How a Leopard Rewilded Me

James Orr

A personal piece about a ‘moment of rewilding’.

In George Monbiot’s book, “Feral”, he writes about ‘rewilding the land, sea and human life’. Rewilding the land and sea is something I’ve come across before, I’ve been taught aspects of it as a zoology student (e.g. Reintroductions – See Cian’s blog for more). ‘Rewilding human life’, on the other hand, was an entirely new concept for me and it really hit home.

Due to phenomena such as urbanization and large-scale agriculture we (generally speaking) have become more and more detached from nature. ‘Rewilding human life’ involves reconnecting with the world around us and Mr. Monbiot definitely reckons that our lives could do with a bit of this ‘rewilding’. He writes about moments of great appreciation and acknowledgement for the wild where you suddenly re-find your place in the natural world. The best way I can think to describe them is as ‘moments of rewilding’.

 

Feral Rewilding Typing Trex
The front cover of “Feral”. Here it is on amazon.

 

I’ve just spent 6 weeks as a research student on a South African reserve collecting data for my final year dissertation project. Spending a month and a half in a ‘Big 5’ reserve gives you the chance to see some incredible wildlife. Full of Monbiot-inspired enthusiasm I kept experiencing what I thought were ‘moments of rewilding’. On one particular evening as the sun disappeared below the horizon and the sky was exploding with purples and pinks a large bull elephant strolled across the plain by our camp. Another time we came within a couple of metres from a newborn baby rhino. And whenever I saw the pointed ears of a black-backed jackal among the long grass I got goosebumps!

James Orr Rewilding Elephant Bull
Elephant bull walking about 20 metres in front of our camp.
James Orr Baby Rhino
Under three months old.
James Orr - Black Backed Jackal
Black-backed Jackal = Goosebumps

 

But was this truly wild?

Halfway through my stay I started to feel as though this place was less and less like the wild that Mr. Monbiot was talking about.

The reserve was beginning to feel so unnatural to me that I was starting to think of it as a glorified zoo. Firstly, even though it was absolutely massive (literally taking hours to drive from top to bottom), it was still enclosed by an electric fence. The elephants were running out of space and were consequently put on contraception. There was also a considerable amount of herbivore stocking because the reserve management were using Alan Savory’s ideas of increasing grazing to increase overall productivity.  

Zebra Stocking James Orr
Zebra being released onto the reserve.

Various fertilizers were used to improve the vegetation quality. The geology of the area (as well as the history of intensive farming) meant that the soil was acidic and therefore produced low quality grass. To combat this, Lime was sprayed to neutralize the soil. Even more artificial were the ‘Lick blocks’, which were distributed across the reserve to make more nutrients available to the animals (increasing the carrying capacity of the reserve). One type of lick block was called ‘+browsers’. It contained a protein called PEG (polyethylene glycol), which eliminated the effect of tannins, plant secondary defenses against herbivores. This meant that the herbivores could eat more vegetation without getting tannin poisoning (again increasing the carrying capacity of the reserve).

Kudu Male James Orr
An adult male Kudu – one of the species of browsers that benefited from the lick blocks with PEG

There was a small herd of buffalo kept in a breeding camp. Normally they would migrate out of the region in the winter months but there was a 10,000+ volt fence in the way. They were fed throughout the winter (everyday at 5pm) to compensate for this. The buffalo were being farmed so that the reserve could claim to be a ‘Big 5’ reserve in order to stand a chance in the highly competitive field of eco-tourism in South Africa.

So with all this festering in my mind I was convinced that this place wasn’t natural, that these animals weren’t wild. I discarded all of my previous ‘moments of rewilding’ and almost gave up on the idea entirely. Until the leopard.

 

My Moment of Rewilding

On our way back to camp one day the radio started chattering with static, I couldn’t make out any words. Our guide must have heard something I didn’t because she jammed on the brakes, did a U-turn and sped off in the opposite direction. Excitement filled the truck. What were we on the way to see? Was it a rhino? A cheetah? Or maybe even a lion?

Eventually we arrived at a junction in the middle of a field of long grass with a scattering of trees (that were torn down by elephants). There was another car there, which must have been the person who had radioed us. We pulled up alongside it and the driver whispered: “You see that silver bush? Watch beyond it until you see a clump of dead trees. Look at the base and you will see the nose of the Leopard”.

I was stunned, my heart was racing. We stayed for a few minutes convincing ourselves that that tiny shape was the nose of a Leopard. Eventually the other driver went to leave. When he started his car the leopard bolted. It leaped into the air above a dead branch and into the long grass. We tried to follow the spots in the long grasses for a while but soon we had lost it. But that split second when the elusive cat was mid air was unforgettable; it was my ‘moment of rewilding’.

Leopard sighting rewilding
A leopard in long grass. Image source

 

Why was this so special for me?

Unlike the other animals that we had seen in the reserve, elephants, buffalo, cheetah and lions to name a few, leopards are truly wild. They are not confined by fences, they move freely between reserves and the outside world as they please. They are also very shy of humans and are notoriously difficult to spot (excuse the pun). During our stay here we were told an anecdote about a guide who spent years showing people around reserves before he saw his first leopard. This remarkable predator that we had caught a glimpse of wasn’t habituated to humans and it wasn’t put in the reserve to provide sightings for tourists. It was wild. I was overwhelmed with appreciation for this wonderful animal and I think I realized what Mr. Monbiot was talking about.

For some people it might be hearing a woodpecker for the first time, or maybe seeing a seal down by the pier – but for me that leopard was my ‘moment of rewilding’. I hope to have many more in the years to come.

 

 

Uncredited images from www.jamesorrphoto.com

 

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One thought on “How a Leopard Rewilded Me

  1. What is most remarkable about leopards in Southern Africa is that they are still relatively common, even close to large human conurbations – you can even still find them on the fringes of Cape Town and surrounding areas. I have been lucky enough to see leopard twice in the Cape within 100 miles of Cape Town both times. They are like feline ghosts that flit away, leaving you unsure if you even saw them they are so well camouflaged. There was more than 40 years between the two sightings though!

    Liked by 1 person

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