“Beautiful Darkness” – The Black Leopard of Laikipia, Kenya
Discover the secrets of Kenya’s Laikipia wilderness in an intimate and connected way by venturing beyond the confines of a typical vehicle-based photography tour. Embrace the thrill of a bush walk, climb to the top of a rocky outcrop, and marvel at the breath taking sunrise with a steaming cup of coffee or sip on a refreshing gin and tonic while taking in the stunning sunset views. Keep your eyes peeled for the enigmatic black leopard, a creature of myths and legends that moves as gracefully as a shadow. This is a rare opportunity to fully immerse yourself in the African wilderness and connect with the land and its wonders in a way that few others have experienced. And if you’re one of the lucky few, capture stunning images of the beautiful black leopard!
I recently had the privileged opportunity to lead guests on a private, tailor-made ORYX – Black Leopard photography tour to the Laikipia Wilderness in Kenya. We hopped on a short 45-minute charter flight north from the busy and bustling city life of Nairobi. After landing in Nanyuki, we were swiftly transported on a 90-minute drive to the serene oasis of Laikipia Wilderness.
This trip was truly incredible, as we had the chance to capture stunning images of some of the world’s rarest wildlife species, including the melanistic leopard. The Laikipia Wilderness is a stunning location, home to a diverse array of wildlife species that are seldom seen or uncommon on traditional safari circuits. We had the pleasure of photographing beautiful reticulated giraffes, endangered Grevy’s zebra, elusive striped hyenas, adorable bat-eared foxes, zorillas (striped polecats), black-backed jackals and their four puppies, and Günther’s dik-diks which are a dime a dozen. And let’s not forget the birdlife, including striking vulturine guinea fowl, yellow-necked spurfowl, pale chanting goshawk, and inter-African migratory cuckoos.
During our tour, we were privileged to observe herds of elephants, leopards, spotted hyenas, plains zebras, warthogs, hippos, buffaloes, grant’s gazelles, and various antelope species. The region had been facing a severe drought for the last four years, causing the land to appear dry, dusty, and almost barren. Due to the scarcity of resources, general game species were not present in significant numbers, and larger mammals such as elephants, lions, and a transient pack of African wild dogs had moved to surrounding areas following the rains in search of resources.
The camp is perched atop a hillside overlooking the Ewaso Narok river and provides a one-of-a-kind, safari experience. The safari tents blend seamlessly into the natural surroundings and feature en-suite bathrooms, showers with piping hot water from classic old donkey-boilers, and comfortable verandas, allowing you to fully immerse yourself in the wilderness. The camp was homely, authentic, and rustic, with delicious home-cooked meals and drinks on offer to wind down after a day of exploring and photography.
Perched high on a rocky outcrop overlooking the camp, a viewing platform awaits guests with a swinging bench. It offers a breath taking 360-degree view of the dramatic Laikipia landscape. Take in the awe-inspiring beauty of the Ewaso Narok river and the skyline of Mount Kenya, as well as the surrounding escarpment that envelops the camp like a protective horseshoe. Ascend to this unique viewpoint with your binoculars, camera, and favourite drink in hand and bask in the tranquillity of the moment. Keep a sharp lookout on the hills for a glimpse of the enigmatic black leopardess, adding to the thrill of this already sensational experience. This is the best way to locate the black leopardess, accompanied by your experienced guide and local tracker, once she starts patrolling her three-kilometre2 territory surrounding the camp.
The vegetation along the Ewaso Narok River is characterized by acacia woodlands, riverine forests, dotted shrubs, euphorbia, and grasslands on the escarpment plateaus. The river is surrounded by rocky hills, granite outcroppings, and escarpments. The area is dominated by volcanic rock formations, including basalt, granite, and phonolite. The dark black rock faces and shadows possibly provide the perfect habitat and concealment for leopards with melanistic coats. In fact, the Laikipia County is home to seven known black melanistic leopards, making it a prime location for adventurous wildlife photographers and wildlife enthusiasts. The unique opportunity to witness these elusive creatures in their natural habitat is a thrilling experience for anyone interested in wildlife conservation and photography.
