Close observers of this space will have noticed that I haven’t finished my trip yet. I suppose it’s because I can’t bear to leave. In strict fact I’ve been home for a couple of months, but it seems I’ve been avoiding the task of writing my final blog from the Luangwa Valley.
But I must be brave.
Leopard, then. Leopard in broad daylight: such a treat. Two leopards in daylight, in fact: and that’s too much of a good thing. Certainly the female thought so: we’d been with her for about half an hour when — lithe, slim and athletic — she dropped low to the ground in the classic stalking posture and shuffled subtly towards the male, who was big, burly, and full of swaggering self-confidence.
From a few feet she moved effortlessly into a charge – fully committed? Maybe not, but it was good enough for the male, who got to his feet and ran for it. No point in risking a face-full of claws, after all. She pursued him for a few strides and then paused, exaggeratedly upright, impossibly alert, staring at his departing form.
He didn’t move that fast because — shockingly, astonishingly — the male had only three functioning paws: the fourth, left fore, had been lost, presumably to a snare. This contradicts an easy assumption about leopards: that being solitary hunters, they need to be in good shape. Perfection, I always thought, is their strategy.
But here was a leopard breaking all the rules: surviving by means of cleverness, strength of will, self-belief and perhaps the art of the scavenge. He was breaking the rules today, too, because the female was not in oestrus and had no wish for male company. She had a six month old male cub who couldn’t be far away – I’d seen them together a few days earlier – and if this big lame male came across him, he’d probably kill him.
So the female backed her speed and agility to get the better of the male – at least for the time being. She lay up under a bush to get her breath back, for it was a big thing she’d just done. Her next problem was to reconnect with her cub without the lame male following.
So what happened next?
I don’t know. Sorry. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know.
The bush is full of uncompleted stories: dramas acted before you, but with the ending, comic or tragic, frustratingly omitted, the last chapter torn out. But now it was time to go home. This trip had an ending all right, but if we’re all saved, there’ll be another next year.
· I was co-leading the Sacred Combe Safari with Chris Breen from www.wildlifeworldwide.com