Fritz Pölking

From The Life Of A Mother And Her Nine Children

I saw the leopardess 'Paradise' for the first time in December 1991. At that time I stood with a Toyota Landcruiser in Kenia' s Masai Mara Game Preserve near the fig tree alley at a ditch watching a female cheetah resting in the same with her five cubs giving the impression of being asleep.

Suddenly she 'shot up' and disappeared towards the other side of the ditch behind a bend. Thirty meters further up all of a sudden two cats came out of the ditch in a wild chase - first a leopard and then the female cheetah pursueing and chasing the former away. After about two hundred meters both of them stopped and growled at each other from some distance. Now by accident five Landrovers with tourists from Governors Camp arrived and stopped between the two cats thus interrupting the visual contact between the two. A little later the cheetah returned to her young ones and the leopardess moved on in the opposite direction towards the fig tree ridge.

The leopardess showed no shyness whatsoever in the presence of the cars surrounding her, actually she paid no attention at all to the vehicles and treated them as if there weren't there. Here I managed to take the first portrait of this exceptional leopardess. At that time I, of course, did not yet know what I was to experience with her in the time to come and neither did I know her name. All thjs I only learnt later on when I compared the photos from thjs encounter wjth pictures taken at a later tjme. For in the same way as every man can be recognized by his finger print every leopard is recognizable by jts coat pattern, jt virtually js its 'finger print'.

Three days after thjs encounter the female cheetah and her five cubs were killed by a leopard. It most likely was Paradise who consjdered thjs area around the fig tree ridge and the leopard gorge her home territory.

The drjvers of the camp jn the northern Masai Mara had given thjs young leopardess the name of 'Paradise' because she had come a short while ago from the Paradjse Plain in the Masai Mara Game Preserve to thjs area outside the game preserve making it her home.

In the Paradise Plajn she had come into this world in August 1987 and had lived there together with her mother until 1989 before starting a life of her own jn thjs area outsjde the preserve where she arrived in late 1989. Fig tree ridge and leopard gorge - both located on Masaj grassland - are an ideal leopard biotope with rocks, beautiful and (for leopards) comfortable fig trees, ditches ideal for creeping up on one's prey, few ljons and few hyenas, yet quite a lot of quarry.


Her mother was a big, almost gigantic leopardess who unlike her daughter was rather shy. Her home was a regjon near the Kiboko Crossing in the Paradise Plain. There she was stjll seen untjl about 1993. Some people say that she had been the bjggest leopardess they had ever seen. In any case the mother of Paradise was by one third heavier than later on her fully grown daughter. But from whom Paradise had inherited her nonchalance vjs-a-vis almost everything (including ljons) and her total indjfference towards cars and tourists is not clear. An example: Paradise was sitting on the edge of the fig tree alley when from behjnd a ljoness sneaked up on her. Paradise paid no attention at all to her. Then when the lioness got ready to jump she merely hopped to the side wjth the lioness hurling herself at nothjng but thjn ajr. An almost unbelievable behaviour of a leopardess in the face of her sworn enemy. Paradise was also the only leopard I ever met who used cars as camouflage when creeping up on prey and she even sneaked up on her prey crawling underneath motor cars. When, for instance, Paradise wanted to move from A to B and on her route there she encountered 5 or 8 cars with tourists who wanted to watch her then she never took the shortest route but zigzagged from car to car always using the vehicles as cover.


Paradise had established herself in her new enviromnent and gotten settled. She was one of about 250 leopards of the Masai Mara, a region in the southwest of Kenia sized about 5,000 of which 1,500 are a game preserve adjacent to the northern Serengeti forming together with it one of the last large and intact ecosystems. In one of the most beautiful parts of the Masai Mara between the Aitong Mountains and the River Mara there is a somewhat rocky area in which you find the fig tree ridge and the leopard canyon. What Hawai or Alaska mean to us as vacation places this biotope as a home would mean to a leopard - a dream landscape.

Here Paradise had made her home and here she made a mistake in the summer of 1992. Until that date she had never attracted any particular attention -apart from her familiarity so pleasant for us visitors. But her nonchalance and lightheartedness induced her to attack -in broad daylight on a rocky plateau almost exactly halfway between the fig tree alley and the leopard gorge - a large herd of baboons killing a young one. That angered the male baboons of this group so much that all of them fell full of anger - upon Paradise biting off in a concerted action part of her beautiful long tail. For moments one saw nothing but a tangle of leopard dots and five or six big male baboons rolling around on the ground in a cloud of dust before Paradise could free herself and take refuge on a high tree -- she had gotten away, yet only with half of her tail left

From now on she had become umnistakable for everybody and her name was changed to 'Half Tail'.

