I was browsing through some old photos recently and came across a series of pictures of the Nkoveni female leopard from when she was around ten months old and still dependant on her mother the Mashaba female.
The pictures were from a sighting we had of her at a waterhole near camp, and came at the end of a day of great anxiety amongst the ranging and tracking team. She had been on a kill with her mother the night before, but the next morning, tracks indicated that the two leopards had been robbed by the Tsalala pride. The Mashaba female was found not too far away, calling for her cub, but to everyone’s dismay, the cub did not answer. Expert trackers Jerry Hambana and Freddy Ngobeni went back out after drive to see if they could decipher exactly what had happened, and from the deep paw prints in the earth they could clearly see how the lions had chased the Nkoveni female; After a few hours of searching the area, they were unable to conclude whether or not she had been caught and killed.
Heading out on drive that afternoon, we were stopped at a nearby waterhole watching some hippos when one of my guests suddenly exclaimed in delight from just behind me; he had spotted a leopard on the far side of the water. To our immense relief we saw that it was the Nkoveni female, still alive and completely unharmed.
She climbed a nearby Jackalberry tree, spending quite a bit of time deep in the foliage and only venturing to the outer branches once or twice. Eventually the sun began to set, and she descended to drink at the waterhole before moving into a nearby Gwarrie thicket where we left her for the night.
A discussion point on this blog – and at Londolozi in general – is anthropomorphizing and whether or not animals experience a similar spectrum of emotions to us. The fact that we’ll probably never know for sure I find wonderful, as the debate can never be concluded fully, and it is one I find continually stimulating.
Let me get back to the point of this post, which is that coming across that particular series of pictures left me wondering about the Nkoveni female that day, and what her anxiety levels were like in the immediate wake of her encounter with the lions. The nurturing side of human nature would instinctively want to empathise with her enforced solitude by the Tsalala Pride. Away from her mother, alone, with night and its dangers rapidly descending, we would assume she would be tremendously anxious. Out in the African bush, most of us in that situation would probably be reduced to trembling wrecks. If I remember correctly, the Nkoveni female was alone for a couple of days before she reunited with her mother, which is a situation almost incomprehensible to us as often-sheltered humans. My musings over the situation revolve around what – if any – anxiety the young leopard may have felt.
It’s not only that particular instance I thought of. There are multiple other times when wild animals, by our own human assessment of the situation, should be worried. When returning to camp after dark, I often find myself feeling compassion for any antelope I pass. I wonder how I would feel if it was me having to spend a night out in the open in an area riddled with predators.
But thinking about it, it seems to me that as a wild animal, anxiety would be the most counterproductive feeling imaginable. Literally anything other than being focused on your absolutely essential and immediate needs would be a sure way to get yourself eaten, as your attention wouldn’t be where it should. A momentary lapse of concentration, taking your eyes off that suspicious thicket, ignoring a whiff of lion on the wind… any one of these, and countless other scenarios, could spell disaster for the individual. In an evolutionary context, worrying excessively about what might happen serves no apparent benefit, and I think this is where we as humans can take a lesson.
I am fully aware of how important it is to plan for the future in the western world, or at least seemingly important. I guess it depends on your priorities. Some of the happiest people out there lead the simplest of lives with very little. This in itself is the source for a whole other debate, so I won’t go into it here. Let’s rather focus on the animal side of things.
I simply want to say how it’s my belief that anxiety is very likely almost absent in the wild animal world, purely out of necessity. Having said that, one needs to be congnizant of the fact that fear and anxiety are two different things; fear concerns current events, anxiety concerns future events. A wild animal, whether predator or prey, may well feel fear because of something happening to it in the here and now. An impala feels fear when it sees a leopard and reacts accordingly. A Matimba male lion probably feels fear when three Majingilane are charging at him.
But the anxiety of tomorrow, when one cannot be sure of what tomorrow will bring, is very likely a foreign concept in nature. At least in my opinion. I guess if you distill the essence of what I’m saying here, it’s that we should be try be more like impalas.
Having written all this, it has just been brought to my attention that Amy Attenborough wrote a very similar post about six months ago, which you can link to here. At least it seems we agree.
Feel free to leave your comments below…