THE ELEPHANT AND THE LEOPARD
Crackle! Boom! Other crashes split the air like lightning ground strikes.
Which noise woke me, I don’t know. I had been dreaming of the sleek impalas we saw during the day on safari. The tranquil, dreamy scene turned instantly to terror as I awoke.
“Run! Run!” someone screamed. Shrieks from others followed.
A man’s voice yelled,” Get to the Rovers!”
“Where? Ahhhh!” The voice of a terrified woman pierced the air.
I had no idea what was causing the pandemonium. I threw on the slippers I kept by my cot and peered hesitantly around the tent flap. My first thought was that rebels, who were not known to be in the area, had attacked the camp. I felt a cold dread about my future and that of my fellow campers. The rebels were brutal to their captives—particularly the ones they let live.
Slivers of dawn shot through the early morning sky. I could see fast-moving silhouettes bathed in the sparse lighting of the camp. It wasn’t men I saw, but marauding elephants on a rampage.
Screaming figures ran in all directions in the dim light, knowing the next second could be their last. The thought of being impaled on ivory tusks or trampled under the weight of the massive animals coursed through my mind.
So far, my tent and I had been spared. But that quickly changed as an enormous shape charged in front of me. I dove to the left as an elephant smashed my tent into pieces in one bull rush, losing my slippers in the chaos. I picked myself up and ran as fast as I could through the brush. As I did, I almost bumped into another elephant as it barged into a Rover.
The animal felt my presence and whirled around toward me. Its trunk almost whipped me down, but I jumped back just in time. The elephant charged. The pale morning light outlined a large tree to my left. I scrambled over a log and with all my effort, I leaped up and caught a branch about six feet from the ground with both hands. With adrenaline fueling my strength, I pulled myself into a squatting position on the limb.
The elephant came straight at me, its eyes filled with fury. I had to climb higher. I reached for a vine snaking up the tree’s trunk and pulled myself up to another branch. Praying the vine would hold me, I scrambled up several more feet onto a thick, strong branch.
The tree shook as the elephant rammed it. I held onto the branch and vine with all my strength. If I let go, I would fall to the ground and be crushed. The thought of my insides being sprayed over the ground gave me all the incentive I needed to hold on. The elephant lumbered backward and prepared to ram the tree again.
I took that pause to climb higher. I came to a split in the trunk and hopped over to the larger branch. I was about twenty feet off the ground. The elephant couldn’t reach me, but it kept pressing its enormous body against the thick base of the tree, using its tusks to try and uproot the tree and topple me to the ground.
Soaked in sweat, the mosquitoes buzzed around me searching for an easy meal. The tiny vampires were not my worry, as I watched the elephant expend maximum effort to force me out of the tree. I am not new to the African bush country, but I had never heard of elephants acting this savagely. Ahead of me, toward the camp, I heard a gunshot followed by the sound of Rovers speeding away. Soon, the air around the tree fell quiet. The elephant had worn itself out and stood at the base of the tree, hoping I would fall. I wrapped the vine even tighter around my arm.
As dawn edged its way over the horizon, I looked into the elephant’s eyes. Its once ferocious behavior had waned, and I saw sadness. My fear lessened, and then something caught my attention to the right. Golden eyes glared at me. Slowly, a beast emerged from the shadow of the tree’s foliage. A fearsome black leopard sat across from me, gently swishing its tail back and forth underneath the branch where we were perched. The calm I had felt just seconds earlier quickly turned to terror.
There I sat, less than five feet from razor-sharp claws and massive canine teeth. I had presented myself as ready-to-eat prey for the leopard by already being in the tree. He could kill me and wouldn’t have to carry my corpse up the tree like he would with his usual prey.
The leopard remained completely still, as did the elephant below—both staring at me. A horrible thought crossed my mind: Were they working in concert to finish me off? I said a silent prayer.
“You’re in quite the predicament, aren’t you, Human,” the beast spoke in a low, steady tone.
“Wh-what?” I stammered. Another layer of shock struck me as the apex predator spoke.
“You could be my breakfast, lunch and perhaps even dinner. Or, Tanga down there could turn you into a pool of mush. Do you have a preference, Human?”
“None, neither,” I said, vigorously shaking my head. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing. “I’m either already dead or dreaming,” I murmured.
“I can assure you that you are alive and well, sitting in this tree with me while Tanga watches us.”
“No, it can’t be.” I continued to shake my head doubtfully.
In less than a blink of an eye, the cat swiped my right forearm with his claws. The cuts were not deep, but deep enough to ignite the nerves. I yelped.
“Are you alive now, Human? Are you awake?”
“Yes! That hurt.” I inspected my forearm as blood trickled from the cuts. My nerves were frayed. “Are you playing with me?” I squeaked.
The leopard slinked nearer and sat next to me. My elbow rubbed against his fur. Tanga was joined by another even larger elephant.
The leopard looked ominously into my eyes. “I don’t play,” he purred, licking his dark paw.
“Do you have a name?”
“I do, but you could not pronounce it or even remember it. So just call me Leopard.”
“How can you talk, Leopard? Animals can’t talk.”
“Oh, on the contrary, Human. I speak many tongues. That is the way.”
“What way? Can the elephants talk, too?” For a second, my curiosity overtook my fear and I forgot I was conversing with a leopard.
“No, Tanga and the others don’t talk to humans. They can understand us, though.”
“What do they understand?”
