Little Girl Lost by Erin Rainey
Leopards are definitely the most beautiful of the big cats. Their piercing citrine eyes, meticulously applied white eyeliner and a body cloaked in bold rosettes can easily blind you to the fact they are a perfectly engineered, silent assassin. Loners by nature, leopards are extremely reticent and you can never tell what they are thinking. I have heard stories of people going for a 'bush pee' whilst camping in Kruger and ending up being scalped by leopards. Scalped! The local Bushman have similar stories about leopards entwined into their folklore history. Urban legend? I'm not sure but these are the very thoughts that appear in my head whenever I was within reach of a leopard. Working with predators, I always upheld the most amount of respect. With leopards, it was respect seasoned with a little bit of fear.
Lost was a young leopard, about a year old when I first visited Harnas and it was around this time that she started to develop her leopard instincts. For the most part, she was very amicable but you'd only have to turn your back on her to she her instincts take hold. Marieta, the owner of Harnas, would tell stories of how the workers would have to wear masks with faces on them on the back of their heads to stop the young leopards from jumping them if they had to go in to clean their enclosures.
One afternoon, I'd driven out into the lifeline where Lost, now about five years old, was residing in a large enclosure. The violent rattling of the cage covering the back of the ute as the car travelled over the sandy roads usually meant she'd hear us coming a mile away and would meet us at the enclosure gate, gleefully rubbing herself along the cyclone fencing in anticipation of her meal. As I approached, she was pacing excitedly behind the fence but it wasn't her fence. She was still outside the lifeline but was now in the camp where the donkeys and horses were kept. I wasn't even concerned she now had access to an all she could eat buffet. I was concerned that the only thing that separated her from the farm and volunteer village was a fence made from three strands of fencing wire and the occasional fence post. It was built to keep livestock in, not predators. And of course, it was a Friday afternoon. New volunteers had arrived and I had to call it in over the radio.
The safest way to rectify this situation was to dart Lost. Although she was a leopard, she was habituated enough to humans that she'd come close enough to allow us to safely dart her, she'd fall asleep and we'd transport her back into her enclosure. I'm not sure if the drugs were expired or mixed incorrectly, but Lost was loaded with enough tranquilizer to sink an elephant and the only success we'd had was pissing her off. She caught on pretty quickly that the humans were not there to serve here and with each dart, she became harder and harder to track and locate. Eventually she succumbed to the effects of the drugs and we moved in to transport her back. We were talking about how lucky we were to have caught her before nightfall and myself and one other staff member were standing with Lost, waiting for a third staff member who had run back to the truck to grab the stretcher. What a relief! This could've been a real disaster. I looked down at Lost and she was looking back at me and blinked. "Umm...Lost is awake." I barely mustered enough volume to share my findings with the other staff member. "Back in the truck!" He yelled just as Lost raised her head and drunkenly scurried off into the bush.
It was late now. Too dark for us to find an angry leopard that clearly had the 'hunting' advantage over us in the darkness. We had to go back to the village and tell all the volunteers what had happened. There were whispers of a prank. Fair enough, it wasn't a totally uncommon event that the staff and volunteers would like to welcome the new volunteers by scaring them with stories of an animal escape. We had been caught in a bit of a 'boy who cried wolf' situation. Volunteers were given strict instructions to go straight to bed and not to leave their cabins.
At daybreak, staff headed out in an attempt to track Lost again. It appeared she'd ventured into the volunteer village overnight and was now back into the donkey camp. It's not an easy or obviously fruitful task trying to find an animal whose modus operandi includes silent assassin. She was still pissed, too. She associated us and the vehicles with her drug induced hangover and wasn't keen on going another round. I was sensibly stationed in the lifeline. The side that had a seven foot fence separating me and the raging leopard. As I was the one that fed her everyday, we hoped she'd associate me with (not as) food and the draw of a meal might bring her out of hiding long enough to dart her again. She'd come out of hiding when I called but she knew something was up and as soon as she spotted the other vehicle she'd hiss, growl and slink back into hiding. For several hours we tried different ways of trying to capture her but nothing was working. I volunteered to stay with her whilst the other staff went back to the farm to grab some lunch and try to think of another idea.
