In September 2012 Penguin SA released a delightful adventure story, My Life with Leopards: Graham Cooke’s Story. Author and wildlife writer Fransje van Riel documents Graham’s adventure, who at the age of 22 became guardian to two 6-week-old leopard cubs he named Boycat and Poepface.
Looking back over the years
The journey of these brave little cubs started at the Londolozi Game Reserve in Mpumalanga at the end of May 1993. The cubs were released in the South Luangwa Valley in Zambia in April 1994. Fransje penned the book with information supplied by Graham. “Boycat and Poep have truly enriched my life,” says Fransje. “I am thankful that I have got to know their story and look forward to sharing it with others in the very place where the leopards left their footprints in the sand.”
Big cat collaboration
Fransje says that while she and Graham are different people from different backgrounds, they both have a love for the bush and for wild animals. “For me, what has been interesting is that following our collaboration on the story, we have forged quite a special bond. I can, of course, only talk for myself, but it is as if we have undertaken a long, emotional and very special journey together and that this has resulted in a connection, with the leopards as common denominators.”
For Fransje, the safari in October will be her first trip to Zambia and for Graham, the first time he has returned to the area since the leopards were released two decades ago. We asked Fransje more about the trip and what writing about wildlife and conservation means to her.
What do you hope to achieve with the safari?
I hope that visiting the actual place in the company of the man who lived the story will further encourage love and respect for leopards and all wild creatures.
Is the South Luangwa National Park similar now to what it was when the cubs were released there?
The place where the leopards returned to the wild was an island that was cut off from the national park by the flood waters that had not yet receded after the rainy season. Depending on summer rains and climate nuances, the place has pretty much remained the same.
Do you ever think about the cubs?
I think about the cubs an awful lot! Sadly, we know that Boycat did not make it… but his sister Poepface did, although Graham never saw her again. Perhaps one of the leopards people photograph in the valley is a direct descendent of her.
Is conservation close to your heart?
I believe conservation is key to the legacy that nature has left in our hands.
Tell us about your writing journey with the book My Life with Leopards.
Graham contacted me one day on email after he had read my first book Life with Darwin and Other Baboons (Penguin SA). When I learned that he had lived with two leopard cubs in the middle of the bush I was immediately fascinated! Slowly, bit by bit, the story came alive and I was drawn into the experience much as though I had personally been there… I am not ashamed to say that I cried buckets of tears while writing it too!
Has writing the book changed your view of leopards? Do you think these cats are sometimes misunderstood?
I confess I have a new admiration for leopards, I definitely see them in an entirely new light!
To commemorate the event, Cooke and Van Riel will visit the South Luangwa Valley and walk in the footsteps of the cubs. Collaborating with Kafunta and Norman Carr Safaris, the first My Life with Leopards safari will start in October 2014. The trip is an eight-night safari through the valley. Part of the safari will be spent on the southern side of the park, and guests will be invited to explore the valley further upstream and enjoy walking safaris and game drives in open 4×4 vehicles.
Get the full story in the July 2014 issue of AnimalTalk Magazine.
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Text: Gina Hartoog. Photography: Graham Cooke and Fransje van Riel