The Last Lioness

An extraordinary lioness known as Lady Liuwa who lived in Liuwa Plain National Park in Zambia, has passed away. She was discovered having died of natural causes on August 9, 2017 one day before World Lion Day, she was thought to be 17 years old. Lady Liuwa was well-known as the lioness who survived the odds as the last of her species in a place where every other single lion had been wiped out by hunting and poaching. She survived alone without a pride, seeking out human companionship in her profound loneliness. African Parks made several attempts to reintroduce other lions to the area beginning in 2007 and, after living for over 5 years without hearing or seeing another lion, Lady Liuwa finally had a chance of being with her own kind. Never able to have cubs of her own, she helped raise the many cubs from another reintroduced lioness named Sepo.

The story of her early years was told in the National Geographic documentary The Last Lioness.

Since the film was released other lions had been reintroduced back into the park but not without complications and loss. Despite the insurmountable odds Lady Liuwa survived, a true symbol of strength, courage, forgiveness and tolerance. Importantly she did not die alone and leaves an established pride that is a sign of hope for her species if humans are willing to work together to allow them to live as they should, wild and free from persecution. I believe that stories like this, and unique animals like Lady Liuwa, are not coincidences but rather a gift sent to impart a lesson for humans to learn and evolve from.

A touching tribute to this great lioness was posted by African National Parks, the full dedication Remembering Lady Liuwa can be read here.

“Lady Liuwa was a truly exceptional lioness, so much so that it is impossible to do justice to her in words” said Peter Fearnhead, CEO of African Parks. “Oftentimes she would lie just five meters away from our camp-fire in the middle of the park. When it came time to go to bed, she would follow, walking parallel to the path and then fall asleep in front of one of our tents. In the mornings, we would find her in a tree, just watching but never threatening us. After years of being solitary, and after several reintroduction’s and careful management, we were finally able to unite her with her own kind. While her passing saddens us all, she leaves behind a legacy of survival in the small but growing pride in Liuwa Plain”.

Tribute by Rob Reid, prior Park Manager of Liuwa Plain – “As you meander slowly over the crisp earth towards them you can always recognize Lady from a distance, the way she cocks her head to the side, waiting for you, expecting you; that’ll be Lady. And it was true; she didn’t look at you like a lion – there was none of that bone chilling stare, head held high, alert “through you” sort of look. She would give you a sort of gentle titled head view, a relaxed and familiar pose. A look that had seen it all, and been through thousands of nights of loneliness. But that look – the sharing of space, with you – an outsider; there was that…She was an anomaly, an orphan, that had somehow survived the odds of the harshness of the African bush. And although her entire pride had been wiped out by illegal hunting, she found friendship in humanity, and later with an adopted pride. She was a bridge perhaps between what should have been in our Eden and what we see so much around us today.”

Book Review: My Life With Leopards Graham Cooke’s Story

First published by Penguin Books South Africa in 2012, My Life With Leopards – Graham Cooke’s Story, by Fransje van Riel was a much anticipated read for me, and as soon as it became available online I ordered it, I must admit it sat on my shelf for a while before I could get to it…practically screaming at me to pick it up. What drew me to this book initially, other than the obvious, is that other than Joy Adamson’s Queen of Shaba – The Story of an African Leopard, I am not aware of many other instances where a wild Leopard cub has been raised and released successfully back into the wild.

My Life With Leopards Graham Cooke's Story, Africa, Leopards, Big Cats, South Africa, Zambia, Fransje van Riel, South Luangwa Valley

The story begins in the private Game Reserve of Londolozi, South Africa May 1993 where 22 year old game ranger Graham Cooke is assigned to take care of two 6 week old leopard cubs who had been born into captivity in Zimbabwe.

While the means by which the cubs were secured may not be ideal, this soon becomes unimportant as you read this very personal, passionate and beautiful story. The cubs, one male (Boycat) and one female (Poepface) are entrusted to Graham to be rehabilitated back to the wild once old enough to fend for themselves. Together they embark on a unique and very special journey and for Graham it would be one that changes him forever.

My Life With Leopards Graham Cooke's Story, Africa, Leopards, Big Cats, South Africa, Zambia, South Luangwa

Graham with the cubs after a morning walk –  Image My Life with Leopards Book by Fransje van Riel

Graham took his responsibility of caring for the two cubs very seriously, and without a doubt loved and cherished their lives and the time they had together. He demonstrates an extreme amount of patience, understanding, respect and kindness towards these amazing and would be potentially dangerous predators never forgetting that his ultimate goal is to ensure they stay wild enough to one day return to the wild.

Grahams work with the cubs is not easy at first but his perseverance and gentleness allows him entry into their world and slowly he learns to communicate with them understanding their needs and behaviors. Along the way he learns the cubs unique personalities, Boycat the more relaxed outgoing of the two and Poepface the more reserved, and you see the cubs trust in Graham develop in wonderful ways, in turn this bond opens up a world of experiences and insights on leopards for Graham.

Finally the cubs are moved to Zambia’s South Luangwa Valley, the place where Graham makes final preparations to let his cubs go forever.

My Life With Leopards Graham Cooke's Story, Africa, Leopards, Big Cats, South Africa, Zambia, South Luangwa

Poepface – Image from My Life with Leopards book by Fransje van Riel

My Life With Leopards is a great read, it is powerful story of a bond between human and animal and the trust they share. The story is filled with highs, lows, humor and “wow” moments, it will leave you with a unique perspective on an experience that only a few individuals have been blessed with. It is also a reminder that nature is amazing and at times very unforgiving, it truly chooses no favorites.

I found myself turning the pages wanting to know what was coming next, and I admit at times getting choked up and teary eyed. Having been fortunate enough to have visited the South Luangwa Valley, many years after this story takes place, I wondered if any of the Leopards I saw there were the descendants of Grahams Poepface.

My Life With Leopards Graham Cooke’s Story is on my Favorite Cat Themed books  list and is available online from in traditional Paperback or for Kindle. If you love the big cats, Leopards and wildlife be sure to pick this book up.

Wisdom Wednesday Quote

I am a big fan of quotes, especially ones that strike a chord and have meaning for what is important to me. Years ago I was waiting for a flight in Zambia’s Lusaka International Airport and was taken by a beautiful sculpture of two Kafue Lechwe antelopes (sculptured by Coert Steynberg) in the main hall.

The words of writer/naturalist Henry Beston stayed with me the most, an excerpt taken from his book The Outer Most House. I let it speak for itself, as the words are full of wisdom and ageless.

Lioness Zambia Mfwe Lodge Photo taken Zambia, South Luangwa National Park

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals… We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”