It has been a while since I last posted anything meaningful. The last year or so has brought much pain and tribulation to my already tumultuous life.
For many months now, this has been my profile photo on WhatsApp, and so many have asked me about it. Today, I am ready to tell this story.
The image is of a three year old male leopard. A beautiful boy, in his prime. It took us two days to track him down just following his growls after reports came in from the community about a marauding “lion” that seemed to be caught in a snare trap.
I suppose no one dared get close enough to see the rosettes on his fur gleaming in the sunshine. What a sight he was. We felt so privileged to be in his company. The bush was very dense, and we could only view him from about 80m away as we weren’t sure he wouldn't break free and pounce.
My phone camera has a pretty decent zoom, and I managed to get a decent enough photograph to send off to the KWS wildlife vet, in order for him to mobilise a plane. As it was already mid afternoon, they could only arrive the next day. So we kept our rangers on ground to monitor the situation and ensure the leopard was not attacked any further by poachers. Leopard coats are still prized on the black market, and they are commonly sourced from this region. It was nightfall and the rest of us retreated to rest up and prepare for the day ahead.
On the drive home, I saw a hyena in very bad condition unable to move. His neck was swollen and his front paw had been severed from a snare, but healed over. I couldn’t get too close as I was alone with one unarmed ranger and no backup. We marked the spot with a palm leaf and decided to check on him in the morning after we attended to the leopard.
It is the morning of 9th September, 2021. From around 6 a.m. I have been on back-to-back phonecalls. I had by this time, convinced the warden to approve a collaring for the leopard so we could monitor him post release, secured a collar also by sheer luck from Kilifi, mobilised the capture unit to come onsite with the trap cage…
...all I needed to do now was convince the vet to stay overnight so we could tranquillise the leopard and fit the collar which would arrive by evening. Ulinzi Africa Foundation is a very small organisation, we had not planned for a collar in our budget, and with very limited resources, I had to make several calls to secure one. I managed to secure a pledge to fund this mission- I was over the moon!
He ran. And we followed.
I knew this was the right thing to do. The hyena hobbled helplessly, and we pursued relentlessly. A shot went off. Missed. Now he is scared. I know this is the right thing to do. The best thing to do. Tears were streaming down my face as another shot was fired, and missed. I kept following the rangers, praying for Allah to make this quick and painless.
The hyena got to a clearing, he stopped and just stared at the ranger who knelt, aimed and fired a shot. The hyena jerked and the bullet yet again missed the mark. Now he is running, as fast as his three legs could take him; and the rangers are running after him. The thorny bush cuts at my feet. I was wearing slippers. Another shot goes off. I began screaming, “get the shot!”
We drove an hour and a half to the site. The vet arrives by plane, and I lace up my boots. We had to climb two sand dunes to get to where the leopard was. The bush is very dense here, and the vet tried several angles to dart the leopard. It took over 40 minutes but we finally get the shot. The tranquilliser is in. Success! This is going to be an amazing rescue.
We cautiously move in to remove his leg from the snare trap. It’s usually a simple procedure, cut the wire off, wash the wound and disinfect, spray on antibiotic; and in this case, we would then put him in the holding crate as we wait for the collar to arrive for fitting and release to a safe area for further monitoring.
We close in on him crouching and crawling, nothing could have prepared us for what we would find. This poor young leopard not only had his back leg caught in a snare, but his front leg had also been severed clean off by another snare trap previously. He must have fought his way out and lost his paw. The wound was dry and healing, but we had to face reality- this boy was never going to make it in the wild.
Our hearts sunk and silence enveloped the teams. This boy would never be able to balance let alone hunt. Do we keep him in a zoo to live as a captive all his life? Or do we put an end to his misery? It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but we had to do what was best for him.
I didn’t get to say goodbye…
I didn’t get to apologise…
He put the barrel on the leopard’s head and pulled the trigger.
In one jerk, his life ended. It was so fast. It must have also been painless, thankfully.
We carried his body to the KWS station, and buried him there. His skin was preserved to put into safekeeping and ensure it doesn’t end up on the black market. So were his claws, and his teeth.
I was inconsolable for days.
“This wasn’t what I came here to do.”
“I came to save them not to kill them.”
“I didn’t come to hurt them.”
I kept saying this over and over again.
In those moments, I truly lost myself. I nearly gave it all up. The pain became too much to bear.
They complete my circle of life, and teach me lessons. Lessons of patience, resilience, courage; but most importantly, they have given me the greatest gift any human can receive. The gift of life’s purpose. So here I am, battered and bruised, harmed and humiliated- standing forever for wildlife. They have never given up on me, and so I can never give up on them… and I hope you won’t either.
Sometimes life breaks our hearts, but if we know where to look, we can be whole again. We can be complete, we can be okay. Here’s to the broken hearted, the defenders who fight against terror and oppression, here’s to always saving lives. (Yes, even bugs and strays!).
Yesterday, our teams at Ulinzi Africa Foundation deactivated a wire snare that was set just at the entrance of a warthog den. Leopards love warthog meals, and a leopard could easily have fallen victim yet again. Thanks to our consistent efforts to monitor these vast areas daily, we are able to save countless lives. However, we cannot do it without your continued support. Please donate today, and keep our teams active to keep wildlife alive.
Our leopard lost his battle against man's cruelty, and we lost the battle to save him... but we will not lose the war. The dedication of our teams is unwavering, and only you can keep them going.