The leopards gorge


In November 1992 she gave birth to her first surviving child. It was a female and because she looked so beautiful with her full-length tail when standing beside her mother with her shortened one - we named the little one Beauty.

Perhaps Half Tail had already had a litter before this, there had been signs of that: swollen teats, bleedings and the like. But it often happens in nature that the first litter of a leopardess does not survive. Also in the present litter of which Beauty was the only one to grow up there will most likely have been a second cub which did not survive the first couple of days. Half Tail had given birth to her daughter Beauty in a rock cave of the fig tree alley. The first weeks she also stayed with her in this area until finally she moved with the cub in early January to an area about 5 km away which is called Emarti ya Faru meaning something like 'land of the rhinos' which, however, unfortnuately do no longer exist there because they were all hunted and killed by poachers for the reasons everyone knows.

There the two lived for the next three months and Half Tail taught her daughter everything a young leopardess needs to know: Which animals are enemies, which are harmless, with which there exists sort of a truce as long as no food is involved (hyenas) and so on. In April they all of a sudden were gone, one could see them occasionally here and there and it was obvious that Half-Tail now was showing her daughter the whole territory of about 30-40

In September 1993, that is at the age of only ten months, Beauty already began to take off on her own which was quite astounding since according to the pertinent literature young leopards do not start weaning gradually from their mother before the age of 18 months.

Studies conducted in South Africa revealed that there young leopards were at the age of 22 months still unable to kill larger animals -such as impalas or Thompson gazelles - on their own but that their mother still did it for them. Beauty was already able to do this at the age of 12 months ~ what a remarkable girl.

Beauty, the first daughter at the age of about three months.


In November 1993 we then discovered why Beauty had taken off on her own so incredibly early - Half Tail had gotten two new cubs who she likewise gave birth to in the fig tree ridge. She chose a rock cave for it which was only about 200 m away from the cave in which her first daughter Beauty was born. This time the cubs were a daughter and a son. Later on, when we knew the two leopard children a little better we named them Taratibu and Mang'aa which in this country's language means something like 'Careful' and 'Lighthearted'.

The daughter Tarabitu was really careful, always staying behind her mum or always staying at the safe hiding place when the same was not around. The son Mang'aa on the other hand had obviously inherited the coolness of his mother. He lay for hours completely open on large boulders where everyone could see him; or at the age of mere four months he already sneaked up on elephants as close as three meters while Taratibu watched her brother's doings from a safe distance.

But the big sister Beauty did not break off the contact with her mother and the younger sister and brother. She still lived with them within the boundaries of her mother's home territory and sometimes even killed animals very close to the cave in which the younger cubs were hiding and deposited her prey on trees nearby.

At times Half Tail even tolerated that Beauty played with her younger brother and sister. A behaviour which probably has never before been documented photographically.

In November 1994, aged almost exactly one year, the careful Taratibu was one night killed by a lioness. We found her early the next morning dead in open terrain and could ascertain by the bite marks and paw prints in the mud that a lioness must have killed her. "We soon thereafter also discovered the lioness who likewise showed distinct signs of heavy fighting: Muddied scratch marks on the front part ofher body as well as a closed and heavily swollen eye with a bleeding scratch wound which surely the desperately resisting Taratibu had caused her in her death struggle. Lions are the sworn enemies of the leopards and let no opportunity pass tokill a leopard

In the morning between eight and ten o'clock the leopardess
regularly leaves the cave with the cubs for about half
an hour to make her toilet.

Half Tail brings a cub back into the cave.

Half Tail and a baboon.

Here the one-year-old daughter Beauty is playing with the
two new children of her mother. Such a behaviours has
never before observed or photographed.

Here Mang'aa and Taratibu are sucking
mother's milk.

At the age of one year Taratibu was killed by a lioness. Here
Half Tail returns to her dead daugther to say farewell.



In late January 1996 Half-Tail had again given birth to two cubs, this time in the leopard gorge. One of the two cubs, however, died very early. The last time it was seen it was about four weeks old. Whether lions, hyenas, diseases or other causes led to its death is not known. The surviving cub was a very dark coloured female and - like his mother not at all shy. The little leopardess seemed to have inherited her mother's character, just like Mang'aa who today at the age of about two and half years is also still as lighthearted as ever in the face of motor cars. Beauty on the other hand has become considerably shyer and always disappears right away when cars approach her. Only sometimes when she is with her mother she throws off her shyness.

