Written by: Ben Coley
Art: the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.
Beauty exists in every corner and every facet of nature. From the ripples formed across sand dunes, to the unique delicacy of a snowflake, nature’s artistic flair knows no bounds. Of all the creations on this planet, one stands out as being the epitome of aesthetic artwork. Millions of years of evolution has sculpted the leopard into veritable genetic perfection. Strong, powerful, agile and silent, the world’s most widely distributed big cat has it all. It is the Mecca of many a safari-goer, and for the current crop of field guide hopefuls at Karongwe it is no different.
We rounded the corner to be met by the imperious stare of a male leopard as he rested atop a termite mound 20m off the road. The overcast morning did nothing to dull the richness or his pelt as his golden fur shone like a beacon in the muted light. As we manoeuvred the car into the best position no-one spoke. I have 8 years of experience in the bush and have been fortunate enough to view leopards many times but I still have no words that can add value to their sheer, draw-dropping beauty. We sat in silence and just took in the scene. Perched like a king upon his throne, Tsavo casually surveyed his domain, casting a dismissive eye in our direction, his stare only fleeting but a moment that will be etched in to the students’ minds forever.
After a few minutes, the portrait of perfection slowly rose to his feet, stretched out his ample frame and disappeared into the surrounding bush. How such a striking animal can vanish within a few footsteps is one of nature’s miracles. The ultimate killing machine seemed to dissolve into the grass and despite being in close proximity we were left with only a few blurry snapshots as he melted through the undergrowth. We tried in vain for the next 15 minutes to relocate him but knew that we had no chance. The leopard is a master of remaining unseen.
A herd of impala busied themselves close by and we waited to see whether the lure of fresh meat might tempt the master of concealment from his cover. The minutes ticked by as the impala, unaware of their potential danger, fed quietly. We were about to admit defeat when a single alarm snort echoed across the bushveld. Impalas froze as they tried to comprehend the danger. Seconds later a deep growl cut through the tension and the impala scattered. We followed the noise and discovered the cause of their panic. Tsavo stood above his prize, his strong jaws were clamped over the windpipe of his victim and we watched in sympathy as the last throws of life left the impala’s body.
After catching his breath, Tsavo dragged the lifeless impala to the base of a Nyala Tree and settled down to enjoy his spoils. Precision jaws surgically opened the carcass and devoured the internal organs as we watched transfixed, grateful to bear witness to the fabled circle of life that has operated on planet Earth since the beginning of time. Our role as guides is to enhance a guest’s experience but there are times when no words are necessary: what do you say in the face of perfection? I felt like a tour guide trying to explain the wonders of the Sistine Chapel. Yes, there is a plethora of history and no doubt interesting anecdotes one can share, but to be honest, why detract from the scene. A running commentary would be contaminating a perfect moment.
We remained with him for a while until ethics and consideration caused us to leave him in peace. We returned later that afternoon to find the impala draped across a high branch, a skill that leopards have perfected over thousands of years. His meal was secure, and now suitable satiated, nature’s embodiment of aesthetic precision lay in the shadows of the aftermath. It had been an epic sighting and once that none of us would forget. The world is full of examples of wonderful art: Picasso, De Vinci and Rembrandt have graced us with their impressions of beauty, but for me, all of them pale to insignificance when faced with the unerring beauty of nature’s most enigmatic predator. Pens, paint and canvas are simply mediums with which these great minds were able to create their masterpieces. The leopard is flesh and blood – a piece of evolutionary perfection.