I woke with the breath of a leopard a few feet from me as I lay in my bed. Before he came there were the sounds of Laikipia’s darkness: nightjars, insects, a wandering hyena. Then it all went abruptly silent and I heard him exhale, just on the other side of the bedroom door. I got out of bed and listened to him snuff the air. A hiss came from the back of his throat, then a deep-throated cough. Our three dogs sat up in their baskets, ears up, hackles raised, silent and staring. At dusk I had put them — Jock, the labrador, Sassy the collie, and our mongrel bitch Potato — in the bedroom to sleep close to me because the leopard had been after them for a string of nights.
A leopard loves nothing more than a dog to kill. The bedrooms of our farm hut open straight on to the garden and the predator now began pacing around us, beneath the bedroom windows. He coughed, he made the noise they call sawing — a deep panting — and he caterwauled. I looked out of the window as he passed below me, the moonlight illuminating the ripple of his coat and the onyx of his eyes. A large male, not quite as heavy as me. I opened the door and went outside with a solar lantern but he was already gone. I returned inside, made sure the shutters were closed and climbed into bed. As I was getting up at five he loudly miaowed, a sound of thwarted hunger, and only when I came back from my rounds after dawn would I let the dogs out.
Whereas last year humans and their politics inflicted all our problems in Laikipia, these days the natural world is after us. We are all still feeling the death of our neighbour Gilfrid, killed by the elephant shortly after Christmas. Elephants were hard hit in the troubles of 2017 and for months they have been more aggressive than usual. No wonder, after dozens were slaughtered in the past year, shot with assault rifles, speared and snared in wire. We saw giraffe hacked down like trees, lion cubs butchered, buffalo carcasses and the corpse of an aardvark stabbed to death. Our local population of African wild dog has vanished and numbers of other rare species in the district are down.
For this reason I cannot bring myself to see the leopard harmed. I can seek the help of the wildlife service but I do not know how much help that will be. Catch a leopard in a trap and he must be moved at least 40 kilometres away, or he will simply return —and I imagine dropping him elsewhere will impinge on the territory of another leopard or shift the problem to another farmer.
We already have mongooses eating the eggs our geese lay. Or Ashe’s spitting cobras trying to get into the chicken coop. Or oryx and waterhog nibbling the new shoots of our planted pasture. Or honey badgers raiding our beehives. Or catastrophic East Coast fever brought in on ticks from buffalo infecting our cattle. Farming in Africa is an unending pastoral tragedy, an exaggerated version of what Stella Gibbons rightly observed in Cold Comfort Farm, that ‘things seemed to go wrong in the country more easily and frequently, somehow, than they did in Town’.
The leopard’s first attack on the sheep came at twilight, near the kitchen garden before they were brought into the night boma. He consumed a lamb whole, leaving only its little hooves. Next, after dark, he half ripped out the throat of a baby donkey in a farmstead paddock — but he was driven off by the brave mother, helped by the Boran bull Tom. All the sheep were placed in a night enclosure of high iron gates topped with razor wire, but another night the leopard climbed into that and, like a fox in a poultry house, he began ripping throats out, stopping only when we reached the scene. After he jumped out, the carcasses lay strewn on the ground, 17 of them in all, including a superb ram with Namibian blood which my friend and fellow rancher Mark had given us.
Looking at all those dead sheep I felt like Gabriel Oak in Far From the Madding Crowd when he loses his flock over the cliff. Sadly, we cut up the animals. The workers ate mutton until they were sick. We put 20 legs and shoulders into the freezer and enjoyed roast lamb, mutton curry, stir-fried mutton. We made biltong and hacked up bones for the dogs. The leopard came and ripped up the sheep rawhides curing outside. Day after day we’ve had mutton and now even the dogs look at their meals with disgust. And as I consider our next move, the leopard — he is still there and it’s Lancashire hotpot for supper.
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