Leopard Lessons from the Maasai

A tribal education in the Kenyan bush.

Moses and a tracker (left); the leopard that kept close tabs on the author for a week (right).
  • Moses and a tracker (left); the leopard that kept close tabs on the author for a week (right).

Spending time in Kenya with my Maasai friend Moses was an education in animal behavior.

Moses examining a kill.

Moses examining a kill.

Wandering through the bush around his village together, he would point out tracks and scat, patiently explaining to this greenhorn how to read them and what they meant. It was an incredible glimpse into a way of life few Westerners are aware of, and a revelation about how to live in harmony with top predators.

Moses knew every animal in the bush; they had all been his childhood playmates. He could spend all day telling fascinating stories in his lethargic, folksy way. He told me how the Maasai used animal trails like we in the West use highways – and that while in the bush, he might not always know where he was, but he was never lost.

I knew that the Maasai hunted lions as a rite of passage, and that most lions had learned to run whenever they hear the bells that Maasai boys wear while tending cattle, knowing that even a young Maasai child would not hesitate to take on a full grown lion with only a spear.

I knew that lions were considered Africa’s top predator, so it came as a big surprise when Moses told me that the Maasai fear leopards far more than lions.

He told me that when a lion sneaks into their village at night to feed on cattle, it will make a kill and then drag it away to feed in private. A leopard, on the other hand, will kill everything in sight and not stop killing until nothing is left alive before settling down to eat its victim.

Leopards are only half as large as a lion, but much quicker and smarter. This knowledge gave me a renewed respect for an animal I had seen quite often and had almost come to take for granted as beautiful and aloof.

The next morning we went for our usual walk around the valley accompanied by two spear-toting warriors, as Moses continued to expound on the behavior of leopards. We stopped in a clearing between some trees, and he pointed up into the branches. There sat a full-grown leopard, not 20 feet away, watching us intently.

My heart began to race and I suddenly felt vulnerable, even with two armed warriors by my side. Had that cat pounced, I never would have seen it coming.

Moses very calmly informed me that this leopard had been watching us every day for the past week during our walks, and had he been alone, he would probably have been attacked and would have had to kill the leopard, but because I was from another place, the leopard did not like my smell and that had kept us safe.

With that, he walked on, passing directly beneath the lurking predator – paying it no more mind than if it were a house cat – while I followed, unable to keep from looking over my shoulder all the way back to the village.

Moses's certainty about this animal so impressed me that I never doubted his word again. In the time since then, thanks to him, I've come to know many animals in ways that few will ever have the chance to.

Now, because of my unique education, I write regular articles for the in-flight magazines of several African airlines about wild animals, in hopes of not only educating visitors, but in making them aware of the vital role all creatures play in the circle of life.

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