“The other creatures and I, we all know the nature of things—as they were, as they are and as they may be.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“Yes, you do—think hard. Take this specific instance. Did it escape your mind that your camp was set where the elephants have traveled for thousands of years? Your guide was stupid, lazy, reckless and—above all—greedy. He did not understand. Many people could have died because of him, including you.”
“Me? I didn’t do anything.”
“That’s not true, Human. You knew and you didn’t speak up. You stood by, not saying a thing. I saw where your tent was staked—where the elephants have the right to go. You must be aware of your environment, not just your own insignificant self.”
“Okay…” My inquisitive nature pushed me to learn more from Leopard. “Are there other animals like you?”
“There are others, but I was chosen to speak to you.”
“Why you, and why me?”
“I don’t have to answer your questions. It’s all in the big arc. What I can tell you is that we are all related—you, me, Tanga, that dragonfly on the leaf.” The leopard nodded his velvety head at a nearby leaf.
“What? I’m certainly not related to a bug,” I protested.
“More than you realize. All living things—millions of species—live on one planet, this Earth. And as much as it pains you, Human, we are dependent on one other—for better or worse. I fear it’s more of the latter.”
“I’ve never looked down on another lifeform,” I said, anger rising in my voice.
“Sure you have. You fill the air and water with toxins. You take over the land. You spray pesticides on your crops. You sleep comfortably in your air conditioning as the Earth burns. The Earth is dying.”
“I’ve been around much, much longer than you. Look around; look everywhere and then deep into your soul. When you do, you will understand what I say.”
“Is this a riddle?” I asked, annoyed.
“You do not listen, so I will spell it out for you: I am the harbinger of what is to come. The Earth is shaking in your presence. You come and you raid and plunder and take. There’s no limit to what you will do. And as you do it, you care little. But there is a limit to what our Earth can take, and when that limit is reached, there will be great change. “
“Are you talking about climate change? I read the papers and watch the news. I know all about it.”
“You think you do, but that is not nearly enough. You come to our lands and displace us, kill us. Many of my brethren are no more—from tiny insects, like the gnat you can barely see, to great mammals. You are facing the same future. We are all interlocked to face that future, even your servants.”
“I don’t have servants,” I said, confused.
“Your pets, Human. They, too, know of what I speak. The great die-off approaches.”
“Do you mean extinction, Leopard?”
“Yes, and there will be an extinction of your way of life, too. Life as you know it will change.”
“Can you actually see the future? Are you certain this will happen?”
“I can’t see what is to come any more than you can. I can tell you of possible outcomes, and of those, the plausible outcome. You are making that outcome a reality.”
“If humans improve the way we live, can we change the course we are on? Can we save Earth?”
“Sure, Human. But I do not see that happening. You react when it is too late. And that is what will happen here. You will pass the point of no return, and then try and return. But there will be no returning to what was. I just hope other species survive.”
“Do you speak for the others?”
“Foolish human. I only represent the others. They speak for themselves. If you listen, you can hear them. Our future is tied with your future. Our offspring are linked to your offspring. We can only hope our offspring experience a future worth living. Time will tell. Time will tell.”
I heard a rustling in the bushes below the tree. A man dressed in khaki and wearing a hat stepped out. It was only then that I noticed the elephants were gone. I looked back toward Leopard, but he had vanished.
“How are you doing up there?” The man’s husky voice rang out when he saw me. “We thought you were dead.”
“I’m alive. How are you down there?”
“Surprisingly well, considering what could have happened. The camp’s destroyed, but no one died, thank God. Maggie said an elephant had its foot on top of her body. It didn’t crush her, though. She was very lucky. It’s as if the elephant chose to let her live. Strange.”
I climbed down from my savior tree and the khaki man asked, “Did you see anything from up there?”
“I saw a leopard. He told me about our possible future. And it’s up to us to change things so that future does not become reality.”
The khaki man gazed at me skeptically. “Did you suffer a head injury? Leopards don’t talk–you know that, right?” He scanned the decimated camp. “Look around—I’ve lost everything,” he barked. “And this entire expedition is ruined. We have to return to base camp to repair and replace everything.”
“You didn’t lose everything,” I said. “No one died. It could have been much worse.”
“You’re right. Still, I’ll have to refund peoples’ money. And I suppose there will be a damned lawsuit. Fortunately, the rest of the season is completely booked. Lots of people come here for the animals. It’s an adventure for the tourists, and profits for me. Next time, I’ll hire a better guard. This won’t happen again!”
“I think in the future, you should place your camps away from elephant trails. You don’t need better guards, you need better judgment and stewardship,” I volunteered.
“Smartass. You’ve been a pain in my rear for most of this trip. You think you know everything when you know nothing of the bush. I’ll personally enjoy taking you back and dropping you off at our headquarters.”
“What if all the animals are gone and there is nothing to see? What happens to us then?” I didn’t care what the khaki man thought of me.
“I don’t give a squat,” he replied. “I’m going sell this business in a few years and go live on a nice beach. The animals will make it until then. After that, I don’t care.”
“Your beach may not be as wonderful as you think when our future sucks. Earth is changing, and it’s happening faster than you think.”
“Whatever, dumbass. Pack what you can and let’s go.” The man turned his back on me and walked away.
“He doesn’t know what’s coming, or doesn’t want to know,” I said to myself. “I know what I have to do, and that’s a start. I must do what I can.” I looked up at the tree that saved my life and saw those piercing golden eyes again. I nodded. “Thank you, Leopard, for showing me a better way. Maybe there’s hope for us. I pray so.”
Copyright © 2019 Scott D. Prill. All Rights Reserved.