When two six-week-old leopard cubs, born in captivity in Zimbabwe, arrive at Londolozi Private Game Reserve in South Africa, 22-year-old game ranger Graham Cooke is assigned to take care of them. Based in an unfenced tented camp in the Londolozi bush, where lions, hyenas and other leopards abound, Graham’s first task is to gain the cubs’ trust before he begins to guide them towards release in the wild where they can assume their role as Africa’s most efficient predators.
With such an incredible premise, it’s easy to understand why Fransje van Riel sought Graham out to turn his life with these leopards into a book, aptly name My Life with Leopards. And, listening to both of them talk about their adventures at the book launch at Kalk Bay Books, I got swept away by the story before even reading the first page.
Ex-Getaway editor Don Pinnock lead the conversation and he let Graham – a man who doesn’t easily show his emotion – explain some of his experiences in the bush with two inspiring creatures that had a lasting impact on his life.
‘These cubs needed something solid to latch onto and I had to give them everything they need to survive in the wild. But it requires an understanding. You can’t just force you own lifestyle onto theirs.’
As Don said, Graham seems like a very tough person, as skinny as he may be, because he waded through croc infested waters and shooed away lions in order to keep these cubs safe and teach them how to survive in the wild. Luckily, he didn’t have to teach them to hunt, as leopards, unlike lions and cheetahs, instinctively know how. The task he was faced with was to point out the impala and encourage them to go out and catch it.
‘At that stage both of them were the most important things in my life. I would’ve risked my life for them,’ tells Graham as he thinks back to when they shared this unique and uncommon life together in the wilderness.
Sadly, the day came when Graham had to leave the leopards (who have become adults in the meantime) alone in the wild and return to home to resume life as usual. It wasn’t an easy thing to do, but you’ll have to buy the book to learn all about his final days with this extension of his family and how he managed to leave them behind.
Fransje tells the tale in such detail that it sometimes feels as if she was there with Graham and the leopards. She explains, however, that it took hundreds upon hundreds of emails and hours of interviews to get all the detail out of Graham, a guarded man to say the least. But she succeeded greatly and when you read this fascinating tale, you’ll be drawn in to experience the process of hand-rearing these animals as if you were there yourself.
Although the aim of the book was purely to tell Graham and the leopards’ story, it turned out as a way for people to see a different side to animals that are often seen in a negative light. Livestock killings and human-predator conflict has resulted in many people’s hate for leopards, and this book will conjure up a love for these animals and an understanding that we are often the ones trespassing on their land and not the other way around.