Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Tribute to a Leopard with a life well lived

(OLIVE Mar/2000 to 25th Sept 2013)

I received some very sad news early in the morning of the 25th September 2013. A friend and fellow guide Raphael Koikai, the head guide at Mara Intrepids camp, called me to break the news that our famous Mara leopard, Olive was dead. I was on a game drive watching wildebeests crossing the Mara river very early in the morning. Upon hearing it was Olive that was found dead, I soon headed to the location where she was seen, at least to confirm it was her.
When I got to where she was, I found Raphael and some rangers. I went on to examine the dead animal and was able to confirm it was Olive. She had bite marks on the back of her neck, which seemed like a lion bite. I did check around the area where she laid and found evidence of some struggle. I could see where she dug her claws into the ground which shows that there was a fight. I was joined by Onesmus Irungu, a guide at Rekero camp who has also been a keen follower of Olive, and together we tried to piece together what could have happened.
I have known this particular leopard since she was born in March 2000. She was born to Bella, the female leopard who later become a star on the BBC’s Big Cat diary/week. I was able to work on this programs as a leopard behaviour consultant and spotter since 2003, with the then presenter, Saba Douglas Hamilton. I later teamed up with my friend and fellow guide Jackson Looseyia in 2008 when he joined as a presenter, taking over from Saba to work on the leopards together with me, and we made a perfect pair with similar passion, both being fans of the Talek leopards.  
Olive was born in a under the roots of an old fig tree around a bend upstream from Zebra crossing or KD Talek special campsite, on the Talek river. Her father was an old male which roamed the Talek river between the above campsite and Fig Tree camp. He also ruled the area south to Maji ya Fisi. Olive was born with a sibling, a male, which I did not give name. When Olive and her brother were about one and half a years old, their mother moved them further downstream of the Talek, extending her home-range to the forest across the river from Mara Intrepids camp. Unfortunately, this happened to be a territory of another male leopard we used to call Big Boy. When Big Boy came across Bella and her cubs, he attacked and killed Olive’s brother in November 2001. He hanged the dead young leopard up an olive tree at the end of a small stream that runs into the Talek. Coincidentally, Olive just died about 30 metres from the tree where her brother was hanged!
Bella did not leave the place again even after losing her male cub to Big Boy. She settled around here and went on to have a new litter of cubs in 2003 with Big Boy. This were Chui and Ntito, who also starred with their mother on Big Cat diary in September 2003. I first saw the cubs under the exposed roots of tree on the Talek (near death crossing) on 11th July 2003 when they were about 2 months old. I and my fellow guides from Mara Intrepids, and a few others who were keen leopard ‘seekers’ kept seeing her around this location.
In August 2003, Jonathan Scot, who is my mentor, role model and friend and also BBC’s Big Cat TV presenter, called me, to inquire if I knew of any ‘’photogenic’’ leopard along the Talek. The BBC’s Big Cat Diary program was set for September that year, and has always been, they had picked on Half Tail, another leopard to the North who starred on this program before. However, just before the program started, Half Tail had disappeared, just when everything was set to go. Jonathan and the then series producer, Nigel Pope, came to see me at my then work station at Mara Intrepids. That is when I introduced to them Bella. I remember, as we sat for a drink and went through introducing myself to Nigel, I did not miss to talk about the vultures and their threats in the Mara! Nigel found a passion in me for these birds and told me, I think we will want to cover your story and link the vultures with the cats!, and this is how I and my fellow researchers, Munir Virani and Simon Thomsett appeared on TV during the Big Cat Live program, with a short review of our research and efforts to create awareness about the vultures.
Back to the leopards, after a week of recce, they settled on the Talek female, as she was known then. Since she was very calm and easy with vehicles, she became an instant star for the TV program. Her popular hunting area was a place which was later named, death crossing. This is because she would hide below the bank of the river to ambush crossing wildebeests. I remember at one point, she killed 3 wildebeests at the same spot. Thought the film crew only captured 2 kills!
Due to Bella’s popularity, Olive lived in the shadows and nobody actually followed her at that time. The female cub, Ntito, left her mother and brother quite early, and we did not follow up much on her too. Chui stayed with the mother until when he was about 3 and half years old, which made him a male cub with the longest recorded stay with the mother. We were even worried the two will in-breed. Chui was later to be seen on the Mara Triangle near the border with Serengeti. A friend and fellow guide, Ninian Lowis took pictures of him at this location, and were able to confirm it was him. Bella continued to roam her home range, though she did not have any more litter after Chui and sister, although we thought she lost a litter at some point in 2007. When we saw her in October 2008 during the shooting of the Big Cat Live program, she was ailing and we thought she died soon after as we never saw her again.
When she died, Olive appeared from her shadows. She was initially not relaxed with cars, since not many people had been following her when Bella was still alive, except for the usual rare sightings. We used to see her across the river from Mara Intrepids camp on the edge of the small riverine forest, in particular a certain African Olive tree (Olea africana) where she will go up to rest. We then decided to name her as the leopard of the Olive tree, and this later became her name as Olive. Up to this point not many people knew of her, not until she starred like her mother on the BBC’s program Big Cat Live in 2008, together with her two daughters, Binti and Ayah, plus her young son then Kali.
