There I was frozen, glued to where I was standing. My heart skipping a beat. A few steps in front of me was the most fetching face I had ever seen. Seeing him sent shivers down my spine. I wanted to cup his bonny round face in my hands and put it next to mine. He turned and saw me. Our eyes locked. His intense stare bored right through me. I dared not breathe. I could almost see those piercing golden-green eyes. How I wished I could get closer and gaze at them. In a flash, everything else around us dissipated. There was only him and me in the vast African savanna.
I scanned his body from head to foot. His coat was golden brown with black spots that seemed darker in the daylight. He was compact and muscular. I wanted to run to him, hug him tight. I wanted to stay by his side. Surprised by my own thoughts, I wondered why on earth I wanted to do that. It was the very first time I saw him. There was no reason to be impetuous. Yet I could not deny it, my heart longed to.
As if hearing my silent cry, he moved from behind a tuft of tall brown grass and walked stealthily toward me. Then like the breaking of the dawn, someone screamed, breaking the silence, “Oh no, it’s coming!” Shaken from my deep revery, I was brought back to reality. I was back in the safari van in Maasai Mara National Reserve, one of Africa’s largest wildlife reserves. Tucked away in a corner of the reserve was a row of safari vans in front of a wooded forest. In between the vans and the wooded forest stood the most beautiful leopard that has captivated me.
Looking more like frozen statues than game enthusiasts, we were all standing inside our open-topped vehicles, unused cameras in hand. Mouths agape and hearts pounding, we watched the leopard come close. Each step seemed calculated. He raised his head and sniffed the air. As he came closer his black rosette spots looked clearer. His neck was white with black markings underneath.
Disturbed by the cacophony of our screams, the leopard paused on its tracks. As he stood there, surveying us, I whispered to my friend Cherryl who was standing next to me, “He’s so beautiful.” “Yes, he is,” she replied with a small hint of coquettishness in her voice. Our friend Carolyn, who was standing next to Cherryl also joined in. “Isn’t this so exciting?” I turned to her and saw that she was almost teary-eyed. We were all smitten.
Scientifically named Panthera pardus, the leopard belongs to the Felidae or Cat family. An average male leopard can grow up to 60 to 70 cm in height while a female can grow up to 65 cm. Often mistaken as a jaguar, the leopard shares the same black rosette markings found in both animals. However a jaguar’s rosette has a black spot in the middle whereas a leopard’s is tawny in the center, its coat’s natural color. Its underparts are paler and also covered with dark spots. Its thick, long tail is swathed in black spots while underneath it is white.
It was our second day in the vast Maasai Mara spanning across 1,510 sq km (580 sq miles). Located in southwest Kenya it is world renowned for its open grasslands and exhilarating game drives. We were already on Day 2 hunting for the Big 5 – lion, rhino, cape buffalo, elephant and leopard, so named for the difficulty in catching them. We’ve already seen all four except the leopard which proved elusive until this fateful day.
As if stalking his prey, the leopard continued to walk slowly, softly toward us. Then he stopped, raised his huge head and surveyed us. Crouching, he looked as if ready to pounce and climb up our van. Panicking, we started shrieking faintly, “Oh no!” “Oh no!” Distracted, the leopard paused. He inspected us, as if determining if we were a kill or not.
As if deciding that we weren’t, one of God’s most captivating creations, the leopard turned around and in the blink of an eye, leaped and vanished into the wooded area. Then it was all over; my adrenaline-charged, heart-pounding, wildest affair with the once near-extinct, black-spotted African feline.
“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.” Isaiah 11:6