I'm delighted to learn that my "Leopard kill' photograph entry to the British Photography Awards 2021, has been shortlisted for an award in the 'Land animal category. So much so, that I thought I'd (re)tell the story of the shot and an amazing couple of days, for Leopard and photographer alike!
My wife Sarah and I had already spent an amazing few days at Kicheche Mara Camp, in the Northern Conservancies of the Masai Mara, a truly mind-blowing first timers introduction to a Safari experience!
For those that have been on the receiving end of such a sensory overload, it needs no further explanation and for those that haven't, take whatever you read here in this story and multiply by 10 for the real life sensations!
We were excited beyond words by the immersion into to an Africa and Kenyan landscape protected from the worst of the ravages of poaching and unsupportable tourism, by the conservancy partnerships with the wonderful people of the Mara. After a few days, we moved to a second Kicheche Camp in the bush, a few miles away for a few more days of wonder.
Kicheche Bush Camp is also closer to the many wooded streams, river beds and valleys that meaner through the landscape, providing ideal territory for the hard to find and usually secretive Leopards, that live there.
Our Guide was the wonderful Nelson (Nel Ololenchungei Kasoe), who was able to tell the story of the individual Leopards to be found on our game drives, beginning with perhaps the most famous Leopard in Africa - 'Fig' (above), as some will remember from various wildlife documentaries over the years.
The very first Leopard we saw with Nelson was Fig herself, holding court to her gathered adoring public, at the foot of the tree she chose for receiving us (or so it seemed).
Despite the moody afternoon thundery skies, low light and Fig's pretty sleepy demeanour, the encounter ignited a burning desire to see more of the beautiful Leopards in their natural environment.
Fortunately we were with the right man for that job, as Nelson and his close Kicheche colleagues put us in place to witness what is probably my favourite lifetime wildlife experience (so far at least!), featuring Tito (below) - daughter of Fig and soon to be star of our very own wildlife documentary style story.
Regular readers will know that my interest and enthusiasm for wildlife came long before my developing interest in photography, the two things recently coalescing into a passion, that has enriched my post full-time work world!
To share the experience of the Mara North Conservancy with Sarah and to see her face light up with delight at each new sighting, was both a wonderful reaffirmation of my own journey and such a happy thing to share with each other.
Somehow then, the photography came second to that enjoyment, with Sarah sometimes having to remind me to "take some shots" of the action unfolding, as we watched together.
The story (of my BPA 2020 competition shortlisted picture) started in earnest when, having seen Fig the afternoon previously, we heard news that her daughter Tito had been spotted a good few miles away with a kill. Agreeing to the longish drive over often extremely rough terrain, Nelson got us in place to see Tito standing proudly over her kill, her breath coming in a rhythm that reflected the exertion of the short chase and kill required to bring down, a substantially sized Impala.
Tito had made her kill some way from where she intended to place her meal, safely out of reach of the Lions and Hyenas who would gladly relieve her of her prize.
Watching the strength it took (just look at the neck muscles!) to haul the gazelle over 200m across rough ground was truly impressive.
Watching her pause to catch her breath and gather her strength for the next few metres at close quarters, really put into perspective - as Sarah said - just how easy we privileged humans in the Western world now have it; able to feed ourselves with almost indecent ease.
Thanks to Nelsons experienced anticipation and skilful positioning, these shots with her above us, afforded rare opportunities to to secure an intimate view of her struggle at the top of the stony valley sides, (my 300mm f2.8 prime lens coupled with the Nikon D850, seemed to be the right combination - most of the time).
... and so we come to the shot that I submitted to the British Photography Awards 2020 competition. I chose the image below (also featured at the top of the story), because it represents perhaps THE moment of our trip and what's more, the wildlife moment of my life.
To be so close to such an amazing creature .... to observe that this beautiful and truly wild animal, completely disregarding of our presence ... to hear her laboured breathing, to see the determination in her gaze and watch the raw power in her ability to move such large prey ... it was simply overwhelmingly wonderful (in the truest sense of the word).
Tito (named by the Masai Mara guides), carried her prize down a steep granite slope, heading for a solitary tree on the valley side. We followed at a respectful distance, Nelson anticipating her path and allowing her to walk freely and unrestricted on her chosen route as we watched with mouths agape.
