A Leopard by Lake Elmenteita


A Wildlife Classic by Llewelyn Powys

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water 'd heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?
--William Blake

“Bwana, bwana, chui n'kwesha pigga m'toto gombi !” "Master, master, a leopard has killed a calf!" Well do I remember how those words came to me from the cattle yards as early one morning I emerged from my hut in the highlands of British East Africa. I had been in the country only a few weeks and it was the first time an open attack had been made on the homestead by a leopard. I had heard them about often enough. The house I lived in was situated on the edge of a great forest and almost every night I would lie awake listening with awestruck intentness to the sound of their barking as it went echoing between the white pillar-like tree trunks. Until the sound was over all else would be silent, the very tree hyraxes remaining mute as with small blinking eyes they waited for its menace to die down into the circumambient darkness. With padded footfall to and fro these great cats would steal over the maiden-hair ferns and moon- lit moss-grown stones of the forest floor, but until this particular night none of them had approached the farm buildings which were built out upon the open veldt. I went to the shed and was shown the place between two rough cedar logs through which the leopard had crept. There had been rain in the night and with the help of some natives I tracked it by its spoor for a considerable distance until the grass grew so thick that we could no longer find any trace of it. I concluded that it had got away for good and returned to my house. At noon however a Masai herder came in to say that he had discovered the half-eaten body of a calf near the shore of Lake Elmenteita. He conducted me to the place and there under the shadow of a high cliff which jutted out over the water I found the mangled animal. Very little of it had been devoured, so that there seemed every prospect of the leopard returning to the kill as soon as darkness fell. I therefore made up my mind to Wait for it.

The late afternoon found me clambering about the rocks of the escarpment looking for a good position in which to pass the night. I found what I wanted at last, a flat, inaccessible ledge some forty yards above where the calf lay. The moon I knew was almost full, so that if the sky remained clear it seemed that there was a good chance of my taking my revenge. I stuck a tiny piece of white paper on the sight of my rifle so as to render it visible even in a dim light.

It was a weird and isolated place, that escarpment, and as I sat watching the sun slowly sink towards the rim of the mountain range beyond the Rift Valley I became aware of a strange thing. It was as though all Africa at that enchanted hour was under some curious influence, as if it waited expectantly with indrawn breath for this half of the earth's globe to turn itself once again towards the spangled darkness of ultimate space. Unfamiliar noises rose from the water before me, and it was not till several minutes had passed that I realized their origin. Slowly, surely, from every quarter of the lake the monstrous amphibia were drawing in towards the shore. Presently I could see their colossal hippopotamus-heads rising to the surface, now here now there, as they lolled and yawned together in fabulous droves waiting impatiently for the fall of darkness when they would be able to come up out of the water and graze upon the cool dew-drenched grass of their midnight pasturage. The sun went down at last and from where I crouched I watched their huge unforgettable forms slipping and floundering through the rushes which bordered upon the edge of the lake where the silver froth lapped against the strand.

With the coming of the night the whole air became vibrant, quivering, palpitating. From innumerable minute scaly throats a song of praise rose to the creator of the world. In shrill and high tones that fantastical chorus throbbed and hummed against my ear drum. Now and again far above my head would sound the romantic alien call of some wild fowl winging its solitary way through the night. I waited and waited. A damp air, chilling and invisible, rose from the lake. It had about it the smell of thou- sands of unrecorded years that had passed in quiet procession over these remote waters, while century after century trees grew to their prime and rotted to water-logged decay, while century after century the bones of fabulous equatorial animals accumulated upon the slimy mud of the lake's bottom. It had about it the smell of water-pythons, of incredible Crustacea, and of the fecund spawn of insects.

Then suddenly, loud and clear, breaking in upon the stillness of that wide moonlit stretch of water till every flag and every reed seemed to tremble, sounded the harsh note of a hungry leopard. And not only the reeds trembled, for scarcely had the first echo subsided than like a city slum waked suddenly from sleep a deafening clamor rose to the stars. The baboons which roosted in the rocks amongst which I sat had heard it. Turning my head I could see them clambering higher and ever higher in the dim light, clinging with their muscular black hands to the stony shelves or huddling one against another, hairy limb against hairy limb, in the deeper recesses of the cliff. It was then for the first time that I realized how nightly the barbarous imaginations of these hideous monkeys are haunted with panic fear of their crafty and subtle enemy, which leaps suddenly upon them out of the dark- ness and tears out their eyes! Gradually the barking of the leopard grew nearer. I got my rifle ready. I surmised that the animal was coming along a narrow game path which threaded its way between the boulders at the foot of the escarpment. All now was once more silent. Not a rustle, not the cracking of a twig to tell of the animal 's approach or to disturb the spell-bound stillness of that amazing midnight landscape which under the liquid light of the moon lay extended in agonized suspense.

Like some wide plain of abandoned polar ice the tropical lake lay silent and immutable, and from the depths of the dark forest away on the left no sound rose. What had come over the baboons? I wondered. Were their superficial brains once more clouded in a nervous sleep? or were they, with narrow wide- open antique eyes peering over their grotesque snouts in abject alertness for their enemy?

Suddenly the leopard, elongated and serpentine, was crossing an open space below. There was something horrible and un- canny about the absolute silence of its movements. For a few moments I watched it. Delicately, daintily, it nibbled at the carcass, stepping round the mutilated body with fastidious tread. I pulled the trigger at last. Undoubtedly I had missed, for look as I might through the uncertain light I could see nothing. It was just as though at the report of my rifle a ghost-leopard had vanished into the air.

Slowly the time dragged by as I waited for the dawn. In the small hours of the morning I fell asleep. When I awoke it was already past six and the first rays of the great equatorial sun were glancing down upon Africa. Cold and stiff I stood up and looked about. Shafts of fine golden light were slanting down upon the basalt rocks, upon the flamingoes in the shallows, — and upon the miraculous spotted body of a dead leopard which, outstretched in all its bizarre beauty, lay by the edge of those far-off mysterious waters which are called by the natives Elmenteita.


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