On safari in Kenya's Maasai Mara National Reserve

If you go

The Maasai Mara National Reserve is a 583-square-mile big-game reserve in southern Kenya, contiguous with Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. The Mara reserve is named after the Maasai people, who are the ancestral inhabitants of the area. "Mara" is a word from the Maasai language that has several meanings, among them "spotted," which refers to the pockets of trees and shrubs that dot the region's grasslands.

The Mara reserve is globally known for its population of lions, cheetahs and leopards, and for the annual migration of wildebeest and other ungulates.

Safaris are offered by many companies both inside and on the fringe of the Mara reserve. Our group stayed at the Mara Explorers Camp, just outside the reserve, where we slept in large tents with beds and private bathrooms. We ate at a central facility. The camp employs Maasai men who serve as guides and drivers on safaris. The camp, owned by Moses Maina Njorge and Laura Dowler Maina, supports up to six children from a nearby community in a local primary school or a regional high school.

For more information, go to maraexplorers.com or email maraexplorerscamp@gmail.com.

The leopard rises now from the tree branch where it has draped itself on this warm December morning. With movement that appears weightless, it leaps to a higher branch in the acacia tree, descends to another and walks out the branch to survey the rolling countryside below.

Most of us in the Land Cruiser below gasp softly as we watch the cat's movements. This is the first leopard we have ever seen.

This is not a National Geographic program. This is not a YouTube video. This is not a Google search. We are here, watching a graceful and handsome mammal native to Kenya's Maasai Mara National Reserve, a contiguous extension of Tanzania's famed Serengeti National Park. This is the first morning of three days we will spend here on safari with our guide, Jackson Nkuito, and driver David Pessi.

After several minutes of observing the leopard, we are about to leave when we see another leopard approaching through knee-high grass with a young one behind it. Nkuito pieces together what is happening.

"That is the mother," says Nkuito, 42, whose Maasai ancestors have lived on these lands for thousands of years.

The leopard in the tree is a juvenile, he explains, a sibling of the other young one trailing its mother. As the two leopards on the ground approach, the leopard we have been watching uncoils itself, meows three times and walks head-first nearly vertically down a branch of the tree. It jumps to the ground, bounds through the grass, leaps into the air and pounces on its brother or sister.

Beyond counting

Over the next three days, we will be fortunate. We will see all of what Nkuito and fellow guides call "the big five" _ African elephants, cape buffalo, lions, leopards and a black rhinoceros. There can be a checklist mentality among safari-goers. A ticking off of species: Got my giraffe. Got a zebra. Got wildebeest and waterbuck and hippo.

But we are fortunate to have Nkuito showing us the land and interpreting its ecosystem. He speaks three languages _ Maasai, Swahili and English. He's dressed in his characteristic Maasai clothing _ red blanket, shorts, sandals, bead necklaces, long sheath knife. Nkuito not only puts us near the reserve's iconic animals _ he tells us how they live.

We pepper him with questions. He is unstumpable. And he volunteers information we would never have asked about. Watching a family of elephants pass on both sides of our Land Cruiser one morning, Nkuito offers perspective on the immense animals.

Why does an elephant snuffle up dirt and expel it onto its back? "To keep cool."

How much vegetation can an elephant eat in a day? "Up to 250 kilograms (550 pounds)."

He explains why we see elephants sometimes lift their trunks to eye level as if probing the air.

"They lift their trunks for three reasons," Nkuito says. "One, for picking up scent. Two, for detecting ultrasonic sound, which comes from the vibrations of others in the herd walking on the ground. Three, for trumpeting."

Hunters and hunted

Beyond Nkuito's interpretation, we are fortunate to catch glimpses of how creatures on the Mara interact. We would see five leopards in all, and one of them has just snatched a terrapin (a turtle that lives in brackish water) from a murky stream. We watch as it carries its prey to a grassy hillside. We can hear the leopard crunching through its shell.

