On 22 May 2005 a male leopard was caught in the mountains of Shayamanzi. The leopard had caught an eland calf which he had dragged over a long distance and hid beneath a bush. We got closer to the cage, frightened and cautiously. The atmosphere was tense due to the leopards frightening grumps and roars and the fear that he might break out of the cage at any moment. Every time he bit and hit at the cage, which had taken his freedom from him, with his long nails, we froze to a standstill. Would the cage hold? Could he knock down the door? Should we keep a camera or a gun ready?
Tense questions in a high risk environment flashed through our minds. This leopard is angry, frustrated and ironically looked even a bit sheepish that he could have let himself be caught in a cage, although he didn’t avoid eye contact. The messages, emotions and questions shot from his flashing green eyes. It was as if he was screaming that if he could just get out of the cage, he would devour each of us. At times he looked calm and his eyes asked why have you caught me? What did I do other than what I am supposed to on this earth? He even lay on his back in a gesture of submissiveness and pleading that we should understand his side of the story, or at least try to understand. For years he had been walking his territory unhindered. We entered his territory in between the mountains and ravines, with all the game trails that have been scraped, and we changed his life irrevocably. Was this day maybe the start of a special moment where a game farmer and leopard saw something in each other’s eyes and almost telepathically, hypnotised for the moment, sent sub-, conscious and super conscious messages to one another? In an uncomfortable silence we looked at each other.
I could hear my heart pounding, smelled him, saw may own reflection in his eyes and heard the camera rolling. He asks ”Why?” I say, “I can explain”!! He is in the cage, a prisoner, but dominates the one metre space between our eyes. I am outside the cage, but a scared prisoner of the pair of eyes that pierces you, hypnotises you and paralyses your whole body with a mixture of fear and respect.
He breaks the silence and again jumps against the cage, leaving his head bloody, and he growls, uncommon to these silent, loner cats of the night. It is as if he is shouting out at me that everything is to no avail, as if he wants to say I don’t understand his story anyway, as if his fate has been sealed, I am going to kill him in any event... His body language is one of absolute discouragement. I put the camera to one side, sat flat on the ground, folded my arms around my knees and with an uncomfortable calmness I looked for his eyes. He quickly looked and looked away again, then turned his head and watched me calmly. For seconds, which felt like minutes, we exchanged thoughts. With a wavering, calm and at times excited voice I tried to ensure him that this was something different, not a death message but an eternity moment. He was caught and would receive a GPS collar that could possibly give information to us at Shayamanzi to be able to understand more of his mysterious world. With better understanding we could tell others and try to find a solution, in order to balance the human-leopard conflict. This understanding, which we can spread by means of film and words could help to contribute to conserve leopards for our children.
Suddenly a gunshot sounds... The vet, oblivious of the supernatural moments between man and leopard, shoots the leopard in the cage. It only takes a few seconds for the leopard to slowly come to rest with his head close to me. Suddenly he looks so calm and innocent. The anaesthetic quickly lulled him to sleep.
The leopard is weighed, measured and photographed from all angles. His paws are washed with soap water to make cement prints of these large, soft paws. The prints were built into a round cement square near Leopard Castle in 2010.
The leopard is named after me; Zan for Jan with the “Z”, which indicates that leopards may be the Z in the alphabet for game farmers, but for us they are the A in the alphabet and an A priority to conserve them.
Dr Niel Kriel, the vet, places the GPS collar (radio, cell phone, and satellite) around Zan’s neck. With the collar we trespass into his private space and we know where, when and how far he moves around.
It was time to wake Zan with an injection.…
Drunken and confused he lifted his head and stared at us with foggy eyes. I sat next to him and stroke his beautiful fur when he suddenly seemed more awake than I thought. Usually when the hindquarter can be lifted, they are reasonably awake. These moments of a wild leopard being symbolically bound to a human with a GPS collar was the start of a leopard project that became the passion of the whole Shayamanzi family and team and which had to be recorded on video camera. With the switching on of the camera that stood to one side, another anxious moment followed...
Contrary to what we anticipated, Zan crawled towards me. I rapidly went backwards and still tried to film but he changed direction and came for me, still faster. He was much more awake than we thought.
Our eyes met again. He was still somewhat confused but there was a softness in his eyes. He fixed his gaze at me for long, as if he wanted to thank me for a second chance and that he would spread the word that Shayamanzi is leopard-friendly and busy with a project to better understand the leopard mystery.
Zan suddenly changed direction and started to crawl in the direction of the shrubs and tried to walk. I believe Zan saw the promise in my eyes, that I would make it a passion and a way of life to spread the leopard’s story worldwide.
We received signals from Zan’s collar for very long. He walked an exceptionally large distance of more than 770 km and probably held to his promise to spread the word on Shayamanzi’s leopard conservation initiatives. He walked through Botswana, went into the southern part of Zimbabwe, turned and walked to within a few kilometres of Shayamanzi.
Here his signal stopped. What happened to him we will never know. Maybe he was caught again and disappointed that not everyone wants to save leopards. Maybe he wanted to make Shayamanzi his territory after having crossed many farms and having realised that Shayamanzi is one of only a few farms that is leopard-friendly.
He would have been proud if he could open his eyes some ten years later to see that Shayamanzi, some 30 leopards later, is still keeping its promise to tell leopards’ stories and to conserve them for our children. The www.leopard.tv web site distributes pre-recorded videos (unmanned internet cameras) of game life and leopard activities at Shayamanzi across the world. With the help of people and businesses across the world, the Zan-Jannie dream might become a reality.