Interesting is that the home territories of both mother Half Tail and daughter Beauty still overlap although the daughter is now already three and a half years old. In March 1996 the two had again been seen together. Daugther Beauty had killed a young warthog and deposited it on a tree, about two kilometers away from her mother's third litter. Later on mother and big daughter were seen together feeding in harmony on the quarry.

The younger son Mang'aa also lives with his two and a half years still in his mother's territory, preferably in the southwestern part in the area around the 'No Camping Wood'. Half Tail devoted a lot more attention to this daughter as an only child than to the previous litter. We had never seen before that the leopardess devoted herself so intensively to her children as she did with this daughter. She was with her a lot more often during daytime than with her other children before and she also played and romped about with her much longer and more intensively than with the others before her. She seemed to entertain a particularly close and affectionate relation with this child ofhers.

Having named the first daughter Beauty three and a half years ago and the daughter of the second litter two and a half years ago Taratibu (Careful) and the son Mang'aa (Lighthearted) we now named this daughter Zawadi (Gift) because through her behaviour she had made us a gift of tremendously delightful observations.

Zawadi aged three months.Here she is looking at a
hyena passing by wondering wether it might be
better for her to climb up the tree or whether it
might be enough to just stay put.


In December 1996 Half Tail had a nasty experience. A young Maasai aged about 20 wounded her seriously with an arrow which got stuck in her head. The park rangers had a veterinary flown in from Nairobi who put her to sleep with a stunning gun and then removed the arrow. The rangers shot a Thompson gazelle and put it near the stunned leopardess to provide her with food for the first days after coming round. Half Tail was in luck: the wound healed without any problem and after a couple of weeks there was nothing more to be seen of this injury. The young Maasai was excluded from the village community because of this deliberate action.


In October 1997 Half Tail had again given birth to two cubs, and again as with the last litter in the leopard canyon. Unfortunately no long and beautiful leopard's life was granted to these cubs. A few weeks later a strange male leopard about 3 years old (not the cubs' father) passed through this area and discovered the two young leopard children only a few weeks old in their cave and killed them in the absence of their mother. When Half Tail returned some time later and discovered the strange leopard a fierce fight broke out in the course of which the male fell from a tree about ten meters deep and then disappeared. Of lions it is known that strange males kill the little ones of the females when taking over a pride of lionesses. With leopards this had never been observed until then, probably because of these cats' more secretive way of living.


In early October 1998 one morning at about 7 o'clock in the area around the Kichwa Tembo bush Half Tail came towards me carrying a young warthog in her mouth, wandering with determination and in a straight line through the Savanna. After about half an hour's wandering she reached a deep ditch, disappered in the same, reappeared on the opposite side and right away a little leopard, about three months old, came running towards her, greeted his mother, played with her and subsequently drank mother's milk. Only well over half an hour later a second little leopard appeared, very shy, very careful. He did not drink any milk in the open terrain like his brother or sister, but his mother had to seek the protection of the bush for him to drink. We later on dubbed this young male Wasiwasi which means shy and his sister who during the next weeks showed herself as being courageous and more lighthearted we called Shujaa which means strong and determined.

The shy son Wasiwasi who showed himself never on his own in
the open terrain, here together with his mother.

Shujaa, Half Tail's last daughter, together with her mother in the
Mataneti area in the Masai Mara.

Her first two litters Half Tail had given birth to in the fig tree ridge, the next two in the leopard canyon not far away. That this time these two cubs were not born there, but at a distance of 6-8 km between the Kichwa Tembo bush and the River Mara may be due to the fact that within the surrounds of the leopard canyon her last two children had been killed by a male leopard. Since that traumatic event Half Tail often avoids her hitherto lifelong core home territory and spends more and more time in this new area which the Maasai call 'Mataneti'. It is apparently an ideal area for a leopardess with two little ones: In the past two weeks we haven't seen any lion nor any hyena or any Maasai - thus a leopard's paradise. Haft Tail's first daughter probably had her first children in 1997 which presumably were also killed by the same male leopard. In March 1999 daughter Zawadi had her first two cubs which made Half-Tail a grandmother.

In July 1999 a arrow  from a Maasai herdsman killed Half Taill. The Maasai protected his goats against a attack from the leopardess.

An era in the Masai Mara came to its end.

All images: Nikon F4, 2.8/300 & 4.0/600 mm, Fujichrome-100, Car camera mount.

 * * * * *