A leopard's love survives years
Two long-lost friends, a leopard and a man, were reunited at the Shamwari Game Reserve in Eastern Cape yesterday after being separated for 13 years.
Alberto Lena rescued Kuma from an illegal trader in Ivory Coast in 1996 when the leopard was just a few days old.
When Kuma grew too big to be kept at home, Lena had to take him to a local zoo. But after a lengthy process of negotiations he managed to get him transferred to the Born Free Animal Rescue Centre at Shamwari in 1999. He had not seen him since.
The centre gives lions and leopards rescued from zoos, circuses and other places privacy and space in a natural environment.
"Born Free's ethos is to put animals back into the wild," its manager, Catherine Gillson, said. "This is the closest they can live to nature because they have been hand-reared.
"They would not survive in the wild," she said.
Born Free animal care manager Glen Vena led Lena to the fenced enclosure, hoping Kuma would appear because of the presence of a vehicle that brought his food parked a few metres away.
The leopard emerged from its bush enclosure. Then Lena approached, speaking to the animal in French.
"I am actually shaking from the inside," Lena said, circling the fence as the leopard slowly moved towards him.
Vena said: "I have never seen him behave with this much affection towards a person. It shows that he still remembers you."
Then in a bold move, which only specially trained people should attempt to copy, Lena put his hand through the fence to stroke Kuma.
The leopard tilted its head to the side, rubbing his cheek against his old friend's hand.
It was the first time someone had touched the leopard since he had arrived in the reserve 13 years ago, Gillson said.
Jean Byrd, who sponsored the building of the education centre and sanctuary where Kuma lived, said: "Kuma does not make contact with people, but he made personal contact with Alberto. There was heart involved."
Said Lena: "I am full of emotions. I was not expecting him to remember me, but when I spoke to him in French he recognised me."