I Have Become the Leopard
by Arthur Davis
Tonight the memories return. A mass of steep canyons. Mountain ranges and the inland plateau edge of a great escarpment. Dry lakebeds. Remnant ponds. Mass migrations of grazing animals, flamingo, and stork. A maze of channels, papyrus swamps, wet swales, rocky outcroppings, towering green mountain ranges, and mountaintops covered with stunted woodland, standing over the kill of a golden jackal and red fox. Is it that I am so close to death that my past and the past of others I have been well up so easily? Finally, the image of an adult male impala presents itself. I do not recall details of that life. I am grateful for not recalling the details of that death.
Sometime during the night I am awakened, but not by danger. I open my eyes and look down. A female African hare moves about in search of nuts and insect burrows at the base of the tree. She is not aware of my presence. This would make a tidy meal but I am unable to leap from this height without endangering my wound. She is safe. She fills her mouth and scurries on into the night. The moon gives away her position, as it would have mine had I not taken to the trees. An adult female topi grazes in her path. She turns to avoid it and disappears in the grass. The topi presented no threat. In darkness or light, there is never safety.
The ones who claimed the elephant reappear in my sleep, as though there was a singular kinship calling me to their side. From the sky I have watched their stirring, where they wander and how they hunt and the fact that they do not stalk or ambush, rather, simply interpose themselves in the tracks of an animal and the beast succumbs. I do not understand. If this is true, then we all are doomed. Such is the greatness of their hunting skills. There is no sanctuary in the rain forest, the forest or savannahs, in the lush rolling grasslands or stands of evergreen. Not in the air or in the water. I have seen them hunt bird and now the majestic elephant. How easy it is for them. How strange they never feast on their kill, though their exultation is quite evident.
The next morning I am aroused, but not by a hungry plains hare. Two hyenas linger where the hare was foraging. They are on to her scent. I cannot stir, for fear I will be detected. They will remain at the base of the acacia until their search is rewarded or they are attracted by other game. They lift their heads. They have caught another scent. Mine. Neither can locate the origin of the odor, but they persist.
There is a commotion in the distance, in the direction where the lions made their kills. It distracts the hyenas. One draws the other out from under the canopy and they trot off together toward the rising cloud of dust and opportunity.
A female cheetah stalks an impala. The herd swells with newborn. A nursing herd is a favorite killing ground, especially for the cheetah that is the fastest animal on the plains and yet gives up much of its kill to more powerful hunters. The cheetah’s small jaw and short canine teeth make the killing bite, crushing the victim’s throat, difficult. The cheetahs, like the wild dog, hunt in the baking heat of the day to avoid what every animal fears most, the lion, and packs of roaming hyenas who are not bound to territory as lions are.
The cheetah is not outmaneuvered by the impala, which it snares in a thicket. If the hunt had not been successful, the cheetah would have had to rest after its body overheated from the short, frantic chase. The mother cheetah examines the lifeless impala then cries a short pattern of barks to her cubs, who come running along. Five of them. Two or three or more will be dead soon, as most large litters do not survive their first year.
A large scarab beetle advances down the branch toward me. A small morsel indeed. But as the most adaptable of the big cats, I will eat many animals, from termites to antelope. Whatever it takes to stay alive. That is why I can be found from the sultry rain forest, where I am master, to the steaming savannahs, where I must share my spoils. But to be the most adaptable, I have had to give up much. I do not have the strength of the lion or speed of the cheetah, nor the communality of the hyenas. I hunt alone. I am one-third the size of the lion; my strength is cunning agility.
A warthog piglet. I rise and loosen my body. The taint of pain from my right hindquarter reminds me why I am hungry, thirsty, and lying in the notch of a tree without a kill to awaken to. I turn to inspect the damage. The wound is not completely healed; that will take more time. But I am well enough not to be a banquet for flies, or stifled by pain, or concerned about my stride. I scan the plains. The impala herd is beginning to stir. The mother cheetah has found a spot to hide the carcass and watch her cubs eat.
The warthog piglet skirts the watering hole between giraffes and elephants. A white rhino shuffles about restlessly, distrusting and alert. There is no reason to the huge snorting animal’s behavior, which seem at odds with order. Unlike the rest of those who live in the herd and are always searching over our shoulder, the rhino, like the elephant, has no natural enemies and no use for energies that might be expended to save its life.
I climb down, relieved that the pain and weakness have lessened, that I am more who I was, and less fearful of what I might have become. I will continue to favor the wound until it is completely healed. I am not even distracted or bothered by the flies, and I notice a collection of termite mounds lying between my tree and the watering hole. I make my way toward them, building confidence with each new stride. I leap to the crest of a mound whose height is almost the length of my body. The top is flattened, perfect for resting and surveying. Unlike lions and cheetahs, who possess great skills of pursuit, leopards prefer to ambush prey. This requires a combination of patience and instincts found in few other plains animals.
I survey the kills that were made in the night, the time I once shared with the wild dogs. Roiling plumes of vultures dot the plains, fighting over the remains of ibex, impala, wildebeests, topi, and other less fortunate. I am not as hungry as I thought I would be. The rest, not having to charge and replenish, stalk and ambush, the cool water and deep sleep have saved my life.
The piglet races about, frantic with fear. It knows not to bleat and alert nearby predators. Without protection from its mother, it will be picked off. I feel a twinge of hunger. Perhaps I was wrong. But the distance is too great. Unless the creature comes directly toward me, I will let it go, or watch a lion take it down.
Then I hear it: the mother warthog, a formidable fighter with two razor-sharp tusks. She outweighs most leopards. Still, she is moving in the wrong direction, along the border of the herd and away from the watering hole and her child. But the piglet hears her and lifts his head and takes up a trot in her direction. He is moving directly towards me.
