What do you see in these eyes?
I see complexity, character, personality and, if you excuse my excentricity, the meaning of the wilderness
See them very well - for they see everything.
They see what you and I can see...
...They see the sun glistening on every blade of grass, every fallen log.
Every leaf stands out with vivid clearness, every shadow holds clear detail and every slight movement is percieved, scanned, evaluated.
And layer after layer of grass, fallen log after fallen log, the true size of the forest reveals itself.
Endless leadwood, teaks and mopane, spanning beyond the dry horizon, unnumbered paths leading across the orange ocean of grass.
A chaos of thorns and spikes for us, but a milimetrical map for her - not only of places but also of events... priceless memories of everything she has seen here.
She knows every tree, has tread every trail in this forest.
But these eyes see more.
They see beyond what you and I can see...
connections, opportunities, dangers.
As she looks up from her improvised watchtower,
she is reading signs that we cannot even conceive...
For instance, she has seen that the grass this year is a shade of yellow too far - too dry.
Did I say that the forest is endless?
Not exactly. A river cuts across it - unpredictable, unreliable - the Savuti channel, flowing and stopping in cycles of plenty and drought.
Currently, it flows.. but weaker and weaker. And she seems to know that the time of drought is near.
So she must rethink her strategy - she relies on the herds of herbivores that cross the forest on their way to the water.
...but now... should the river dry out... should the herds leave...
* * *
But let´s fast-forward a year to the next winter.
The flow of the channel has stopped completely, and what used to be a green marsh of freshness is now a cloud of Kalahari dust over baked grass stems.
But the leopard still walks unseen in the anonymus shadows of the forest.
And she still watches...
...only this morning she doesn´t even need to open her eyes to realise there´s going to be a commotion.
Roars. Over and over, just below the hills.
Lions - big lions. The pride males. But this doesn´t sound like a territory statement - not a call meant for other lions,
but to wail the alarms of lion prey.
And in the buffalo herd, the alarms wailed - maybe too late... or too loud.
Because in the chaos of the stampede, among the cloud of panic dust, a young calf fell to the Masters of the Marsh.
One of them has dragged the fresh kill away from the herd, which has now vanished, the cloud kicked up by their hooves the only evidence they were here.
Only... it took two to set this ambush - where´s the other?
Here he comes!
His bloodstained mouth signals his participation in the killing bite(s)
It´s the wild dogs!
And they are also on the hunt /much to the dislike of the crowned lapwings/, running at top speed after the impala that have also been upset by the lions´ roars.
But as he approaches the kill, dark flashes shoot across the forest on his right...
The second hunter keeps his pace, but two of the dogs (see them in the back??) stop the chase to make sure he doesn´t turn towards them.
Of course he has no interest in wild dogs whatsoever.
He is thinking of his deserved buffalo protein intake...
and whether or not the other lion will allow him his share...
But his friend is already busy eating ..
He also sits down and, beneath the haze of grey and purple, the two of them start feeding nose to nose without as much as a growl.
Of course all this hasn´t gone unnoticed. Barely a few seconds have passed when the beautiful black-backed jackal appears, hoping for some leftovers
There won´t be any.
Not for now at least.
Now, every tissue, every strand of fat, is being torn apart and ingested.
And all those muscle fibers, that had been powering up the buffalo until just a few minutes ago, are soon going to strenghten lion power.
Minutes pass, and more and more of the buffalo is "recycled". The cloud of the stampede fades away.
And now when one of them rises his head, the first dim rays of warm sunlight reach him.
And as the light comes shining through, everything appears to be dialed up.
The eyes seem fiercer, the muscles stronger. And their teeth sharper, as they sink deeper and deeper into blood that seems brighter. The sound of bones grinding beneath dentine seems louder too.
And the true magnitude of the drama of predation seems clearer. The cruel horror of innocent death, and yet the fair reward of deserved life. Nature is not keen in suffering - only ammune to it
The sun keeps rising in the clear winter sky, and despite everything, peace slowly returns to the forest.