Its snack finished, the leopard walks away, pausing momentarily to leap off its feet just to swipe at an overhanging branch.

One afternoon, we watch a lone cheetah as it sizes up two groups of Thomson's gazelles. For several minutes, we observe the standoff. The cheetah eyes first one bunch of gazelles, then the other. He sits beneath a croton bush, as if deciding whether a hot midday chase is worth a potential meal.

A gazelle grunts.

"He is saying, 'Everyone look here now,' " Nkuito says.

The gazelles know that danger lurks. But soon, the cheetah lies down in the shade of the croton bush in short grass, like a cat circling up on a couch. It flicks its tail. The game is off.

During our stay at the Mara, we see hundreds of "DLTs" _ deer-like things, in safari jargon. Gazelles. Topis. Hartebeests. Impala. We see few of the estimated 1.7 million wildebeests, though, because most have migrated south to the Serengeti. They migrate north from the Serengeti to the Mara in summer seeking richer grasslands, returning south in October and November. Crocodiles wait at known river crossings to prey on the wildebeests as they enter or leave the water.

A new day

Every day on a safari holds something new, something surprising. This isn't lost on Nkuito, even after 15 years as a guide.

"Another beautiful morning," he says as we leave the Mara Explorers Camp on one cool dawn. "Let's go see what nature will provide us."

Watching a family of elephants that morning, one of the young ones lets out a trumpet. All of the older elephants respond with guttural growls.

"They are saying, 'What's the matter?' " Nkuito says.

One adult elephant runs to the young one.

"That is the mother," Nkuito says.

It comes alongside the baby and, in a motion as sweet as a mother's hug, caresses the young one's flanks with its trunk. We will never know what the baby was complaining about.

Threats remain

Not all is perfect in the Mara, or in the vast Serengeti next door in Tanzania. Poaching remains a threat, especially to elephants and rhinos, and both populations have declined from the 1960s and 1970s. Elephants also are killed when they wander outside the reserve into areas cultivated for agriculture, where they are sometimes shot by landowners, Nkuito says.

In 1971, the Maasai Mara Reserve had about 120 black rhinos, but that number dropped to just 18 by 1984, according to the Mara Conservancy. Now, the population is estimated at 25 to 30, the group says.

Water levels and water quality in the Mara River, which flows through the Mara, have been compromised because of agriculture and population growth, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Sometimes, wildlife poses a threat to sheep, goats and cattle kept by Maasai herders who keep flocks in pens fenced by thorny brush near their homes. Nkuito tells of sleeping in his sheep pen one night, armed only with his sheath knife, in case a marauding leopard returned. It didn't.

Enduring landscape

Despite those ongoing challenges in the Mara, it remains a spectacular example of what a landscape can be when it is valued and protected. The safari experience is far more than simply observing what many of us consider "exotic" animals. A visitor from Chicago might feel much the same about seeing a moose in Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Behind such a thrill is the sense that the Mara remains a relatively intact ecosystem, largely unchanged by outside forces, even with the Land Cruisers scooting around its gravel roads.

Standing on a high point with Nkuito one morning, we could look for miles across the waving grasses and the pockets of bushes to a blue ridge in the distance.

"That hill of blue far away, that is Tanzania," he said. "Probably 100 kilometers (60 miles)."

The Mara is modest in size compared to some wilderness areas in the United States. It's about one-third the size of the Boundary Waters, for example, and tiny in comparison to a place like the 19-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

But, with the adjoining Serengeti, this land still supports the annual movements of nearly two million wildebeest, considered the largest migration of mammals in the world. On any given hillside, one might encounter 180 cape buffalo, or watch 30 elephants grazing or observe a warthog trundling along with a couple of red-billed oxpeckers plucking ticks from its back.

A full moon rose over the Mara Explorers Camp one night during our stay. Frog song filled the night air as we walked back to our tent, and the deep growl of a lion rolled across the land, presumably from beyond the electric fence that encircled camp.

In the morning, we would let Nkuito unveil more of his homeland.