For some reason, she still trusted me. Or that was just what she wanted me to think. Once the cars had retreated, I called to her. She let out a few gentle groans and emerged from the thickets. She stopped dead in her tracks, frozen, surveying the road out of the camp making sure the trucks had left. Once satisfied, she continued to saunter over the fence that separated us. She collapsed against the fence inviting me to touch her. "Good girl, Losty. You're alright." I told her as I reached out one finger to gently scratch her hind quarters. Stay away from the pointy end I figured. She kept retreating back into the thickets and she barely had to take two steps into the bush before I'd lose sight of her. Not wanting to lose sight of her, I kept calling her back out into the open and each time she'd respond and saunter out, rubbing against the fence inviting me to touch her. She was clearly bored of my conversation so I started playing with her. In hindsight playing hide and seek with a predator shouldn't be the go to but it kept her out from the thickets and in plain sight. I started walking her up the road and she followed. Then I noticed a hole under the fence that you could drive a truck through. I started having vivid images of how I was going to die. I looked back to see where the ute was. I did the math and there was no way I would be able to outrun her. I'd also left my radio in the car but I was too far from the farm anyway. I'd stopped as soon as I saw the hole but Lost had continued on her merry way, getting closer to the crater. "Ok, Lost. Back this way." As I turned and started heading back towards the car. Thankfully, she heeded my request and casually turned around to follow me back towards safety. I mean, the ute.
Earlier that day I'd put forth the idea that Lost associates the ute and me with food. The idea was for me to drive into the donkey camp, calling her and lure her into the back of the ute with some meat. Sensibly, management didn't think my idea was very safe. However, after almost 24 hours of failed attempts, options were starting to become limited. Clearly still suffering from some sort of invincibility complex after convincing Lost to turn away from a giant hole in the fence and her ticket to freedom (the Lifeline is 8,000 hectares and she wasn't fitted with a tracking collar), I begged to try my idea. With no other options currently available, I received a debrief akin to that members of the secret service would receive before taking on a mission.
The ute was used as an animal transport vehicle and had been modified to includ a large metal cage to fit over the tray. There was a small trap door on the side of the cage, just behind the driver’s seat. We hung a large piece of meat in the cage and threaded a rope through the door of the trap door. The idea was that she'd see the ute, me and the food in the back, jump in and I'd pull the door closed with the rope from inside the chassis. I also had some small pieces of meat in the car with me to throw out to entice her closer if need be. The car windows were manual and stuck quite often, so I had to be conservative with how far I rolled the window down if I did need to throw meat out to her. You've all seen that video of a pissed off leopard taking out that guy in the front seat of his truck.
I slowly drove into the camp and stopped a few meters away from Lost, who was suitably suspicious of my presence but she could also smell the food. She stalked the car but either couldn't figure out the way in to get the meat or didn't trust my intentions. I wrapped the rope around my leg and reached over for the small pieces of bloody meat in the bucket on the drivers seat. If I could show the meat to her and manage to whip it behind me into the ute through the trap door, she might follow. Acutely aware of the inconsistency of the windows mechanics, I rolled it down just a couple of inches and shoved a piece of meat out, holding it between my thumb and forefinger. I jiggled the meat and as blood started to run down both the inside and outside of the window, it caught Lost's attention and her eyes radiated purpose. In a split second I threw the meat and it flung perfectly through the trap door. This from someone that will miss the bin unless I'm standing right over it. Lost flew straight into the back of the ute and attacked the piece of meat, I pulled hard on the rope and she was in. I fumbled for the radio, "Got her. Lost. She's in." I blurted. The other staff members came rushing through to secure her in the back of the ute and now aware she'd been jibbed, Lost was more interested in trying to exact revenge than enjoy her generous meal. She was returned to her enclosure but we never quite figured out how she got out. She hung low for the next few days, refusing to meet me at the fence and only taking her meal after I'd left. Eventually, she forgave me but probably only trusted me as much as I trusted her...