Melanistic leopards, or black leopards, incorrectly referred to as “black panthers” are rare but not unheard of in Kenya’s Laikipia County. In 2019, a wildlife photographer Will Burrard-Lucas captured rare images of a melanistic leopard in Laikipia County, which received widespread media attention. The young male leopard was nicknamed “Blackie” by the locals, and he was estimated to be around two years old. Melanistic leopards have a genetic mutation that causes their fur to appear black. While they may look vastly different from their spotted counterparts, they are still the same species as the regular leopards found in Kenya and other parts of Africa. Few in number, they are generally more elusive than spotted leopards, and their dark colouration can help them blend in with the shadows and dense foliage of their environment. As a result, they can be difficult to spot, observe and photograph in the wild.Our main objective during this ORYX – Black Leopard Photography Tour was to capture images of Giza, a young, habituated wild black leopardess. Giza Mrembo – the “beautiful darkness” is the name given to her by locals.
She is a rare and special beauty, just over two years old. She was first spotted by the camp manager and his son while they were cycling through the bush. As a young cub, she was seen sitting on the dirt track next to a drainage line in front of the camp. Since then, she has grown into a formidable leopardess and has become accustomed to safari vehicles. She is probably the only reliable black leopardess to photograph on the African continent. We allocated an entire week at the camp in the hope of finding her, spending time with her, and capturing once-in-a-lifetime photographs of her.
I will never forget the first sighting of the black leopardess. It was on our first evening drive, while we were enjoying sundowners, that we received a radio call that she had been spotted. With drinks in hand, we quickly jumped onto the land cruiser, cameras at the ready, dialling in our settings for the perfect shot in the golden light. And there she was, a true black beauty, patrolling the drainage line in front of the camp, offering us an incredible opportunity to capture her on camera. It was a moment of pure magic and wonder, and I had to remind myself and my guests (at times) to put down the camera, stop looking through the viewfinder, and simply absorb and enjoy the moment.
To be in the presence of this creature, a cat of mystery and legend, was incredibly rare, special, and beautiful. An experience afforded only to the lucky few, and one that my guests and I will cherish forever. We followed her long into the night, and it was unbelievable to actually be in her presence. She seemed so accepting of us, accustomed to the vehicle, and even walked right up to us, looking up and slipping underneath the Land Cruiser. It was truly an unforgettable experience, and everything from there on out was, in my mind, a bonus.
I had hoped to see the black leopardess at least once during our trip, but we were incredibly lucky to witness her every day and night. It was a truly mind-blowing experience that exceeded all my expectations. With each new day, the sightings of her seemed to only improve. Despite the low lighting conditions at dawn and dusk, we managed to capture some incredible moments in prime daylight hours before she retreated to the rocky outcroppings that dotted the landscape. The scenery itself was breath taking, providing us with amazing opportunities to capture stunning shots not only of her, but also of the other spotted leopards in the area.
Trailing the black leopardess at night was an exhilarating experience. As she prowled through the darkness, she seemed to blend seamlessly into the night, moving like a shape shifter. Her mesmerizing eyes glowed like the waxing crescent moon that hung above her. Her black coat, and her captivating eyes add to the allure of photographing her at night.
The black leopardess’s eyes hold a hypnotic power, drawing you in and placing you under her spell. Mesmerizing and captivating, they glow like emeralds, penetrating your very soul. One glance is all it takes to leave you entranced, lost in a world of awe and wonder.
The night drives, with the aid of spotlights, presented a unique challenge for photographing her. We captured her patrolling her territory and hunting Günther’s dik-dik, often stalked by a resident territorial spotted male leopard who frequently stole her kills. Despite their constant dance, they seemed to get along just fine, and the local guides recently witnessed them mating. This was an exciting prospect for future tours to the region.
We were fortunate to spot Giza’s mother, a regular spotted leopardess. One afternoon, we stumbled upon leopard drag marks on the dirt track in front of the lodge. We tracked her into the laga (drainage line) that runs in front of the lodge. She had recently made a kill, an impala lamb. We photographed her as she fed, rested, and dragged the carcass to a Boscia tree to hoist it up. Amazingly, this was the same drainage line where Giza had made a dik-dik and an impala lamb kills, and the male had claimed the carcasses for himself. We had three leopards, her boyfriend, the mother, and the black leopardess, all within 150m of each other and only a stone’s throw away from the camp.
