in communion with leopards

2017 | Story and photos by Haley Pope

Humans are creatures of control. We prefer patterns, predictability, and routine to chaos, uncertainty, and change. We pick the same side of the room to sit on, the same pew or desk or seat; we pick the same foods, along with the same drinks and company; we choose things that are familiar and safe. When asked to give up control, we become anxious, angry, desperate, or frustrated.

 

Everyone falls somewhere along this comfort-control spectrum. To some degree, we all have the tendency to pull away from uncertainty and the unknown. Yet, just because we want to does not mean we should: it’s not always in our best interest or the best interest of others. Confined within familiar territory, we may perpetuate ignorance and fuel prejudices, like the idea that we are superior to and more important than other people or nature. Unchecked, we allow ourselves to maintain these biased views regarding our significance in the world.

 

Collectively, humans exert immense control over lives and environments. But individually, we are tiny parts of nature without much perceivable control over anything. (Before I go further, I know some people will disagree with this bold decree, but I believe we are already starting to see the effects of our undoing. In the end, we will see whether man or nature reigns supreme). At best, we strive to live in harmony with nature and at worst, try to dominate her or become victim to her violent backlashes. We live in a teetering relationship with her bound to oscillate between affection and hostility.

A six-month-old female leopard cub (Panthera pardus) in Okavango Delta, Botswana walks along a tree branch like a gymnast on a balance beam, while the sun shines off her spotted coat.

LEFT: A rescued leopard (Panthera pardus) yawns as he awakes at Aquila Private Game Reserve, Northern Cape, South Africa.

RIGHT: A leopard looks over his shoulder at the two lionesses approaching in Kruger National Park, South Africa. The two chased the leopard high into the treetops overhead.

These words encourage us to seek the truth beyond ourselves and our biases.

A young male leopard (Panthera pardus), seen one evening in Hluhluwe iMfolozi Game Reserve in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa, darts off into the bush keeping to the shadows.

Albert Einstein realized this, I think, and wisely encouraged us to “look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better”. I admire how nature is credited with having an answer for everything. Credited for being in command of all that is, has been, and will be. These words encourage us to seek the truth beyond our biases and ourselves. These words are a call to action: leave your comfort zone, go out into the world, and realize your own powerlessness; immerse yourself into that which you want to know better, be it nature, a language, culture, or skill. This requires vulnerability, responsibility, and humility, but once we venture into new territory we may find unexpected exhilaration.

 

Exhilaration. Nature offers this to me. There are few places I feel the weight of my own mortality so clearly, my own helplessness juxtaposed with the authority of nature than in the great African bush. And there are fewer animals that can instill these emotions in my heart better than an African leopard. Many would agree. You don’t want to stumble upon a leopard by accident. Leopards are cautious cats and therefore, distrustful of humans, elusive, unpredictable, and at times violent.

 

Weighing between 130 – 200 pounds and equipped with razor-sharp claws and a jaw full of fangs, a leopard could take down a human with one swipe of a paw. Navigating in the moonlight, a leopard’s pupils would dilate and their gaze would lock on our stumbling figures through the darkness. Despite this threat, and because leopard sightings are rare and happen mostly at night during their hunting escapades, they’re persistently sought after on game drives. Their handsome markings and graceful bodies are a lure to all. They are captivating.

One night in Etosha National Park, an expanse of grasslands and salt flats in Namibia, my mother, husband, and I went on a game drive in hopes of catching a fleeting glimpse of a leopard. The air was warm and humid that evening. A summer rainstorm had recently passed through leaving a sweet, wild scent in the air as we drove off into the sunset. Along the way, we came across several white rhinos and stayed to watch them for a while. But as we drove away, something creeping through the yellow grass caught our guide’s eye: shiny golden fur camouflaged by the leaves.

 

Just when we suspected it had disappeared, a muscular body sporting dashing rosettes leaped into full view. Instead of quickly crossing to the other side as they usually do, it sauntered down the road in front of us dismissive of our presence. We followed behind until the leopard slowed his gait to a relaxed walk. In another moment, he was no more than five feet from the right side of the vehicle where I sat cemented in place. Casting quick glances in our direction as he walked, I frantically whispered, “don’t look the leopard in the eye.” I tried to resist the urge myself recalling the game guard’s warning. With breaths held, we sat unblinking, frozen with excitement. Had I stretched my arm over the side of the vehicle, I could have touched him. Then, after several moments of complete silence, he picked up his pace and slinked off into the blackness.

 

In the presence of that powerful, wild spirit, I was caught between emotions: the elation of seeing a leopard in the wild and the absurdity of our situation. We, four vulnerable (fangless and clawless) humans, had gazed upon an animal capable of tearing us to shreds. He could have lunged into the open vehicle, snagged one of us by the throat, and dragged us away just as easily as dashing off into the bush himself. When this thought settled, the imaginary veil of security vanished.

LEFT: A  male leopard (Panthera pardus) fixes his eyes on me as dark settles in Hluhluwe iMfolozi Game Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa before retreating into the bush.

RIGHT: A male leopard escapes into the night in Etosha National Park in Namibia.

