DISCOVERY: Safari in search of elusive black leopard

Friday November 13 2020
Samson Itur.

Samson Itur, a guide points to stone age rock art at Suyian Soul in Laikipia. PHOTO | RUPI MANGAT


The elephant trumpeted and a lion roared so loud that my heart thumped wildly in my chest. And l was under the ‘sky shower’ on a dark night in a banda that had doors but no windows in mud walls so low they opened onto the plains. I wondered how the rest of the four ‘black leopard’ hunters were holding out.

We were in search of the black leopard of Laikipia more famous for it is CE (for critically endangered on the IUCN list) denizens like the thin-stripped Grevy’s zebra, reticulated giraffe and Beisa oryx all adapted to survival in the semi-arid land of Laikipia.

With three nights to search for the black leopard, spirits were high. Plus, the eco-camp on Suyian Soul by the same name, was so enchanting, built of things found around — thatched roofs, mud walls and dry branches for pillars. With only six ensuite 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.

Day two. Anne Powys designer of the camp sends us out on an early morning game drive with the guides: Joseph Lekurtut and Samson Itur. Atop a rock insel with a 360-degree view of the world, Itur has his satellite tracker hoping to catch a signal of the African wild dog that in Maa is called Suyian. The plains are full of gazelles and antelopes, elephants coated red from the dust. But no black leopard.

After breakfast al-fresco under the thorn tree, 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 plan is for a night game drive for the black leopard but the skies open and our hunt is called off.

Day three. “The black leopard walked past the kitchen last night when it was raining,” says Itur pointing to the clear tracks of a leopard imprinted on the soft wet mud. Hope soared.

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. We hike up the rocks that show the land below with pint-sized elephants and giraffes. There are gaps to a cave that features ancient rock art of our ancestors who had now evolved from simple hunter-gatherers to artists.

It’s the last day. Our only hope is the night game drive. It rains and our powerful beam catches spotted genets in the bush. Every dark shadow suddenly looks like a black leopard. The rain gets intense. It’s time to return to camp.

“Look, the black leopards trail,” Itur points to the paw prints. Our black leopard was in camp again soon after we finished the night drive in search of it.

The sneaky cat!