In search of a leopard that did change its spots…
Brian Jackman travels to northern Kenya in the hope of catching sight of a rare big cat
At Loisaba, perched on the rim of the Great Rift Valley, the first bird to greet the day is the spotted morning thrush, which begins to sing at 5.45. Now the sun is above the horizon and the lions I heard roaring in the small hours have fallen silent as we go lurching down a stony track to the plains 500ft below. On the way we pass herds of elephants the same colour as Loisaba’s terracotta game trails. Pairs of spring-heeled dik-dik, tiny antelopes no bigger than a hare, bound away into the bush on pipestem legs, and guinea fowl with ruby eyes observe our progress. Loisaba is the Africa you have always dreamed of, as wild and unfenced as you could wish for, with views reaching all the way to the snaggle-toothed summit of Mount Kenya. Its Lion King landscapes bristle with granite steeples, but lions are not uppermost in our minds today. Binoculars at the ready, we are looking for shadows in the grass and maybe – just maybe – a feline silhouette with a dangling tail in the tangled crown of a boscia tree. According to Lenguya, my guide for the day, leopards love to lie up in the trees’ distinctive parasol-shaped canopies. Here they rest until darkness falls and they come into their own; the shadow-steppers, the moonlight hunters whose ripsaw cough causes the roosting baboons to bark in alarm and makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Lenguya is employed by San Diego Zoo Global to find out more about the leopards of Kenya’s Laikipia Plateau. What started as a small pilot scheme two years ago has become a full-scale project in which scientists and researchers have been tracking leopard populations in the area with the aim of preserving the species and maintaining local ecosystems. Leopards arouse strong feelings among local pastoralists, who retaliate if their livestock are killed. By monitoring leopard numbers and their precise movements, it is hoped that livestock losses can be reduced, encouraging a greater tolerance among those who live alongside these charismatic carnivores. To this end, 33 remote camera traps have been set up in Loisaba and another 23 in the neighbouring rangelands. The aim is to find out just how many leopards exist in this remote corner of northern Kenya. Placing camera traps around livestock bomas within the local communities has already shown hyenas to be the worst offenders, and that livestock losses to leopards are negligible. In addition, the project has discovered that Loisaba is a leopard hotspot, with 24 recognised individuals and a total population estimated at around 50 across the entire study area. Most exciting of all is the existence of black leopards. “We have confirmed the presence of two melanistic leopards at Loisaba itself, and five in total if we include the adjoining lands to the south,” says Dr Nicholas Pilfold, a scientist in population sustainability at San Diego Zoo Global. “We’d heard reports of black leopards living here in Kenya but high-quality footage or imagery to support these observations has always been missing. Now, using remote camera traps and infrared imagery, we have confirmed what has been long suspected – the presence of black leopards in Laikipia.” Until the San Diego Zoo Global project began, the only solid proof of their existence was a picture posted on Facebook in 2012 by the Ol Malo conservancy, of a melanistic leopard known locally as “Hussein” which had been seen regularly since 2004; and in January 2019, British wildlife photographer Will BurrardLucas managed to capture stunning images of a juvenile male black leopard on his camera traps, as reported by The Daily Telegraph last February. Covering an area bigger than Devon, the Laikipia plateau is divided into a mosaic of private ranches. Together they support a wealth of wildlife exceeded in Kenya only by the Maasai Mara, and Loisaba’s 57,000 acres are crucial to its survival. It was originally owned by the late Carletto Ancilotto, an Italian count who fell in love with the area after visiting Kenya on safari in the 1960s. In October 2013 a devastating bush fire swept through the ranch, destroying the original safari lodge and its famous Star Beds camp in the process. The following year, a partnership was formed between Space for Giants, the US-based conservation organisation, and the Northern Rangelands Trust. Together they raised sufficient funds to guarantee its future as one of East Africa’s most important wildlife refuges. Today it is owned and managed by the Loisaba Community Trust, which seeks to ensure that it remains a hub for wildlife research and a world-class ecotourism destination. At the same time, luxury lodge specialist Elewana moved in to replace the burnt-down Star Beds and create Loisaba Lodo Springs, the latest and most stylish addition to its portfolio of high-end safari properties. Five hundred feet below are the eponymous springs themselves, a permanent waterhole that attracts elephants and other game throughout the year, and all guests are allocated a dedicated safari vehicle and driver guide who will take you down to see them. The equator is only a few miles away, but at more than 6,000ft above sea level, the air is like wine, the climate perfect and the skies alive with swooping swallows as we continue our search for the phantoms of Laikipia. “Leopards are the masters of their environment,” says Lenguya. “They are so incredibly hard to find; yet sometimes they just reveal themselves as if to show you just how beautiful they are.” He tells me how his father saw a black leopard 15 years ago. “That is when I first became interested in leopards,” he says. He also met a local Samburu herdsman who claimed he had once seen a black leopard early one morning, slipping across the road before vanishing into the bush. But right now, we are looking for a golden leopard, not a black one. “She’s an adult female called Malkia,” says Lenguya. “She is the Queen of Loisaba and this is her home range.” In a jumble of rocks at the base of a gnarled Boscia tree is one of the project’s remote camera traps. Every month Lenguya checks the camera to see what it has recorded, a process that involves looking at more than 900 video clips, each one 15 seconds long, to see what has passed this way. In one shot a baboon has triggered the camera. Other sequences reveal a range of nocturnal visitors: rock hyrax, a white-tailed mongoose, bats, guinea fowl – even an elephant. And every now and then, Malkia herself appears, pale eyes glowing as she materialises out of the night. Four times in the past three months she has been caught on camera, and I watch one clip of her spraying against the base of the tree, leaving her pungent calling card for other leopards, including a big male with whom she has mated. But this morning there is no sign of her – or indeed of Loisaba’s legendary black leopards. We drive on past towering granite crags towards the southern end of Loisaba and come to another boscia with a camera trap nearby. This is the home range of another leopard, but unlike Malkia, she is melanistic. More exciting still, she has two cubs, one golden and the other black, like her. Lenguya points out the fresh claw marks scored deep into the tree’s gnarled grey trunk. “They are hers,” he says, and I touch them gently with my fingers, as if they are holy relics. Back at the lodge, Lenguya shows me some of the video clips taken from this site. There is the mother, lithe and sinuous, her rosettes still faintly visible through her glossy black fur; and there are her two cubs, taken in March 2019 when they were three months old. Another sequence shows them seven months later, with the black cub now half grown, a mirror image of its mother. Both were seen a month ago and are still presumed to be alive. As for the father, he is believed to have been a normal golden leopard. “Leopards are cats shrouded in myth,” says Dr Pilfold. “They are so elusive, so hard to track. We still know so little about them, and that is the most serious challenge to their conservation.” His hope is that the fascination with black leopards will create a greater awareness of the challenges faced by all leopards and encourage their protection.