Olive had her at first known litter in early 2007. I first saw the cubs in March that year. The cubs were 2 females, which I gave the names, Binti and Ayah (refer to my earlier blog posts). However, I only named them in 2008. The name Binti (Swahili for daughter) as she seemed a favourite daughter of Olive. The other female cub, Ayah (Swahili for babysitter) got her name due to her baby sitting occupation of their younger sibling, a young male. This was the male cub born in March 2008. Ayah, continued to baby sit their brother as she was not relaxed with cars, unlike her sister Binti and their mother. I named the male cub as Kali (Swahili for fierce), this was due to his behaviour around kills, he would take over the feeding and kept everyone else away despite his size/age. Ayah and Kali stayed together for long time and we would always see them together, and this confused many guides who thought Kali was Ayah’s cub. The whole family stayed in the same area and at some point we would see all the four of them. A friend and fellow Mara based guide, Federico Veronesi, at one time got a photo of all the four together, which is a very rare sighting with leopards.
Olive had another litter, 2 male cubs in 2009, these were Paja (Swahili for twin) and Nkaiyoni (Maasai for a boy) The cubs were first sighted at Olare-Orok river crossing on 27th July 2009, with the mother carrying one of them. A picture taken by a guest at Intrepids of Olive carrying her cub on the Talek river bed taken on 15th August 2009 appeared on my blog post of 27th August 2009. (See http://paul-kirui.blogpost.com ) she had moved the cubs and hid them under the roots of a warbugia ugadensis tree on the banks of the Talek near Gunia (muindi) vehicles crossing. Olive amazed us when she left the young cubs for almost 3 days and moved to an area called Double crossing, where she met and mated with a male leopard in the area. The male was one that we had named Ridge male, because he was mainly found along Rhino Ridge and Double crossing area. At first we though she may have lost the cubs ( But one guide from Rekero, Joseph Seng’eny told me he has been seeing the  even as the mating was going on almost 5kms away). I followed them closely after this and found out that, the mating was actually her way of drawing the male who fathered the 2 cubs to the area where the cubs were. This was the first litter she had with a different male. All the other previous cubs were sired by a male called Big Boy. The same male who killed Olive’s brother in 2001. It was now important for Olive to have the new father of her cubs close to the den, since the area was in Big Boy’s territory, and the cubs risked being killed if he comes across them. True to her tactics, just a day after coming to the den with the new male, the cubs emerged and joined them. Some guests from Freeman camp said they saw Olive, Ridge male and the cubs walking upstream of Olare-Orok river, moving further away from Big Boy’s territory limit. I documented this mating and put together a small story on my blog, posted on 23rd August 2009, under the title Olive’s Riddle. The two, Paja and Nkaiyoni grew up successfully and left the mother’s home range after being pushed away by their father when they came of age.
Olive had another litter in October 2010. The cubs were a male and female, which I gave the names, Shujaa (Swahili for Hero, after Heroes’ month of October) and Bahati (Swahili for lucky one) Shujaa was a male and Bahati a female. The cubs were first seen on 5th October 2010 under the exposed roots of a uclea divinorum tree on the Olare-Orok river, near the junction with the Talek river. The den was near a baboon sleeping quarters, so she got harassed and had to leave the place for the safety of her cubs. On 28th October, while I and my guests sat around the fire at the bar at Mara Intrepids in the evening, we saw Olive across the river moving up and down calling. We didn’t know why she was calling until the cubs responded to her calls from under our feet! Without our knowledge, Olive had moved her cubs and hid them under the wooden deck at the bar area. When we heard the cubs I and the security staff shone the torch under the deck and saw the cubs. We then asked the guests to leave the area, as our presence and noise could make her think the cubs are in danger and could react aggressively. When the place was quiet and after the lights went off, she came for her cubs and moved them to unknown location where she hid them for sometimes. She was next seen with the cubs when she was leading them out of the small forest between Mara Intrepids and Explorer camps on 5th December 2010. The male cub disappeared shortly and we remained with the female, Bahati.
In early 2012, around Feb/March, olive had another litter with Ridge Male, these were two cubs which I named Saba (Swahili for seven, being the 7th surviving cubs, but also an African girls’ name, and this was in reference to Saba Douglas Hamilton, who worked with me on the leopards for Big Cats program before Jackson Looseyia) to the other cub, a male, I named him Nane (Swahili for eight, the cub was thought to be younger of the twins) refer to my face book posting around this time, when I circulated the names and everyone agreed to my suggestion. Nane died at around 3 months and we think she was killed by lions. This left Saba alone who has been with the mother all the time, and was about to be replaced on her mother’s side by a new litter when the tragedy happened. Bahati, the older sibling to Saba, never left her mother’s territory though was is now independent and has even been seen mating with a male recently. She had kept coming across or even joining her mother together with Saba. We have always seen Bahati and the heiress apparent to Olive’s territory. Because Bahati is older, I think Saba will be pushed out of their mother’s territory. Just before Binti and Ayah parted ways, I did witness and document on my blog, a fierce fight between the two.
Olive is survived by seven offspring, who will carry her legacy. These are, in the order of birth; Binti & Ayah, Kali, Paja & Nkaiyoni, Bahati and Saba

