The birthday present

Strolling in February During our first secret walks Bhagya is very obliging and lets me lead him readily. He enjoys rolling in the stack of thatch, but forgoes pursuing the smell of carrion in the brushwood, stalking the sheep in the neighboring compound and snitching clothes from the laundry line, when I call him back. He is in awe of the constantly barking dogs and gives them a wide berth. He likes to pass by the farm kitchen, though, and have a look to check if someone has fetched his food yet. "Aom", he utters then and looks at me, surely indicating that he wants his meat now. And with big leaps he hurries across the fields homewards.

The private-run Cango Wildlife Ranch in South Africa has been looking for hand-raised leopards for some time, saying that the indigenous species is almost impossible to get hold of, and would therefore be very interested in obtaining Bhagya. At a later stage they would be very keen on sourcing a mate for him, but I hesitate to respond to this offer and ask Sarel van the Merwe, curator of the Bloemfontain Zoo, for his advice. When he writes: "I cannot speak for another organisation - especially their ethics", I decide that Bhagya had better not move to South Africa.

Mid February sees the first morning without fog but bright with sunshine. Yet, Bhagya is still lying in the straw of his den below the machan. Only when guests come to see him, he stretches and yawns thoroughly, before he starts tossing his toys through the enclosure, and with two leaps jumps on top of his big machan. The guests are impressed.

One morning Andreas discovers pugmarks of a big cat in the irrigation channel in front of Bhagya's enclosure. He is of the opinion that Bhagya had a visitor and assumes that the cat is the same female that Bhim, the nightguard, already heard calling in a previous night. If he only knew ...

During our short outings Bhagya sniffs around extensively, and in particular enjoys roaming through the flowering, very fragrant coriander. Outside the compound a little buffalo is grazing, attracting Bhagya's attention to such an extent that he repeatedly wants to go observe it and resolutely steers to the rim of the escarpment.

When he hears dogs barking, he jumps into a tree to look out for them. Once he has made sure that they are far away, he can be persuaded to run home using the well-tried alluring call "Come home fast, there is chicken today - chiiicken!"

In the course of the month he looses his remaining back teeth, and on some days plays so wantonly that I incur a slit in my ear and a fissure in my finger. But he is very affectionate, and when I have been absent for a few days, he welcomes me most heartily: he puts his front paws on my shoulder, rubs his head on mine and licks my face, purring softly.

In beginning of March Olivier Born, a young Swiss photographer, wants to take photos of Bhagya - if possible outside the enclosure. Olivier is accompanied by two friends, and for Bhagya it is quite thrilling to walk with such an entourage. He inspects Olivier's camera equipment, but when Olivier comes too close, he puts back his ears and hisses at him.

A couple of months later a Swiss magazine publishes one of Olivier's Bhagya portraits.

On 8 March we celebrate Bhagya's first birthday, and of course he also receives a present. Andreas is commenting during the videoing.

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