These travel words and pictures are about releasing a wild Leopard back into the South African bushveld, from a trip in Summer 2009.
Gripping the back of the untamed Leopard’s neck with my left hand and cradling its throat with my right, I distinctly feel a low murmur from within. In this heightened sense of alert, I fail to recognise a precious moment to fondly recall, a moment I’m unlikely to ever come close to replicating. My focus is on getting the job done, on not dropping a hefty weight of sedated head.
Only afterwards do I appreciate it would be a pity to ever forget this once-in-a-lifetime proximity to an untamed and endangered species, accepted at the sanctuary after being seriously maimed by a farmer. There are political issues here concerning leopards and farmers, not unlike those with badgers in the UK.
I rest her head back down and more volunteers are called to lift and carry the animal to its cage. I step back and allow six large, muscular men to get a piece of the action.
Early that morning we had left the conservancy valley and headed through town to the rehabilitation sanctuary and zoo, where the Leopard was being kept.
Our collective mission:
– sedate the creature;
– take her measurements, enabling her footprints to be tracked;
– fit a GPS collar to track her movements;
– ship her into the cage fixed on the back of a truck;
– transport her back to a release site not far away from our own conservancy;
– finally release her back into the wild.
Upon arriving at the sanctuary, the cage needed to be prepared with soft carpet and covered with a heavy sheet, ensuring the animal would be in darkness for the duration of its journey. Next, she needed to be sedated, taken to an operating theatre hut, measured and weighed.
During this process the sanctuary’s population of young volunteers crowd around, eager to touch and photograph the animal. Our group, representing the project as volunteers, attempt to be more assertive, serious and hardened; with various degrees of success.
I am wowed by the whirlwind efficiency of a process that takes place from the moment the animal is placed on the theatre’s medical style operating table. Even in the throes of my involvement taking measurements, holding her head and finding blood on my hand, I remain wowed. I am amid intimidatingly impressive professionals. There is something surreal and dream-like about the experience.
With all the required data gathered, we pack quickly back into our Land Rover and speed back down the winding, mountainous roads, almost beginning to take their majesty for granted.
Arriving back into the release site scouted the day before, we are greeted by more well-wishers and keen observers. The cage is heaved off the truck, laid onto the ground and pointed in the direction of an easy route into the bushveld. People stand back a safe distance.
The cage covers are partially lifted so observers can, two at a time, quietly take a glimpse of the stunning, but still drunk creature. She blearily eyes us, one by one, doubtless wondering what is going on. Five minutes of observation is more than enough.
We stand an extra few yards back, most clambering onto the back of the trailer, now vacated by the cage. The cage door is raised from a distance using a pulley mechanism. An atmosphere of quiet electricity descends.
Out she steps, as if relearning how to walk, one giant clumping paw in front of the other giant clumping paw. I had cradled her head in my hands a few hours ago, felt her murmur.
Several times she looks back at us all: these strange human creatures silently staring from atop their metal tins. We watch, hypnotised and tingling with excited fear, not too far away.
She moves on a few paces, stops and looks back, almost as if she is unsure this her freedom is allowed, like she thinks the offer might be retracted and someone will shoot her with another tranquilizer dart.
Another few paces, another glance back. She’s not going to just stand still, or turn around, come back and inspect us, is she?
Moves on, stops.
Pad pad. Clump clump.
Slowly slowly, she slinks into the bushveld undergrowth.
Conversational human tone gradually rises from whispers into relieved burbling. Someone tries tracking her using the special GPS collar. It reveals she hasn’t yet moved far, but she is certainly moving. Her wild travels have resumed.
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