Sublime Silence: In Praise of a Necessary Predator, the Leopard

May 8, 2017 Updated: May 8, 2017

The leopard haunts the forests and lurks in the shadows of the savannahs of Asia and Africa, like a stealthy ghost born in equal measure of the golden sun and the dark earth, with coal black spots that dapple its tawny skin.  

It is always a thrill to see a leopard, and the cries of baboons or birds erupt when the master stalker is on the prowl. It’s as if Creation were sending out its avant guard to the rest of the animal kingdom, and saying, “Beware, an extraordinary being is among you.”   

But today the cat that inspired “How the Leopard Got His Spots” from Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, beloved by children the world over, is threatened. The leopard may well be encroaching on human habitat from Nairobi to the cities of Asia. But it is humanity that continues to slay it for its skin, for tawdry body parts that adorn the depraved among our kind. It is losing its home to the treachery of trophy hunters who decide to slay its impossible beauty, menacing the future of a predator that walks the world like a rare gem in the sentient arsenal of the world.   

A leopard in the Serengeti in Tanzania in 2012. (Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson)
A leopard in the Serengeti in Tanzania in 2012. (Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson)

Leopards often appear as apparitions from nowhere, like the ultimate ghost of the wild. Once on Christmas day in the Serengeti, when my son Lysander  was five, a leopard presented itself on the branch of a tree nibbling a large baobab seed—an oversized cat playing with its favourite toy.   

On another occasion we were following our Maasai guide Olyasepa on the Rufiji River in Tanzania, narrowly avoiding crocodiles and searching for elephants in the heyday of their tragic slaughter that claimed 60 percent of their population. These elephants had overwhelmed the Selous Game Reserve just a few years ago. Suddenly, it appeared, sunbathing on a boulder, by the river, a superb iconic male leopard, as if a guardian of the Selous, defiant of all triumphantly at peace with the world.   

A few years later, rowing down the Zambezi River with Marie and Lysander, we spotted a leopard drinking from the river, “a living spotted tapestry,” as Lysander would call it.

Leopards are exclamations to the wild, vibrant, secretive carnal verbs of explosive power and elegance. But unfortunately their habitat has severely decreased to about a quarter of their historical range. Nine subspecies outside of Africa and India are in free fall with a 90% decrease. Biologists will have their reasons for why the species must endure. Activists will lament the mayhem and chaos that must inhabit the heart of trophy hunters who add leopards to their list of bounty, chief among them American trophy hunters who have no compunction for the destruction of the innocent.   

Empathy the world over is in short supply, and the survival of this being will depend on those who understand that they belong. Hunters, killers, are most certainly impairing the genetic pool of the species. Isak Dinesen, after having been a hunter herself, later decried trophy hunting. “It became to me an unreasonable thing, indeed in itself ugly or vulgar, for the sake of a few hours’ excitement to put out a life that belonged in the great landscape and had grown up in it for ten or twenty, or—as in the case of buffalo and elephants—for fifty or a hundred years.”   

There are biological and major conservation reasons why the leopard must endure. But there is one that reaches towards the stars. I once had the privilege to hear author Laurens van der Post talk about the return of the light, at Christmastime, to a packed Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. A man who was once called the “Conscience of the Western World” related his deep admiration for the Bushmen who listened to the stars and listened to the hunter in the sky.   

When a child was born, the father would hunt a leopard, take its heart, and offer the heart to the Creator so that the child would have courage. But years ago, when such a magnificent predator was taken out, it was a sacrifice, a collective act of appeasement towards a greater force, the heavens. Trophy hunters act with diabolical abandon. They are in essence committing a sin against life. The impulse to kill is symptomatic of a much greater malaise, one that threatens not just the future of the wild but our entire species.   

A leopard in Kenya in 2002. (Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson)
A leopard in Kenya in 2002. (Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson)

In contradistinction to the trophy hunters ethos is an account that comes from Henno Martin, who as a German survived in Namibia during WWII. Henno’s incomparable tale recounts what he had to endure in the oldest desert on the planet, the Namib, to escape capture and the barbed wire fence of internment camp. Throughout his two-year ordeal withstanding the heat and constant challenges of survival, the theme of stone-age man pervades his writing. Despite all our technology, despite modern man’s seeming advances, “The conditions of civilized life were dangerously imbalanced; they demanded primarily an ant-like co-operation, yet in man there was a subconscious urge to live the life of a beast of prey. It seemed quite likely that one day our whole civilization would be destroyed by this contradiction.”   

Most of the time Henno and his companion Hermann looked for game like our ancestors had done for countless millennia. Leopards occasionally presented themselves, and he would witness their hunting techniques, observations that helped Henno survive the wilderness. The old instincts of the hunter were still alive in civilized society, but the actions of the hunter no longer served to defend and sustain life.   

Henno learned the essentials of the harshness and the beauty of an arid world. In the process he acquired some of the soul of stone-age man. Lions, leopards, antelopes were his constant companions. He was never alone. Surrounded by the reality of keeping alive, the fundamentals were food and water, but there was always time for philosophizing. “These primitive peoples who lived together in small kin groups did not show reckless courage for its own sake. They had to be reckless in order to survive.”   

