The solitary felid in strange, factual poetry: The African Leopard - Theodore N Bailey: Columbia University, pounds 70

Click to follow
The Independent Online
LEOPARDS have got it made. Cheetahs depend for their superlative sprinting speed on light, fragile bones; and are so vulnerable to the depredations (or perhaps just the predations) of hyenas, lions and vultures that only one cub in eight makes it to adulthood. Leopards, on the other hand, are both the most glamorous of the big cats and the most successful. They have a robust 50 per cent survival chance and are extremely adaptable: they like mountains and jungles, rivers and deserts. Usually they get through one tasty impala per week, but when pushed they can go 15 days without a drink.

Their lithe tree-climbing agility and their habit of stashing their prey on high branches means that hyenas can't steal their lunch (or their children). They can scavenge as well as hunt, and are not too fussy about their diet - if the local habitat runs out of impala, they can put up with kudu, giraffe, warthog, zebra, steenbok, grey duiker or (at a pinch) blue wildebeest. These solitary creatures have evolved a system of land tenure that allows them to live vaguely overlapping lives without constant war. All in all, if you've got to be something, you could do a lot worse than being what Theodore Bailey calls 'this magnificent and little-known felid'.

There are hazards, naturally. Leopards often die of starvation and are plagued by mange (a horrible skin rot caused by the feline ear mite Notoedres cati), ticks, worms and lung flukes. They can be killed by lions, hyenas, wild dogs, porcupines, snakes - mainly pythons and cobras - and sometimes even baboons. Baboons are more usually prey: for a leopard, being rounded on by a baboon is a bit like having your stomach ripped out by a shepherd's pie. But on the whole, in the Kruger National Park, where there are more impala than the leopards know what to do with, life could be a lot worse.

Kruger, in South Africa, is where Bailey went to do his fieldwork. His book is, we are promised, the most complete report on the biology of the leopard for 25 years and, well, 'complete' is putting it mildly. Bailey captured, tagged and monitored more than 100 big cats with unremitting vigilance; the effort of capturing the leopards alone took him over six years - or, as he puts it: 'trapping effort for leopards totalled 2,412 trap days'. If the text is a bit statistic-heavy for lay tastes, it is without question dense and faithful, full of lovely details and bitter truths. Did you know, for instance, that infanticide was a leopard tendency?

The survey is skewed by an overemphasis towards the male (typical): females were more difficult to stalk, so it was the less wary (and less aggressive) males that provided more data. Males, it turns out, move around more than females - 2.8km per day against 1.5km - though whether this means that they have territorial business to take care of or just that they are less efficient hunters is not clear. Male and female leopards have different voices ('female calls had more strokes per call, more calls per calling period, longer intervals between calls, and longer total calling periods'). Both sexes leave scent in scrape marks about once a month, and both are surprisingly afraid of humans, unless it's just that Bailey is an especially scary guy. 'Lions often watched me until I retreated,' he records, 'or they slowly got up and walked away. When leopards detected me, they fled immediately.'

Bailey's book has a gorgeous subtitle: 'Ecology and Behaviour of a Solitary Felid'. Unless my eyes deceive me, there are at least two solitary felids in the picture on the front cover, but it remains a beautiful notion, and 'felid' is a marvellous word. Bailey, though, is not very interested in vocabulary. A naturalist of monkish integrity, he has taken unusual pains to be non-rhetorical. Nor is he remotely interested in the cultural associations of the leopard: he does not wonder why leopard skin had such social cachet or why Lampedusa found the leopard a perfect emblem of forlorn aristocratic power. But this is only because he is much too busy dealing with the thing itself, counting faeces, baiting traps and calculating (after close observation) the probability that a stationary leopard is a leopard with a kill (75 per cent).

He is willing, in his zeal for accuracy, to state the obvious - at one point he describes a grass fire and notes: 'the air is filled with smoke and the odour of burning vegetation'. And when he tells us that crocodiles sometimes kill leopards, he has so little interest in the drama of it all that he merely cites crocodiles as 'a significant mortality factor'.

In a way it is sad that so attentive and scrupulous a naturalist should show so little enthusiasm for literature. It would not be all that hard to satirise this long, laborious book: the charts showing leopard movement look almost exactly like the jagged post-match diagrams showing where Botham scored his boundaries, and the elaborate numbered grids about male-female interaction bring to mind the schoolboy game of battleships. Sentimentalists will be sorry, too, that Bailey gives his male and female leopards curt sex-and-number tags. They end up being called things like F11 and M23 - and this most slinky and catlike of all the great cats comes out sounding like a fighter aircraft or a motorway.

But, but. The very studiousness creates a poetry all of its own, a strange, precise lyricism that quite easily paws aside the author's desire to be prosaic. His intimacy with leopard lore is such that he has renounced most of the obvious strategies for engaging a reader, but sometimes, reading the book, you can't help mentally chopping paragraphs into lines. Here, for example, is Bailey's prose rearranged, with no tampering, into a poem we must, I suppose, call 'The Solitary Felid':

The leopard crosses the road

By a large fig tree

Where baboons are sleeping.

He stops to briefly smell

Some elephant dung.

When felids kill prey, their bite

Frequently damages the spinal cord

Struggling smaller prey are often shaken

To confuse the normal functions

Of the inner ear. The forelimbs of felids

Are used solely for seizing prey

And play no role in actual killing.

After licking blood for five minutes

The leopard jumps to a lower branch

And carefully cleans itself again.

I leave ten minutes later, amid

The thunder and lightning of a storm.

This has (hasn't it?) a concrete resonance that might well give some contemporary poets a squeamish moment or two. But the deep swell that underwrites this strange factual poetry is, not surprisingly, a concern for the future of this fantastic cat. With all its advantages, it remains what Bailey would call 'prone to predation' from man. Things have improved since the Sixties, when 50,000 solitary felids a year were killed for their coats. In 1968 and 1969 alone, American fur brokers imported 17,000 skins. In 1972 the leopard became officially endangered, and these days the danger is not from fashion but from the loss of a nourishing environment. As time goes by they will be driven deeper into remote, dense places. It is hard to see why his book is priced to keep readers at a safe distance, but it is a good job Bailey spent so many years watching leopards so closely, while he still had the chance.