Friday, November 22, 2013

Halloween callers (er... belated)

Sorry I’ve taken such a ridiculous amount of time to upload this post...

Outside North America, the heart-warming tradition of extorting candy from strangers (trick or treating) is often met with less than enthusiasm. A survey in the UK, for example, found that more than half of British householders turn off their lights and pretend to be out, come All Hallows Eve.
But living as a hermit, tucked away in the African bush, I wasn’t expecting callers.
I was wrong.

Now trick or treating can trace its roots back to the Middle Ages, when the financially-challenged celebrated All Saints’ Day (or All Hallows’ Day) by dressing as demons and bartering prayers and songs (to help the wealthy’s departed mosey on through Purgatory) for cash and cakes. This jolly festivity was called souling and it was definitely a souler who visited my house on Halloween night.

But I’m jumping ahead of myself here because my exchanges with soulers really started a few days earlier when I was walking my dogs down along the river. At this time of year (end of the dry season) the river is braided with sand and fringed by dense thickets of reeds. It was late afternoon and heavy clouds were leaching away the light when we heard a loud, rasping grunting coming from the far bank. The dogs and I crept upstream until we were directly opposite the hidden caller and hunkered down in a thicket of raisin-bushes in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the vocalist. With no more than 30m (100 ft) between us and the vociferous beast, its deep, grating calls were deafening, thrumming uncomfortably inside my chest.

Embarrassingly, it took me almost six years to figure out who utters this call. I’d always assumed it was a baboon expletive (something about one’s mother??) because it inevitably invoked a cacophony of outraged bellows from the local baboon troop. But it’s actually voiced by a much more impressive beast (my apologies to all Papiophiles). The books describe it as sounding ‘a lot like someone sawing wood’. I used to find this description unconvincing, but up close and personal, it’s spot on (in an age of chainsaws, perhaps I just don’t know what a distant wood-saw sounds like). The leopard utters its rasping ‘strokes’ while both inhaling and exhaling, and the result is shockingly loud. You can hear it here (click on leopard), but it's a recording of very distant animal (can't find anything better however).

Big cats (members of the genus Panthera) - unlike small cats (members of Felis) - can utter astoundingly loud roars because their hyoid bone (you know, the one that snaps during strangulation, as per CSI) has been replaced with cartilage.
Photo by Arno Meintjes.

Leopards (Panthera pardus) are the most cosmopolitan of the world’s cats (apart from our little domestic moggies, of course). They prowl almost every habitat in Africa and sneak about in Asia as far as China and Malaysia. They also sometimes munch people - mostly in India and Nepal - annually killing 1.9 Nepalese per million. Photo by Arno Meintjes.

The vocalist was hidden among the reeds by the water’s edge, and while we were trying to spot spots, I realised that the cat was actually dueting. Further upstream on our side of the river another leopard was answering. Fortuitously, we were downwind of both animals and it was clear that this second leopard was hot-footing its way downstream toward us. Were the two engaged in an acoustic border dispute? Or was one of them on the make?

I very much wanted to see what would happen when the two cats met. My dogs, however, weren’t too keen on the idea. I don’t know what’s changed their minds about leopards (they used to try to chase them) but these days the merest whiff of fresh leopard spoor makes them panic. They press up against each other and - glancing nervously over their shoulders - tow me away as rapidly as possible. They also now refuse to lie outside on moonless nights...
Thinking about it - maybe it’s better I don’t know...

Like almost all cats, leopards are solitary beasts. They stake claim to their territories using pee and song, and ferociously oust all members of their sex.
Photo by Steve Jurvetson.

She-leopards also use the species’ long-distance roar as a siren call for suitors. Like lions, leopards mate repeatedly for days at a time (he has to coax her into ovulation) but - unlike consorting lions - it’s very rare to catch them at it.
Photo (of captive Persian leopards) posted on Flickr by Tambako the jaguar.

As the leopard on our side of the river drew closer and closer, the dogs became more and more agitated, tugging frantically on their leashes. I began to wonder if I was acting prudently. I mean leopard fatalities are a rarity here in Africa but every few years the odd person gets chomped (and I’m certainly odd). In fact - I suddenly recalled as we sat hidden in our waterside thicket - a leopard attacked someone just a few weeks ago up near Pundia Maria (Kruger National Park). With the leopard on our bank no more than 50m (165 ft) off and closing fast, and the rasping roars of both cats now reverberating in our chests, Wizard’s nerve finally broke and he dragged me, sprawling, out of the shrubbery (let me tell you, huskies can pull). The leopard across the river immediately stopped roaring: our cover was blown. Although the cat on our bank continued to call, I figured that they wouldn’t interact normally, so I let the dogs haul me away inland.

Now I thought that this was the end of it.
But then the souler arrived on Halloween.

It was about 8pm and I was innocently watching TV when the roars began. Once again two leopards were dueting, with one far off and the other quite close. And getting closer... and closer... and CLOSER! Oh God, it’s roaring from the reeds just below my garden. Sitting no more than 15m (50 ft) from my back door, it gave its thunderous grating roars - one every three minutes or so - for more than an hour.

Now I don’t think this creature was seeking a treat (at least not from me) but I felt its performance would certainly hurry any passing spirits on their way, through Purgatory or otherwise. I mean leopards have harried our ancestors for millennia. Modern forensics show that at least one fossil hominid (who dwelt in South Africa 1.8 million years ago) fell victim to a leopard: the puncture wounds piercing the back of his/her skull perfectly match the bite impressions of a leopard’s lower canines. Researchers have even suggested that humans owe their intelligence to the leopard via an evolutionary arms race in which we combated stealth and might with cleverness. And I have to admit that while it was hugely exhilarating having a leopard at the bottom of my garden, it was also a little scary.
A leopard just isn’t something you want to stumble over when you pop out to move the sprinkler.
Would that be the trick I wonder?
Ah, spooky ol’ Halloween...

What better emissary to communicate with the dead than a professional killer? Photo by Arno Meintjes.

P.S. I always carry a nifty little pepper spray when I’m out dog-walking (I thought I’d mention that for the sake of nervous relatives).

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