The wild dogs have finished their hunt, and their
red faces mean that their little puppies are no longer hungry.
Even the poor lapwings can now relax!
And it seems that after all, there are some bits of buffalo meat for the patient jackals!
Until he decides it´s over. He stands up, and the first motion that those buffalo proteins will power
is precisely carrying the remains of the carcass deeper into the forest...
but not out of the leopard´s radar.
She comes out. It is broad daylight now, but she hopes this will be quick.
Besides, she doesn´t have much choice:
her paw has a nasty limp, and she is thin. She must eat soon.
...but is there anything here for a leopard to eat?
Washhsh. A sandgrouse takes off the muddy water as she approaches. But that is just distracting noise, nothing useful.
However... she remembers... these days...
there have been others... at this pool...
Storks, yes. Wading after something... what?
Also marabous. The marabous were... ... fishing!
Fishing the catfish stranded in the shrinking pool!
No wonder that fish eagle was perched on the tree next to the riverbed and guarding the pool all these days!
All the action in the forest has left the dry riverbed all quiet.
From the dark green shadows, the leopard surveys in hunger.
If I had to tell whether or not there are pools of water here,
I would need to walk down and check. Not her - all she needs to do is look at the big tree and see that brown-and-white spot on top.
She walks closer to the waterhole,
her shadow now thick and dark on the dry mud that was submerged in a flowing river only months ago.
She slits her eyes against the strong light, and her limp makes her
appear shattered, but she is still seeing everything.
That flashing monarch butterfly for instance
How clean her fur seems under the unforgiving sun! Clean to the last hair.
And how little does she like that water. She knows it´s way too small for crocodiles, but still not good. She walks up and down the edge, looking and checking, again and again.
Now. She decides to go in, yes.
But this is not a waterhole, this a mud pool.
She opens her paws wide before her to keep her from sinking, but...
But what choice does she have?
She had already made up her mind.
... oh, come on.
...Ahh, how unpleasant is this? But now she is halfway through now.
In the middle of the pool, dark shapes are moving.
... and she begins the last approach.
She fans out her whiskers, she can´t miss any detail, now that she has them almost at reach...
Almost at reach.
The back fins of the catfish slosh in the mud,
like sails of life-giving flesh in this little dark sea.
2 meters away. She needs to be quick in her move,
but everything is quiet, she can wait...
... so she waits.
Distance... Foothold... Depth... Angle..
... and then, she strikes.
It is surgical.
It is, of course,
Relief and satisfaction, a crucial meal for her... but now all she wants is to be out of this "quickmud"
Almost every hair was splashed and covered in mud,
but one part of her has remained crystal-clear...
* * *
What do you see in them?
I see beauty, intelligence, endurance...
and if you excuse my excentricity,
the meaning of survival!
Beyond the muddy brown scales of the catfish, there are
layers and layers of red muscle and nutritious fat.
...and at last, she can eat in peace!
And then she is out. Her move was so precise that
she doesn´t even need to reposition the fish,
which has gone completely limp now.
She carries it to the forest edge at the riverside...
Still dripping, she reaches the shore.
The dry, hard shore!
It is almost an insult for such a graceful animal to have her beauty stained by that thick mud.
But the essence of the mastermind that lives beneath that mud and fur will live on. And after her limp is healed and the mud washed away, she will seem brighter than ever as she walks unseen in the forests of Savuti.
Unseen - and ever watchful.
Despite having returned to that same dry riverbed afterwards, I have never seen those eyes again, the eyes of the trailblazer, the frontier-breaker that saw beyond.
But as we drove past, I remembered the fish-eagle´s outlook,
the sudden takeoff of the sandgrouse...
...and all that followed.
Note: All the events above happened just as described, in that chronological time.
The wild lands of northern Botswana are a generous place for wildlife lovers - there are days when you wonder where have all the predators gone... but then, on mornings like this fabled 08.13.15, everything you could possibly hope for explodes right before you!
And really, who knows?
Maybe from deep within those thickets, she was seeing us
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