Eventually she reached the tree she had selected and with almost superpower strength, leapt upwards to reach the safety of the branches above and where we noticed she had already cached an earlier kill.
Her mission seemingly complete, we left her in peace as other vehicles moved in to view her in the tree, which had now become a Leopard larder.
The story however, doesn't end there. In fact, the wonders were about to multiply!
Nelson considered what we had seen that afternoon and recommended a super early start the following morning in the hope that Tito would be encouraging her cubs not yet seen properly in the open, to leave their cover in a valley wall crevice and move to the tree that she had now stocked with food for her and her family.
So it was then that we headed off the next morning well before sunrise, (Kicheche's welcomingly warming hot water bottles pressed into action for their grateful guests), as we bumped our way past bewildered Wildebeest, fording streams, descending and climbing steep rocky valleys to return to the tree and whatever was going to transpire there.
We arrived to find ourselves alone with Tito who was perched on a branch and peering into the rising sun. Before we knew it, she set off to find her cubs ....
Tito reappeared a few minutes later carrying one cub, with the other following close behind - WOW!
Pausing at the foot of the tree, we watched as she glided effortlessly up the trunk, cub in her tender grip.
Thanks to Nelson's advice and our early start, we were on our own with Tito and her two cubs for almost 90 mins, before being joined by others from Kicheche and the handful of other camps in the conservancy to enjoy the view.
Seemingly oblivious to their audience, the Leopard family were watched carefully as the youngsters first 'hitched a ride' with Mum and then later with growing bravado, had a go at climbing and descending from their refuge high in the sturdy branches.
What an incredible thing to see. I thing we were both struck by the contrast between her fiercely determined behaviour with her kill the day before and Tito's gentle parenting behaviour with the two delightful blue-eyed cubs, as they explored their new surroundings the following day.
Time and again one of them would decide to venture back to their 'old-home' about 80m away and she would fix them with a concerned stare until they were safely concealed again, or alternatively would pace after them to bring them back close to her.
Both cubs were still being fed by her and could also be seen starting to feed on the carcasses in the tree.
Only once, as various vehicles carefully moved to allow others to get in place, did she ever register even an acknowledgement that humans were present. It seems that the animals see the vehicles as solid objects (like rocks) and don't register the occupants unless they appear beyond the outline of the vehicle.
The shot below was the only time I saw this happen in 6 days, some comfort to any worried about human impact on behaviour. It seems the animals may be habituated to vehicles as part of their landscape, but not humans - only a cursory glance at her expression (below) when noticing a human is required to see the difference.
I returned with Nelson for the evening game drive, but news had got out and the slightly increased activity meant that Tito and her cubs stayed in the branches of 'her' tree, the cubs remaining hidden in the canopy despite the perfect soft evening light, compared to the harsh backlight of morning.
A few soft evening sun-burnished shots of her in the camera, we left her and her cubs for the last time, wishing the best for an amazing creature and mother to her lovely cubs.
Some of the evening views of Tito patrolling the base of the tree, the cubs stowed safely above were full of the dark menace a protective Mother displays when protecting her young.
What a story told over three days.
Meeting Fig and then her daughter Tito. Watching first hand as she prepared to bring her young cubs out in the open for the first time and then willing them to stay safe as they explored how to climb and stay close to the safety of their Mother's protection.
As a footnote to this story, it seems that Tito had actually delivered 3 cubs (a very rare thing to have more than 2). She lost the third cub the day before we are told, when Buffalo (the most dangerous animals in Africa alongside Hippo's) had trampled the unfortunate cub the day before. I've also learned that a second cub of the three didn't survive, but that Tito has (and is) raising the final cub towards adulthood.
I hope you enjoyed this 'story behind the photo' and can see that picking a shot from that precious time with Tito and her cubs was almost impossible.
I hope the judges like the shot I chose of course and if you did too, please feel free to vote for it in the Land animal category of the BPA awards, link below for your convenience ha ha !
Here's to the a precious lifetime moment in the wonderful Mara and a memory never to be forgotten.
Click here to vote - thanks!