There is nowhere to crouch or hide. If he sees me slip from the mound, I will distract him and he will run back towards the watering hole, which is slowly filling up with the thirsty and vulnerable. Right towards me. An easy ambush, a quick killing bite, a certain meal.
The mother continues her misdirected search as the piglet approaches. By the time he sees me rise, it is too late. He gets off a sharp squeal and I am upon him. He thrashes about, but I am more than I was yesterday and he is no match for my powerful, experienced jaws. The killing bite crushes his throat. He squirms. Gasping for air, his heart pounds to make up the deficiency. Soon, the throbbing lessens until there is nothing. I get up and drag him to the tree, and then bound up into the notch where I spent the previous night.
He is larger than I first thought. I am relieved to see my wound does not limit my aggressiveness. I am exhausted, not by the kill, but by the anticipation of failure. I survey the plains for signs of unrest or curiosity that may have been stirred from my kill. Secure, I begin to eat. A lioness kills an ibex near the watering hole. If she had missed the ibex, she would surely have found the scent of the piglet. The mother warthog’s call dissipates until I am left alone, carving out the animal’s innards.
A pair of gray kestrels swoop down in pursuit of a vole caught too far from its earthen den. I have been that female kestrel. I have taken that vole back to my family. I have watched my children eat what I have set out before them. I do not recall the end of my life as a kestrel. Nor as any other animal. I just know I have been many.
I should have not been so distracted. It is already too late for me to react as the male lion approaches. He is the leader of the pride. His carriage and bearing tell me so, as it would any other. He looks up at me, not under the tree, but from a comfortable vantage point. A lioness joins him. They wait for my response.
This confrontation has happened before. Once while my mother trained me, and another time when I had taken a guinea fowl into a tree like this one. I pause defiantly, then rise and move down from branch to limb until only the drop to the grass remains. I look back at my half-eaten kill.
This is an act of pure arrogance, since lions do not climb trees. They simply do not want me trespassing in their territory. And, if I do encroach, not be such an affront as to feed while they are near. The ibex kill had brought them to the watering hole, and bad luck brought them to me. Had they tracked the scent of the piglet that lead them to me? It does not matter.
I hit the grass and walk submissively into the bush without the slightest intimation of injury, knowing they will not pursue. After a while, I turn, giving final notice of impudence and see something that I — nor other leopards, I believe — have never witnessed. The lioness parades around the tree with the arrogance of its breed and then, in one vaulting leap, launches herself into the branches and snares the remains of the piglet. A shattered shadow in her massive jaws.
The male waits for the female to descend. She hesitates. Two other lionesses approach. Finally, she drops to the grass and the male and two other females tear at the tiny morsel dangling from the side of her mouth. In one powerful motion, she twists around and rips it away. A small piece of flesh protrudes from the jaws of the male. The two remaining females act out their frustration in mock combat for their loss of the kill. So powerful is the drive to feed that failure is not dictated by amount, but by prestige.
But I am satisfied and know that I only have to make one more kill soon, to live through my wound. I must have been moving along at a quick pace, for I find myself ahead of the grazing herd. It does not concern me. I have passed the scent markings of lions, cheetahs, and hyenas as well as a leopard. It may be a brother or sister my mother has spawned.
There is a calm about me that was not present yesterday, as it was before the encounter with the lion. I will hunt differently now, though I do not know how long that caution will last. I have become more respectful of circumstances the most skilled hunters cannot control. I am aware of this, and more; certainly that I was fortunate to survive a wound I have seen hobble greater beasts. These same circumstances favored my recovery, and I have been granted the value of experiences from other lives beyond a mere scattering of unconnected recollection
As the land warms and gray clouds wither, territorial boundaries become vague and float to the needs of the predators. Many prides and packs would rather die than leave their territory, knowing that it will not be unoccupied when they return.
The rains finally abandon the grasslands. Before the seasons change again, many will perish in the wake of the heat and unbearable thirst. Fires will sear the plains, killing grass and, in the process, replenishing it. Cubs will litter the savannah; a reminder of what parents will sacrifice that they may live to create another, stronger, more fortunate generation.
Swarms of vultures will outnumber the flies, whose tormenting mass explodes on the bounty of death. I have seen ibex wilt from the heat, elephants driven mad with thirst and exhaustion, and lions with gaping, slashing wounds that could have only been made by one of their own. They stagger from the shade of one juniper to the other until they’re bled dry. Death has many ways of taking less willful souls, such as black-crowned cranes, secretary birds, and bustards that follow the great herds in anticipation of the insect life that is kicked up by their hooves.
Soon fur begins to grow beneath the wound and replenish my yellow markings. Like most, I will grow weary of the baking sun. But I will survive the dry times, watching from an acacia, a juniper and a hillock. Waiting with my memories of fox, impala, fowl, hogs, oryx, and snakes. Taking whatever I find into the trees and never forgetting the lioness whose instinct carried her beyond the boundaries of her species. I feel a little more vulnerable, slightly less in command of myself. I have passed through the worst of it.
With the end of this season, as I wait for the rains to wash away the scent markings, fill the lagoons and seal the mudflats, rejuvenate the monkeys and giant forest hog, instill hope into vast numbers of cormorants, geese, plovers, sandpipers, gulls, and terns, I am left to think of what I might have been, what I may become in my next life: a bird, a bat, a cape buffalo, a predator lurking in the waterways, or raptor in the skies. Possibly a black rhino or, wistfully, a lion.
I have not the slightest desire to return as what I must once have been: the beast that kills for the tusks of an elephant.
Copyright © 2012 by Arthur Davis