Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The cat

It'd been a slow morning. The initial excitement was starting to wear off though there was still much to see and much yet to look for. The dry forest was thick and scrubby and all manner of beasts melted into invisibility in a matter of steps.

We passed another jeep and the two drivers greeted each other with a familiar one-handed shrug. But the other driver's shrug was different; there was a little urgency to it and a couple of the fingers of his open-hand were held upward in a distinct and unnatural manner. In the distinct code the driver's used I knew this meant something and we were suddenly pulling a u-turn and following the other jeep at high speed along the dusty sandtrack. I checked my camera and wondered what we were speeding to; bear? elephant? or maybe, just maybe a cat. We stopped by a lake and scanned. I tried to see where others were looking and relax my eyes to look through the scrub but could see nothing. Suddenly there was a movement amidst the nothingness. No definable shape just a decisive, unhurried, confident movement. A brief glimpse of black and gold and the ghost was obscurred behind a tree. I focussed on the tree; waiting and hoping. Suddenly but yet also slowly a sign unfurled itself from behind the tree.


Panthera pardus kotiya. My first big cat. The smallest of the 4 and yet the most adaptable of all big cats. The ghost that stalks almost all the remaining old world wildernesses; the deserts of persia, the jungles of southeast asia, the foothills of bhutan, the grasslands and highlands of africa and the snows of the amur. The ghost that has the audacity to enter our cities and feast on our waste and the others that follow us. The spotted cat which has hunted us since the days in which hominids were something other than human. And then it emerged.


Everyone reacted with awe even those lucky enough to see this daily. The confidence and comfort of these animals in their environment does that. These leopards are perhaps unique in this. Elsewhere bigger cats still with stripes and manes or huge canids with crushing jaws force the leopard to lay low and walk the nights. Not here. Here in Sri Lanka the leopard is the apex mammalian predator and knows it. These are daywalkers.


But whilst they may be daywalkers they are still ghosts reliant on surprise, camouflage and colour and so, as suddenly as he revealed himself, he took two steps into the shadows and disappeared. So ended one of the best twenty seconds of my life.

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