Amy Attenborough and I spend a lot of time in the bush together, and while waiting for sightings to unfold in order to capture them on film, we will wile away the hours debating everything under the sun. Our topics of discussion range widely, from animal behaviour to the metaphysical to what we will have for breakfast later that morning (usually scrambled eggs with spinach and chilli). Over the last week, I have found the conversations being repeatedly steered – mainly by me – back towards the 4:4 male leopard.
I wrote in his obituary post about what he seemed to represent – a deeper connection to the wilderness through his furtive nature, and in my ignorance I assumed that most others would share my views. It seems that I was partly wrong about this, in that although the rangers here all seemed to agree what the 4:4 male was, it wasn’t clear to everyone what he represented for them, if anything.
Driving around with Amy over the last week or so, we have passed a number of spots on the reserve at which I or we once enjoyed a sighting of this leopard, and at each one I would feel a deep pang of loss.
By now, almost a month after he passed on, I had imagined that the initial grief I felt over his death would have abated somewhat, and although it certainly wasn’t like losing a family member or anything near as catastrophic, the fact remains that there’s still something there that hits me in the chest when I think of him.
So what is it?
Now what I’ve discovered is going to sound somewhat hypocritical given my recent post on how animals aren’t there to do anything for us and how we tend to ascribe too many emotions to wildlife and bestow human qualities on them. But the conclusion Amy and I drew after a number of discussions about the 4:4 male’s death was that sometimes in nature, we get to see parts of ourselves reflected back at us.
This is not to say that this leopard had qualities I had, except maybe that we were both mammals that breathe oxygen, but more that certain animals, be it in their nature, behaviour, temperament, or whatever it may be, can represent certain things for us that enable us to cast a light inwards. A mirror in which to see whatever it is we are looking for.
It’s hard to describe and by now I’m sure some of you are thinking this is sounding a bit wishy-washy, but let me press on.
I imagine that it is only in certain times of your life that you are receptive to something like this, and as stated in the post on his death, I know that in no way did the 4:4 male feel any kind of kinship towards me, nor would he have recognised my face in a lineup. What is important is what I felt towards him. This is where the hypocrisy comes in, in that I previously stated that the animals are just there living out their lives, and all we can do is be grateful that they allow us to witness them in the wild.
I take that back now, or at least I acknowledge that I oversimplified it. Whilst the purpose of these animals is not to be entertainment for us, we can nevertheless still find enormous value in their presence from a spiritual point of view.
The joy and the beauty that people find in nature can be completely unique to the individual, and what I see in a leopard and how he makes me feel, and the meaning I choose to take from his life is something totally different to the next person.
This for me is the true value of a wildlife experience; a communion with nature can be a communion with the self.
I have never been good at introspection, and a number of my close friends and family will be nodding their heads at this and having an ironic chuckle, but something in the loss of the 4:4 male made me look into that mirror. And whether some of the things I saw and the conclusions I drew were about myself or about the leopard, I still don’t know.
Now bear with me as these will be the most anthropomorphic few sentences you’ll ever see me write…
I think the sadness of the 4:4 male for me was in the fact that this beautiful gift of an animal represented something that was misunderstood. Whilst the Inyathini male in his far-off territory has become far more relaxed around vehicles since arriving out of the Kruger Park, the 4:4 male remained hidden, almost as if there was a stubborn reluctance to share himself. He hid himself away from the world with a consistent obstinacy, despite having the Londolozi camps central in his territory. Almost by default he should have become habituated far more quickly than the Inyathini male, and the fact that he never was appears almost to be a choice he made. Was he protecting himself? Was he scared? We’ll never know.
And then, suddenly, he was gone. And whatever else he might have been able to offer those of us who viewed him in terms of the connection we might have made with him, his surroundings, or ourselves, was lost with him.
I have to repeat myself here, and say that this is purely my own mind talking, and my own ideas about what he represented. The 4:4 male was simply being a leopard, nothing more, and whatever lessons I or we can take from his life are purely for us.
But for some reason, and as selfish as this may sound, his death came at the right time for it to be a reason or at least a means through which I – and maybe others – could find meaning.
This reflection of self, and the knowledge and growth we can take away from it, whether it is from nature or not, is one of the most important gifts this world can give us.