Later that evening, Giza, the black leopardess, attempted to steal the impala meal from her mother. We watched as she tried to climb into the tree with loud vocalizations and growls but failed as her mother fought with her in the flimsy tree branches and sent her off without a meal. The sighting of Giza’s mother was also incredibly special as we noticed she was lactating and believed to have new cubs. These cubs were likely only a few weeks old, and unfortunately, we didn’t get the chance to see them as the mother disappeared the very next morning without a trace. A rainstorm hit during the night and washed away any signs of tracks. Hopefully, she has young cubs stashed in a secretive, safe rocky lair den site. Who knows what may transpire with her next litter? Maybe the chance of another black offspring? Who knows, the chances are slim!
Aside from photographing Giza, we were able to capture some amazing shots of other wildlife in the area. The reticulated giraffe, with their distinctive markings, were a particular highlight. The reticulated giraffe is a subspecies of giraffe found in the dry savannahs and open woodlands of Somalia, northern Kenya, and southern Ethiopia. It is easily identified by its striking coat pattern of large, polygonal patches outlined by white lines. The patches are a rich, dark colour and are separated by narrow white spaces. The Grevy’s zebra is a striking species with narrow black and white stripes and large round ears. They are the largest and most endangered of the three zebra species, with an estimated population of around 2,500 individuals. They are both incredibly beautiful and photogenic creatures.
The black-backed jackal den site, concealed within a thicket of euphorbia, was a delight to watch, especially with the presence of four adorable puppies. We observed their playful interactions with their mother and had great photographic sessions with them. The puppies were full of curiosity, exploring their surroundings and feasting on tasty morsels after the first rains. It was entertaining to witness the dynamic among the puppies, especially when one of them refused to share the remains of a dik-dik carcass with its siblings. The striped hyenas and bat eared foxes, although camera-shy were just as stunning and captivating as Giza herself.
The birdlife was great, with memorable sightings of the striking vulturine guinea fowl. The vulturine guinea fowl is a unique and striking bird found in the arid regions of East Africa. It is characterized by its long neck and tail, as well as its mostly naked head. The breast of the bird is a vibrant blue, overlaid with long black-and-white feathers, and it also has a chestnut patch on the nape, resembling ear muffs. Another memorable sighting was of a pair of pale chanting goshawks feeding on a plated lizard. The pale chanting goshawk is a bird of prey found in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in arid areas. This medium-sized accipiter has a pale grey or whitish head, neck and underparts, and darker wings and back. The pale chanting goshawk is known for its distinctive call, which sounds like a rhythmic chanting.
During our seven-day photography tour, we were lucky enough to see Giza, the black leopardess, on eleven different occasions. Although we missed her three times in the mornings, the afternoons and evenings spent with her more than made up for it. This is a remarkable success rate, considering she is one of the rarest cats in Africa, if not the world. There were so many special moments shared with her that left me speechless, unable to put the experience into words. To truly understand and appreciate it, you simply have to witness her for yourself.
On our final afternoon, we found Giza early and followed her for two hours before sunset. We had the privilege of watching her patrol her territory in perfect lighting conditions and even witnessed her neat trick of walking underneath our Land Cruiser. We observed her playfully scent-marking and rolling in fresh green grass shoots, and scaling rocks in the riverbed like a playful young cat. The last moment with her was watching her walk along a rock in the riverbed and look back, as if to say goodbye, just before a massive rainstorm hit and drenched the parched earth, ending a four-year drought and bringing renewed life to the region.
The ORYX Black Leopard photography tour to Laikipia Wilderness was truly unforgettable. We were able to capture stunning shots of Giza, as well as other wildlife that calls the area home. The camp was warm and welcoming, with gracious staff, guides, and trackers who were excellent hosts and ambassadors for the region. The food and drinks were simply delicious, adding to the overall experience. The landscape was breath taking, with picture-perfect sunrises and sunsets. Witnessing the first rainstorms, ending a long drought, was also a sight to behold. I highly recommend this photography tour to anyone who loves wildlife and desires to capture it in its natural habitat. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that shouldn’t be missed!