A six-month-old female leopard (Panthera pardus) casually hangs out in a tree during the daylight house in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.

The six-month-old female leopard (Panthera pardus) is spotted crouched in a tree in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.

Now imagine: Botswana. Dusk. Two baby leopards. Their mother. A recent kill. Again we again found ourselves in an open game drive vehicle. But this time we were crawling along the winding marshy roads through the Okavango Delta at a snail’s pace. We had searched for a family of leopards that lived in the area for days without spotting them. Our luck was about to change. L.T., our driver and guide, suddenly got a radio call. We heard the foreign exclamations coming from the speaker. What was going on? What had they found? L.T. stomped on the brakes, made a U-turn, and sped off in the direction of the tip-off location.

 

The truck swished through the tall grass as we approached the scene. All eyes were on the fallen tree in front of us where we espied a young leopard testing her balance on a tree limb like a gymnast on a balance beam. She was a bold girl to be out so obviously in the waning daylight. She finally stretched herself out and basked in the remaining sunrays as we watched, mesmerized, ten feet away. Her brother, the more cautious of the two, cowered behind a bush on a six-foot-tall termite mound and peaked out at us.

 

Night fell around us as we watched the young leopards play. We had no idea where the mother might be. L.T. explained she was probably hunting and would be back to take care of her cubs soon. We did know that the mother would not be pleased to see us close to her little ones, so we circled around the area in case she was approaching. The night was cool, moist, and deathly silent except for the occasional insect chirp and soft wind rustling through the leaves. The stars twinkled brightly since no other lights existed to cloud their brilliance.

 

Then, on our loop back towards the cubs, we saw her. She was a big, thick female with stocky legs and a strong chest. Her powerful, firm paws pressed into the ground without making a noise as she sulked along, utterly spent. There was a large gash above her left eye – a wound from a recent hunting endeavor maybe. When she reached a spot in the tall grass where the leaves were matted down, she turned inward and disappeared. In eagerness, we inched forward until part of her body was in our line of sight. Well, part of her body and part of a bleeding, mangled body.

 

It had been a successful hunt. She crouched over the limp body of an impala securely gripped between tooth and nail, each busy in the grisly process of tearing and ripping her prey apart. Deep rumbles gurgled from her throat as she savored each bloody bite and coaxed her children to join her for dinner. Unsurprisingly, the young female wasted no time in joining her mother at the bountiful feast. Her brother, however, remained wary of our presence, so we backed away and left the leopard family to enjoy their meal in the pitch-black darkness of an African night.

We drove away with slaphappy grins stretched across our faces despite having witnessed a gruesome feasting. Why were we comfortable in that situation? Were we were ignorant of the potential danger? Did we naïvely assume no harm could come to us? Or, did we recognize the possible yet unlikely risk and believe it was worth it? Maybe we just hadn’t thought it through…

 

Most wildlife encounters pass without incident and you can appreciate the rare moment spent with a wild animal. However, the absence of an incident isn’t proof of our control in those situations. They are evidence of the animal’s self-control. By pretending that we have control in a wilderness setting, we believe we are beyond the events taking place and superior to wildlife. We uphold the dangerous illusion that we are bystanders and therefore, safe. Viewing wilderness through this lens is akin to watching an event unfold on a TV screen or from behind shatterproof windowpanes at the zoo. In fact, we are only characters in a reality show to which no one has a script. In one moment, nature bewitches you with mesmerizing sights and sounds. In another moment, she turns on you and becomes vicious and unforgiving.

Leopards (Panthera pardus) are one of the most elusive cat species in Africa, especially in the Okavango Delta during the rainy season, where dense vegetation and large swampy marshes further conceal them. Special moments like this, when one is able to catch a glimpse of these exotic creatures, are thus rare and extraordinary. This six-month-old female cub was spotted lounging along a tree branch one evening while her mother was out hunting.

A rare sighting of a leopard (Panthera pardus) in the daylight basking in the sunshine was a real treat to see. Taken in Aquila Private Game Reserve, Northern Cape, South Africa

That we are superior to other creatures is a false belief perpetuated by Western culture, society, and religion, and it’s one that needs stubborn rejection.

Today, few cultures retain an honest relationship with nature. The few that remain are often native communities in Africa, South America, or Asia who, for millennia, have learned to live with nature and within its confines and freedoms on a daily basis. A healthy fear of and respect for nature is what these cultures have encouraged – something industrialized countries have largely forgotten. Instead of fear and respect, we foster feelings of familiarity and entitlement toward the entire planet. The effects of which have manifested in the destruction of wildernesses, extinction of species, depletion of natural resources, and heightened political and military tensions across the globe.

 

Just as music won’t harmonize without notes in accord, nature will not be in harmony with us at odds. If we want to prevent further destruction, we need a paradigm shift in our relationship to nature: one from dominion over to communion with. That we are superior to other creatures is a false belief perpetuated by Western culture, society, and religion. The sooner we grasp our equality with all living beings, the sooner we will live engaged lives with each other and the planet and be humbled by our place in the universe. In time, we can learn to foster love, respect and a healthy fear of nature with genuine grace and humility. As for me, I’m content being a single note in nature’s grand song. Are you?

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