She’s back. And she’s not shy about it.

After months of wandering, our resident leopardess is back in camp. At least, we assume it is the same one. We have not had a close look at her, but her tracks on the paths in the morning have the distinctive rather long middle toe that we have seen before. We have also been away, travelling to the coast with the family over the election period; this allowed the community members we work with to have time to go and vote. She made her presence known as soon as we returned, grunting loudly in the bushes behind the kitchen on the first evening as we sat around the fire with guests. Much to everyone’s delight, she even let us have a glimpse of her in the distance before slinking off into the bushes by the river. Her vocalisations lasted all night, setting the baboons and monkeys off regularly. In the morning we discovered she had killed a Grant’s gazelle just at the car park, and dragged it into the bushes behind our cottage. We suspect she is the daughter of an older female who had two small cubs in this area just as we moved here.

As we sat listening to her, the firelight dancing in front of us, I wondered what the Maasai really felt about her, and indeed her kind. If I were in a Maasai home, listening to the same thing, but fearing for the safety of my livestock, what would I be thinking?

So, the next day on an afternoon walk with the children in tow, I asked Risa and Nixon, our Maasai guides. They said that leopards can be a pest killing sheep and goats mainly, but Maasai don’t fear them. They regard them as stealthy and secretive and selfish, because they don’t share their kills with other animals; they hide them up in a tree. They commented on the strange fact that of all wildlife, leopards are not afraid of their dogs. As we stopped a while to let the children draw funny faces in the dust with their sticks, Risa asked me what clan I was from. At least, did I know what clan I had been given as part of my Maasai marriage ceremony? I said that I thought it would be the same as my Maasai ‘father’, if I had understood correctly. Knowing the family he then said ‘Ah, then you are from the Clan of the Hyenas’.

As I wondered if that was a good or bad thing, he went on to explain that all Maasai belonged to one of six clans, and that each clan had an animal or perhaps two, that were associated with that clan. In some cases the people of the clan were thought to have traits of those animals but that more so it was the duty of all clan members to protect those animals in the wild. Intrigued by this, I asked what the other clan animals were and to my surprise they included scorpions, a couple of species of snake, jackals and baboons as well as the more charismatic lion and rhino. In fact he said that the people from the Iliserr clan, those of the rhino, were frequently using the lack of rhinos is this area as a warning to other clans. We have failed, don’t lose your animals like we have, the elders warn.

As we turned back towards camp, it struck me again how deep a link the Maasai have with their land, and the wildlife on it and I vowed to find out more about how the clans came to be. But that would have to wait for another time. The sun was setting, the children beginning to drag their weary feet, and the leopardess possibly was watching us from nearby. Her success as a secretive species perhaps meaning that she had never been, and hopefully will never be, in need of the protection of a Maasai clan.

Samantha du Toit (Russell) is a wildlife conservationist and works for SORALO in the Olkirimatian-Shompole ecosystem in Kenya’s southern part of the Great Rift Valley. She lives with her husband, Johann, and their two children at Shompole Wilderness, a tented camp in the Shompole Conservancy.

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