Warts and All
I am passionate about cats. I love their fluid grace and their shape pleases me. Not for me the slavish neediness of dogs, I prefer the take-me-as-I-am independence of a cat. And in my eyes the leopard, queen of cats, is the pinnacle of animal splendour. Those gorgeous rosettes, that unfathomable, yellow stare…
In short, there is almost nothing I would not forgive a cat. But there came a time when my profound admiration for all creatures feline suffered a punishing blow.
Living in North Luangwa National Park, Zambia, a young warthog family visited us daily. We often had lunch outdoors, enjoying the view of the Lubonga River, and the mother and her four pert piglets would trot jauntily into camp, in single file, tails like antennae. They enjoyed the succulent grass growing at the edge of the pond and seemed secure in our presence, tolerating my children's excited voices with equanimity.
I grew fond of those warthogs. They had an air of brisk optimism that never failed to make me smile. The antics of the irrepressible piglets were a constant delight. They chased and tumbled over each other, in staccato bursts of breakneck speed. Sometimes they fell asleep next to their rootling mother, their compact bodies fleetingly stilled.
One day, a piglet scampered onto the kids' trampoline - which had been sunk into the ground - and shot off it in a soaring bound. As soon as its little hooves touched earth, it hurtled out of sight. The other warthogs stood frozen in mid chew, not understanding what had happened. My kids fell about in giggles at the spectacle of the flying piglet and its bewildered family. Then the mother galloped purposefully after her panicked baby, its siblings in pursuit. We didn't see them for a while after that.
As it turned out, the trampoline incident signalled the end of carefree times. When the family next appeared, it was minus a piglet. Three days later, another had gone missing. We watched with dismay as the mother walked quietly into camp, tail limp, her two remaining offspring glued to her side. Gone was their perky confidence. They were subdued, uneasy, shying violently when a kingfisher darted into the pond nearby. My children looked at me with troubled, questioning faces.
I knew who the culprit was. I had seen the spoor of a leopard, a female, in the dust of the path behind our house. For the first time in my life, I resented a cat and wished it elsewhere.
Late one morning, the final tragedy struck. Shrill screams came from the opposite bank of the river, shrieks so loud and so piercing, their source could only be an adult warthog battling for its life. I grabbed my binoculars and glimpsed a blur of piglet streaking over the sun-scorched grass. Had the mother confronted the leopard when it targeted her remaining babies? Filled with frustrated pity, I tried to think. Was there something I should do? Was it right to interfere? The agonised shrieks continued unabated.
I couldn't bear to listen any longer. Yelling to my kids to stay inside, I ran to the Land Cruiser and drove across the dry riverbed. A vague plan of saving the mother by somehow intimidating her attacker took shape and I stopped briefly to listen for the struggle. A choked squeal nearby, from the tall grass just off the road. Willing the warthog not to give up, I plunged towards her. The car rocked and swayed over the rough terrain. I knew I was just a few metres away, though nothing was visible. I considered climbing on top of the car for a clearer view but reason took over. A leopard, so close and in the throes of bloodlust, is not to be trifled with. And by now, the warthog's cries had diminished to tired, hopeless grunts.
Finally, there was silence.
Determined to confirm my suspicions, I drove back to the track and followed it a few metres to where it bisected a shallow ditch. Picking up my binoculars, I scanned along it. Sure enough, through a haze of curving grass stems, I spotted the haunch of a warthog. Then I saw the leopard. She paced up and down, panting, too hot and flustered to eat.
She was breathtaking. Perfect. My anger melted. I could not resist her, could not begrudge her that hard-earned meal. After a few minutes I left, trying not to disturb her.
Over the following weeks, I hoped, despite myself, that I was wrong, that our warthog friend hadn't been the victim. The children and I watched out for her every day. But we never saw her, or her last two piglets, again.