When I grew up in our village, my father and every elder would tell me the one animal you MUST stay close to is a cow! This being the livelihood of the community and backbone of local economy and every man is supposed to like cattle. I never knew it will come a time any other animal will compete for a place in my heart with my cow, until Olive came around! This is one leopard, I followed more than any other cat around, in the process, I learnt so many things about leopards from her. I saw her hunt, kill, ambush etc… in on many occasions, most of which I couldn’t document in pictures.
You can also see other updates I did on Bella, Olive etc. on http://www.atta.co.uk/heritage on this blog you can see stories dating back to 2004 which I used to submit on a monthly basis.
Olive, the leopard queen of the Talek river will surely be missed by many of her admirers around the world.

Here Olive caught an Impala right in front of my vehicle


 Olive strolls across the open savanna one morning near Olkiombo airstrip

 Saba, youngest daughter

 Here Bahati come across a dead zebra (died from unknown cause) and she pretend to kill it!

 A Guest, Kym Illman, a photographer, who was one of Olive's fans joined me to where she died.

 Lying dead.... obvious injuries on back of neck and under tail sustain from lion bites.

I had to confirm it was her, and mourn a cat i have come to follow closely for 13yrs


Babette de Jonge said...

What a wonderful potrait of the leopard Queen of the Mara, Paul. With tears in my eyes I read it all, being proud having known this special leopard myself and lots of her off spring, having closed her in my heart forever! The first female leopard being born of our ambassadors will be mentioned Olive as my tribute to her!

Mara Fan said...

thank you so much for your post paul about the life from our beloved olive.
she was a part of your life......
I had the pleasure to meet olive a few times.
I was so shocked in the morning of the 25th september when I read that olive is dead.

we all which loved olive, guides and tourists, will never forget here and she is in our hearts forever !

Navegante Anomino said...

I went there in april this year, I have some pics of a leopard, dont know if is her.

the pastel cat artist said...

After reading this heartfelt account of your long relationship with this beautiful animal I had tears for the loss of her. Thankfully she died from the natural struggle for life not at the hands of some hunter.

sandra said...

thanks so much paul,a great tribute to the queen of talek,her legacy will never die.

Trevaron Tours said...

That is so sad! Olive was a great cat. Tourists came all the way to see her. But you have done a good job in her honor. Thank you for the great tribute.

Dom C. said...

Beautiful tribute Paul,

What a tribute to Olive and Bella's legacy.

I admired the work you did on BCD/Week.

Whay is your take on Notch's whearabouts?

Dom C.

Mitra said...

Thank you so much for sharing Olive's beautiful story :(

michael said...

sad loss but not in the hands of poachers.

Maxine said...

Hi Paul. What a beautifully written tribute. I wish I had known her, but can feel your pain. Had a similar relationship with a female leopard whom I followed for ten years while working as a guide at Londolozi. She is gone now too and I miss her every day.

Mitra said...

Also, awesome pictures of Olive on previous blogs. Surely we miss this beautiful queen.

Anonymous said...

Very touching your tribute... sad but this is nature and sometimes is cruel...

Dee said...

Thank you very much for the post. I am so appreciative that you continue to keep us updated on what is happening in the Mara.

Safaricam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Safaricam said...

I was lucky enough while out in the Masai Mara last year to witness Bahati hunt in the region of Intrepids Camp.


We arrived as she came down from a tree and then emerged from bushes by the track. As you can see from the video, she rolled in the dust and then appeared to spot gazelle nearby. Instantly her posture changed, she slunk down onto her haunches and crept into the long grass. It was amazing to see how low she could stay, and the stealth with which she moved. As she approached the oblivious gazelle, we watched on from the jeep, and despite standing and looking down at the scene, eventually we lost sight of her too in the grass. Such incredible camouflage when seen in their natural environment!

We waited patiently, holding our breaths, and with my camera trained on the gazelle. Minutes passed but we were all intently waiting and watching. Suddenly, as you see in the video, she exploded out of the grass and around the closest gazelle, who didn't stand a chance, gripping it by the windpipe. Such speed and power was phenomenal to watch - you can see how I jumped on the video!

After her prey was subdued, Bahati paused to give us a few more photo opportunities and then dragged the gazelle off back to through the bushes. It made me realise how small a leopard is compared to some of the larger cats, as it seemed quite unwieldy for it. We watched it toy with its food in the bushes for a few minutes, and then it disappeared into thick bush (presumably back up a tree again - though sadly I didn't get to witness that).

The whole event lasted about 15 or 20 minutes I should think, and I barely breathed through all of it. It felt a real privilege to be there to witness such a moment..

Hopefully you can enjoy the video and get a taste of the moment for yourself.