and warthogs drink at the waterhole only feet away.
Next day it was an early start; we had a mission and no self-respecting leopard would be out and about much after the sun was up. Early mornings in Tsavo West are startling. As the sun starts to rise, the molten ground reflects a purplish-grey haze among the dew-glistening trees. The silence, broken only by birds waking and the crackling of twigs under the feet of unseen creatures, mingles with the mist to create an ethereal atmosphere. It was into this fog that we rolled off, at snail’s pace, eyes searching the greenery for that long, swishing tail.
We saw a sizable hyena, met a big cat with sharp ears, which I still haven’t identified, and interrupted a herd of elephant having their breakfast — the bull was not at all pleased, judging by his wildly flapping ears. But as the temperature soared, we admitted defeat on our leopard hunt and made our way to Mzima Springs, where water bubbles over lava rocks to form a mirror-still pool. Surrounded by forest, it creates a cool haven to stop and have a stroll along the marked path leading to a subterranean viewing station, a round, glass room, where visitors come eye-to-eye with the resident crocodiles, as well as an array of fish.
That afternoon we decided on a drive to take in the scenery, with hilltop views stretching as far as Kilimanjaro. Following a couple of hours of hair-raising driving around winding, boulder-ridden paths, our car threatening to tumble down into the forest below, we eventually made it to the Shetani lava flow, the secret to the park’s coal-black earth. About 200 years ago, an eruption spewed across the area. An 8km lava course still cuts across Tsavo today — in some places a solidified river of lava, in others a mountain of black pebbles, contrasting shockingly with the luminous greens of the rich bush.
Night fell, and after a delicious dinner back at camp we took our bottle of wine to sit by the roaring fire at the edge of the camp. As our eyes acclimatised, we realised we weren’t the only ones attracted to the warmth of the flames. Dozens of animals — gazelle, zebra and wildebeest — had joined us. While at first big, brown, worried eyes stared at us, before long they were satisfied we meant no harm and tiptoed nearer. Together by the fire, we sat silently sipping our wine late into the night, surrounded by our new friends.
Soon we were sneaking out in the ebbing darkness of the morning again. Maybe we would have better luck on our leopard hunt today. As the first signs of light began to creep across the sky, we turned a corner and jolted to a halt. The passengers in a vehicle ahead were gesticulating wildly at the undergrowth. Eyes desperately scouring the foliage, we saw a flash of movement — a spotted backside and a long, dark tail disappearing into the bushes. The other car rolled towards us. “Too bad. You were only 30 seconds too late; he sat and posed for photos right beside us,” they commiserated, eyes sparkling with the excitement only a safari can bring. The guide may have been wrong when he bet his vehicle that I’d see at least five leopard — but that one glimpse of gleaming gold was enough for me. Besides, I knew that I’d be back.
Fact File: the Leopard
• Leopard have the biggest range of all big cats, living in approximately 75 countries in Africa and Eurasia.
• Their habitat is remarkably diverse; they can be found living in the depths of the Congolese rainforest, as well as in the deserts of the Middle East.
• Despite this unique adaptability, the leopard is the world’s most persecuted big cat. In Africa, its skin and body parts are widely used in ceremonial regalia, leading to tens of thousands of killings.
• In Africa, it is estimated the leopard has already vanished from at least 49 per cent of its original range. It is unknown how many animals are left in the wild.
• An elusive big cat, it has a stocky, muscular build that sees it climb into trees effortlessly. If you’re lucky, the leopard’s signature tail — measuring between 51cm and 101cm — can be spotted hanging from high trees.
• An adult can weigh up to 90kg. The typical lifespan ranges from 14 to 19 years.
• Leopard are not fussy eaters, with at least 100 prey species. They are opportunistic and will eat most things that come close enough to catch, including wild pigs, snakes, monkeys and even porcupines.
• Its powerful build allows it to drag large prey into high branches to protect it from scavengers.
• Females give birth at any time of year, usually to a litter of two cubs.
• Cubs learn to hunt from their mothers, with whom they stay for up to two years.
This information has been provided by panthera.org.
• Getting there British Airways and Kenya Airways operate daily direct flights to Nairobi, from where you can fly to one of three airstrips serving Tsavo West. The park is also accessible by road from Nairobi (240km) and Mombasa (250km). Daily visitor fees apply for park entry; these are US$52 per day per non-resident adult, payable on arrival.
• When to go You can visit at any time of the year, but expect moderate to heavy rains in March-April and November-December.
• Where to stay There are options to suit all preferences and budgets. Ranging from KWS-run campsites (US$20 per non-resident) through to the high-end Finch Hattons (from US$700 per person sharing per night, all inclusive). Another top-notch option is Severin Safari Camp (from EUR120 per person per night, full board).
• Health Visit your local GP or travel clinic to ensure you have all the necessary vaccinations before you travel. Antimalarials are advised for most regions.
• Further reading Pocket Guide: Birds of East Africa by Dave Richards; Kenya Footprint Handbook by Lizzie Williams; Bradt Kenya Highlights by Philip Briggs.