By Jennifer Buchanan Herald photographer
It was a hot, dusty afternoon in the Serengeti, and a herd of Toyota Land Cruisers had already started to form. Jonas, our guide and driver, quickly got on the radio to ask what everyone was looking at. No need. It was clear there was something in the tree. In fact, there were two things in neighboring trees. At 50 meters it was hard to tell at first, but it soon became apparent that we were looking at two juvenile leopards.
Serengeti National Park is located in the northwest corner of Tanzania. The national park, along with neighboring Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the Massai Mara in Kenya, is home to the world’s largest and most diverse collection of land animals anywhere on earth, and our home for five days at the end of a two-week African safari.
At first, the leopards were content to be in separate trees. They are solitary animals as adults and even as juveniles; it is very unusual to see them in such close proximity to one another.
They would get closer. After we observed the magnificent cats for close to an hour, one finally decided to move. And move it did. Bunking all the “solitary animal” talk Jonas had been spouting for an hour, the leopard in the far tree hurried down to the ground and leapt up into its neighbor’s tree. They touched noses, greeting each other. Amazing.
We stayed longer then we should have for how early we left camp that morning. It paid off. After occupying the same tree for a time, one of the leopards spotted dinner, a Thompson gazelle, off in the distance. Jonas knew that it was hunting, and, in an effort to put us in the best position to photograph the kill, he fired up the Toyota and we were off to the races. We got there just in time to see the gazelle disappear into the long grasses. The leopard, a stealth hunter, had crept up on it and pulled it down and to its death. We were now in between the leopard and its tree. Perfect.
The leopard would have to pass our vehicle with its kill on its way back to the tree. The late-afternoon light provided us with one of the best photos we shot in our two weeks in Africa. The leopard crossed the road directly in front of the Toyota, sidelight brightening the leopard’s right eye and exposing the white throat of the dead gazelle. The whiskers of the cat glowed bright white.
We raced back to the front of the trees.
The leopard leapt back up, the gazelle locked in its jaws as it flew from branch to branch. What a beautiful day.