Leopards, Life & Death

Seven years ago, aged 10, I almost lost my life. Camped in Khwai campground in the North of Botswana, I was walking back from the bathroom block, lagging several steps behind my family. Reaching the edge of the campsite, I happened to look round and caught sight of a dark shape crouched low to the ground mere metres behind. What ensued was a sequence of events that I will never forget. “I think there's something behind me,” I said. My brother Kieran turned round from several metres ahead and shone his torch in the direction of my gaze. There, illuminated by the pale beam was a young leopard crouched stalking close to the ground, frozen, it's eyes locked in mine. There was a long pause, then the contact was broken and the leopard padded off. My worried parents hastily split myself and my two siblings across our two tents, but the leopard kept returning. First under the car, then circling the fire as my father stood watch with a spade and a wine bottle. Next morning, there was a post up on a prominent 4WD forum describing the encounter as a warning for others. Gradually the comments rolled in, piling up into a thread some four pages long: heated discussion on how to treat this problem leopard, which would most likely be killed; personal anecdotes from others with similar experiences; and, amidst it all a notable section on what should be done about the problem child (me). To clarify, my actions were not unduly brash. In the normal state of things, a leopard would almost never stalk a human- even a child such as myself. Most likely, it was a young animal that had been fed- directly or indirectly- by campers, and so grown to associate humans with food. Entirely the humans' fault, of course, but as a result this leopard had become a threat to people. Relocation would require darting it with tranquilizer to capture it: costly, dangerous to both the people and the leopard, with the added complication that anywhere it were moved to would likely be another leopard's territory. It would be a truly rare authority that took such an option. This animal failed to take my life, and paid the ultimate price- it's a strange sort of debt I feel, that I will never repay. It wasn't my fault, nor that of the leopard or any single human that can shoulder the blame. I see it as a symptom of our current relationship with nature- a relationship I have devoted my life to changing. We are the product of our environment, but we also shape it.


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