Trophy hunters operate to kill. Killing for its own sake is part of a greater evil, that threatens many species on earth. The overarching menace of climate change is already the greatest spectre of our time. The bush meat trade is imposing intolerable pressure on much of the world’s wildlife. One fifth of all mammals and almost an eighth of all birds could be lost this century—some say half of all life forms! The markets and economic system of the worlds, so very bent on growth, should pay heed to that very sobering numerical reality!

The very formation of language and our ability to cognize the world was influenced by the other beings of this planet  By destroying the predators of the world, we are in essence blowing a hole in the grammar of nature, the wonder of childhood and the lexicon of the world. The prediction that we will meld with the machine by 2040 is a sin against our prime imperative which should be to save the last species of earth.   

There are increasing leopard-human conflicts worldwide. Humans pose a far greater menace to life than all the other predators on the planet put together.   

“Woe betide the people which forces its children and their games into the strait jacket of adult politics,” wrote Martin. “Perhaps in the future the playing of children will be recognized as more important than technical developments, wars and revolutions.” Children will need to know that a presence such as the leopard in all its glory and mystery still moves in the hinterlands of the wild as well as the imagination, lest nature deficit disorder become a spiritual malaise, and their longing for the wild, if it still exists, becomes malignant and they go mad with the loss of the organic.   

Lysander once saw a leopard come near our jeep as our guide (taking liberties with his 50 years of experience and knowhow) lured him with a string and a toy animal. Lysander response was as joyful as if he had been playing with his cat back at home. The leopard approached us and Lysander took an impossibly exquisite photo at ten feet with his Nikon. The bond was unmistakeable. The cat, an animal the Egyptians honored as no other civilization in the history of the world, lived a life of beauty and coherence that should humble us. It could have been a bobcat or a mountain lion, beings which ranchers in the New World relish the occasion to trap or wantonly execute. 

A leopard at Okavango Delta in Botswana in 2015. (Lysander Christo)
A leopard at Okavango Delta in Botswana in 2015. (Lysander Christo)

One day there may be no others to slay. We will have only ourselves to put down. And then as the native people of Kenya say, we will lose our minds. There will be nothing to return to. There will no going back. Children will ask their parents, “What are giraffes, what happened to tigers, where are the elephants, tell me what a leopard looked like, how big are polar bears?” And parents will strain and tremble and cry to answer what was the essence of the miracle of the wild. And children will follow suit and cry inconsolable tears for which there will be no answer.   

We were once honest beings who needed meat to simply live. Today we are tearing apart the immune system of the planet. Robotic implants in the brain and virtual reality will have taken the place of the carnal, the raw, and the real. Nature’s reality will have dissolved under the barrel of a gun. Overpopulation is already overwhelming the wilderness.   

If there is any power that can stop the safari clubs of the world, we need do it now while children still move with the semblance of childhood and wonder. One day the world over, it will be considered illegal to kill for so-called fun, just as it will be considered illegal to drive a fossil fuel-driven car. But how long does the life force of earth have to wait before we reach that point?   

As Henno Martin recognized in the wilds of Namibia 70 years ago, “Wasn’t there a danger that the struggle for survival had made power seem desirable for its own sake? The future looked black, but man’s fate was not so inevitable as that of the animals. A door of escape was still open.” Man could still understand the dangers of his development. And “understanding implies the possibility of redemption.”   

I believe redemption can only come through saving what is left of other species, like the leopard, the tiger, and the lion. Since I was born, 58 percent of all the mass of animals on earth have disappeared. Henno had learned the ways of the wild, and at the end of a remarkable two-year journey of sheer aptitude worthy of primal man, he was met by a leopard called Scarface. His account bears repeating because Henno’s trials bore the mark of a quintessential survivor and not an abject taker of life.   

“I suddenly came face to face with a leopard, a big brute. He was coming down river and the bend had kept him out of sight. We weren’t more than four or five paces apart. We both stopped and looked at each other. I was thinking fast. If I seized my pistol it meant letting my tobacco tin drop, which would have been a pity, and the brute would have been on me before I could fire. So I just stood quietly and looked at him. I noticed that he was soaked. The water was dripping off his belly. I don’t know how long we stood there looking at each other, but then he growled softly, went over to the other side of the  bed and slowly continued his way. It was as though he were saying: ‘I don’t really want any trouble with you, you long, forked creature, but I’m not afraid of you either, so don’t think I am.'” 

Science writer Loren Eiseley once exclaimed that one only meets oneself if one has seen one’s reflection in an eye other than human. He meant to encounter the other fully alive, not a lifeless carcass shot by the ruthless and barbaric folly of humans. It is not just a question of empathy, but one of survival for the only planet in the universe known to harbor life. In the leopard’s eyes, in its continued place on this earth, as with all the species of spaceship earth, shines the last burning appreciable light on our own continuity and future.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Cyril Christo
Cyril Christo
Cyril Christo is an award-winning photographer and filmmaker. He and his wife, Marie Wilkinson, have travelled extensively around the world. They have published several photography books exploring ecological and man-made challenges and endangered bioregions and species. The couple is currently working on a documentary film, “Walking Thunder: The Last Stand of the African Elephant,” which weaves a family’s personal journey in East Africa with indigenous people’s stories.