Black Leopard Photo Tour with Charlotte Arthun
This is why heading on safari to Laikipia in search of the black leopard has a unique excitement and anticipation compared to other safaris. The stakes are high when the success of our tour hinges on seeing one exceptionally rare animal.
Thankfully, in recent years, the chances of seeing a black leopard from our camp, Laikipia Wilderness Lodge, are very high. The region has a population of black leopards and incredibly, one of them, a young female, is habituated and regularly seen. Over the last 2 years, the guiding team there has done an outstanding job in learning her behavior and movements. Their commitment to ethical viewing practices, including minimizing the number of vehicles and nighttime hours with her, has likely contributed significantly to the level of comfort she exhibits in the presence of vehicles.
The ORYX Black Leopard tour spends 7 days at Laikipia Wilderness Lodge to maximize opportunities for seeing and photographing the black leopard. Our goal is to capture her in a variety of settings, during both the day and the night. Both scenarios create exceptional opportunities for photography.
Laikipia has a unique and diverse landscape, characterized by rocky outcrops, winding rivers, riverine forests, acacia woodlands, and open plains. Laikipia Wilderness Lodge sits atop a rocky outcrop above the Ewaso Narok river, fully immersed in this distinctive terrain. The camp exudes a warm and intimate ambiance, and the lodge staff are incredibly welcoming. Communal meals add to the shared experience. Each safari tent has stunning views looking outward onto the landscape. It’s a place of true wilderness and peace.
From the moment we touched down at the Loisaba Airstrip, our photographic journey began. Panoramic view of the sky filled with dramatic clouds. This area has been experiencing a drought for the last several years, but we arrived to a light drizzle. The landscape was the greenest I’ve ever seen it and I think quite happy to be receiving much-needed rain. The cloud layer masked the view of Mount Kenya which can be seen on a clear day. On our drive to camp, we stopped along the way to snap some shots of antelope, rock hyrax and lizards. Day one is always an important time to practice wildlife shooting and settings, especially before a sighting of the black leopard.
Our guest Roger Trythall from South Africa was most interested in capturing unique photographs, irrespective of the species. Few animals are as ‘unique’ as an African Black Leopard, so of course this was our primary focus for most of the trip. On our 7-day ORYX Photo Tour, we were lucky enough to see the black leopard on 10 different occasions. It’s a pretty remarkable situation!
A person’s first sighting of a black leopard is always extremely special and unforgettable. Up until that moment, there is uncertainty, as we all know that nothing is ever guaranteed on safari. On our first afternoon game drive, our guide Dan Peel, who has spent countless hours with the female black leopard and intimately knows the behavior, turned to us with a big smile when he told us that the black leopard had been found. The excitement was palpable.
We approached a boscia tree and could see movement of a dark figure through the branches. The black leopard was in a tree, feeding on a dik dik she had hunted and hoisted a few moments before we arrived. As a small leopard, it’s important for her to hoist her kill to keep it out of reach of other predators. However, even in a tree, another leopard could be a threat to her meal, so she needed to eat quickly.
We sat with her in silence as she consumed the entire dik dik, starting by plucking all of the fur and continuing until she had even consumed the bones, of which the crunching was audible. Until that point, we hadn’t had a very clear visual of her because she was hidden by the tree’s foliage, but then the exciting moment came when she descended the tree. As she came down, we expected her to jump quickly down as leopards often do, but she came halfway down and for a few moments stood scanning the bush. She was lit up by the spotlight and it was a breathtaking scene. With the spotlight lighting up her dark fur, we could clearly see her spots, or rosettes. People are often surprised that black leopards have spots hidden under their darker coats. Black leopards are the same species as spotted leopards but have a recessive gene that increases their melanin, tinting their spotted coats to appear black.
The black leopard descended the tree and walked directly toward our vehicle. She could have gone in any direction, but I think she has a certain curiosity with the vehicles. We weren’t more than a meter from her, her piercing yellow eyes staring at us for a brief moment. She stopped and scanned, and we followed her through the bush as she began her evening activities. It’s an incredible experience seeing a black leopard operate under the guise of night. The night is her time. She put in a few attempts on other dik diks and we eventually left her to carry on hunting in peace.
Over the course of the next week, the sightings kept getting better and better. Any single one of these encounters could be seen as once-in-a-lifetime, so the combination of them was extraordinary.
One evening we were with the black leopard, following her on her usual evening jaunt, when we saw her pounce, and moments later heard the shrill cry of a dik dik. She had made the kill, and then walked directly towards us, proudly holding her prize. She moved with a confident gait and appeared to know exactly where she was going. About 200 meters away, she hoisted her kill up into a tree, and we left her to feed without disturbance. Watching any leopard, let alone a black leopard, make a kill is something truly special.
On other nights, we were extremely lucky to see the black leopard having a ‘rendezvous’ with the territorial male spotted leopard. It was a fascinating interaction. The black leopard is coming into maturity and appears ready to mate. She followed the male and attempted to get his attention by rolling on the ground and signaling her interest to him. Unfortunately, the male was very disinterested in her. Hopefully one day soon he’ll get the hint. This was also accompanied by the black leopard vocalizing. For 2 nights she called repeatedly, either in attempt to find the male, announce her territory, or both. It was another extraordinary behavior to witness.
When we weren’t out with the black leopard, we spent time searching for and photographing Laikipia’s other diverse wildlife. During our tour, we also enjoyed sightings of the Grevy’s Zebra, Reticulated Giraffe, Striped Hyena, Beisa Oryx, Gerenuk, and Hartebeeste. We also spent a morning with a pack of African Wild Dogs as they hunted and eventually settled on a rocky outcrop, allowing us the opportunity to photograph them from ground level next to the vehicle. Photographing wild dogs on foot is another one of the unique and privileged opportunities for photography that you can experience on this tour at Laikipia Wilderness Lodge.
We also had several unique opportunities to photograph birds including a weaver building its nest, a fish eagle feasting on a catfish, and a goshawk eating a plated lizard.
All and all, this Black Leopard safari remains one of the most unique opportunities for wildlife photography that exists today in the world. This opportunity is not something that will last forever so consider joining our next Black leopard safari if seeing a black leopard in the wild is your dream!
Our guest Roger Trythall kindly shared a selection of his photos from the tour for our blog. He wishes to note that these captures were the result of a collaborative effort from ORYX Tour Leader Charlotte Arthun for her valuable advice on camera settings and to Dan Peel for his extensive knowledge of the landscape and animal behavior.