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Tracking the Spotted Ghosts MAG
Her round yellow eyes flickered brightly in the light of the waning sun. Flashing in and out of sight like a spotted ghost, she crouched low, sliding through the tall grass. The setting sun spread a lace of golden rays through the savannah landscape, alchemizing the grass, browned by the dry winter of South Africa. Knobby thorn trees erupted from the ground like the gnarled hands of an old man reaching for the sun, and an acacia's leaves were a passing cloud of emerald entangled in its branches.
Having followed her for a few days we had come to know her well. With her yellowish fur that faded to white as it wrapped toward her underbelly and innumerable black spots, it was easy to admire her beauty and forget she was an agile and furtive leopardess, capable of taking down the fastest antelope.
Now, though, her ferocity had subsided. Over and over her low plangent growl spread across the openness of the plains. The only answer was a quiet echo from a distant cliff. She repeated her mournful call, waiting for a response. It had been seven hours and her cub was nowhere to be found.
At four months, he was the first cat we had encountered on our safari in Mala Mala, a game reserve in South Africa. Only a few days earlier, we had seen him lying lethargically on a large boulder by a rocky outcropping. In our noisy Jeep we pulled up beside him, but his interest was piqued only to the extent that his ears rose sharply and he turned his head toward us. Appraising us, he looked until, distracted by its fleeting motion, he turned to watch a salamander scurry across a rock. With his scruffy, mottled fur and flat face, one could not help but think of a kitten.
For over a day he had been languishing on that rock where his mother had left him while she hunted. His brother, a fraternal twin and the young leopardess's only other cub, had been with him at first, but now he was gone. This was worrisome; the leopard cub mortality rate is astronomical.
When we saw him again a few days later, the situation was not quite as tranquil. We had been watching zebras graze, flanked by a few boxy-headed, pointy-bearded wildebeest, when our ranger's radio squawked loudly. An aggressive male leopard had run the cub up a tree. Shaken and scared, he was awaiting the arrival of his mother, who was off searching for food. On rugged Jeep trails that cut through the rough bush like a brown and tan river of dust, we sped, as though pulled by a current through rapids and waterfalls. As the trail curved, banked, split, and then joined, the brown and green landscape of the savannah streamed by. We passed termite holes that looked like high-rise hotels, baby elephants that sat playfully while their mothers' trunks sifted through nearby trees for something green, and lilac-breasted rollers painted in watercolor hues that spiraled slowly from the sky, cooing for a mate.
From the bottom of the tree, we spotted him. Perched like a bird, he sat on a branch, his tail hanging down. With the blistering sun of high noon beating down, he got up, anxiously paced, and sat down again. Leopard life is cutthroat; male leopards will kill cubs that are not their own. Atop the tree, the cub was lucky to be alive, but he was far from safe. Dangerously jealous, a dominant male will do anything to remove a cub from a female, giving her the chance to mate again.
As darkness fell, this baby's fate seemed sealed. The ignoble male had returned. Bounding up the tree, he snarled menacingly. Petrified, the cub's balance faltered. The male drew nearer, his gleaming eyes – solid disks of gold – fixed on the cub. Suddenly, the cub's foot slipped and he tumbled down. He hit the ground but immediately got up and limped off toward the riverbed.
When his mother returned from hunting, she searched for her cub. We followed her as she grievingly cut through the darkness, roaring softly, a gentle sonar seeking a single target. My family sat tensely, holding our breath, as we fervently hoped that each distant sound would be the cub bounding back.
The angst of the leopardess knew no bounds. Crossing the barrier of millions of years of divergent evolution, it seeped into each of us. My mother, thinking of the time I had gone missing while camping when the police were called, began to cry, knowing too well the pain the mother was experiencing. One cub not seen for days and the other now gone, she was deprived of those she loved above all else.
With the stars burning brightly, we had to return to camp. Reflecting on the harsh life of the bush and the reality of the circle of life, we extinguished our lights and drifted off to sleep amid the high-pitched calls of hyenas and angry barks of baboons.
The next morning, with the sun shining again, a feeling of hope prevailed. While we were out in the Jeep, a squawk on the radio brought news. Another group had been out on the trail when the ranger smelled the sharp tang of fresh blood. Following the stench, they had come upon a kill, an impala, being feasted upon by none other than the leopardess and her two cubs.