Natural Selection Nature Photography
By Mark J. Thomas
Leopard in Tree
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Everything was perfect!

Anyone who has been to Africa knows how hard it can be to see a leopard. In fact, it is probably the hardest of all of the "Big Five" animals to find. Leopards are the most solitary of Africa's big cats and are primarily nocturnal. If you are fortunate enough to find one during the day it is often high up in the tangled branches of an acacia tree with only a dangling leg in view.

My photography buddy Stan and I got really lucky on this day. Here's how it happened...

When in Kenya, we don't use a guide or driver. We rent our own 4 X 4 and drive ourselves. This is much better for photography for several reasons. Fewer people in the vehicle means less vibration when shooting. It also allows us the flexibility of coming and going at a moment's notice, which is important in Kenya. This works well for us, but I do not recommend self-driving to first-time visitors. The roads (if you can call them that) are not what most people are accustomed to and maps and signs are all but useless. It is very easy to become lost.

We had been in Samburu National Park for several days. This is one of my favorite places in Kenya. Several species of wildlife here are found nowhere else. The lodge we stay in is right on the river. Huge crocodiles haul themselves out each night right by the lodge. The river area is lined with enormous fig trees. This is the perfect habitat for leopards.

Late one evening, after the sun had gone down but their was still some light in the sky, as we made our way back to the lodge, we noticed a leopard high in a dead fig tree. The leopard was too far away and there wasn't enough light for a good picture. But I was excited anyway, it was my first leopard. I knew how lucky I was just to get a glimpse of one.

In the days that followed, we passed by this same area several times, always looking but never again seeing our leopard. 

Then, one evening, on our way back to the lodge after a long day of shooting, we noticed another vehicle back off the roadway in the area of the dead fig tree. The sun was still up but it was quickly setting. We made our way back to the vicinity of the other vehicle and started scouring the tree limbs looking for what we hoped would be our leopard. After a few moments, without seeing anything up high, we dropped our gaze lower. That's when we saw the leopard.

"Our" leopard was not high up in the trees at all. It was only about 15 feet or so off the ground lounging on the trunk of an old fallen fig tree. We were only about 80 feet away. Not only did I get to see a leopard up close, but now I had a chance at actually photographing one. 

With the sun beginning to dip below the horizon behind us, I knew I would not get a second chance. I maneuvered my camera into position. After quickly focusing and composing my shot, what I saw through the viewfinder was magical. Everything was perfect! The leopard's pose was perfect. It filled the frame perfectly. The "warm" late afternoon light was incredible as it lit up not only the leopard, but the trees in the background as well. The texture of the fallen tree where the leopard was lounging was wonderful. And to top it all off, just when I was ready to take the picture, the leopard turned its head and looked right at me. I saw the sun highlighting this magnificent cat's eyes and I took this picture.

Within a minute or two, the sun dipped below the horizon behind us. That magical "glow" was gone. There was still enough light to shoot a few more pictures. But the "magic moment" was lost. 

A few minutes later, the leopard sat up and stretched. Then, without fanfare, jumped down from the tree into the surrounding tall grass to begin its nightly hunt. As we maneuvered our way out of the fig tree area, we were treated to one final glimpse of our leopard as it crossed in front of us.

Although we thoroughly searched the area every remaining day in Samburu, we never saw "our leopard" again.

This is still my favorite shot from all the time I have spent in Kenya. There is a prominent spot on the wall of my art show booth that is reserved for this piece. Not to mention a prominent spot in my memory.

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