The Incredible Story Of Carl Akeley’s Fight To The Death With A Leopard
Anyone who has been to New York’s American Museum of Natural History is no doubt familiar with its amazing African mammal collection. The large hall featuring 28 diorama’s with specimens from Africa is named after preservationist, hunter and explorer Carl E. Akeley (May 19, 1864 – November 17, 1926).
The centerpiece of the hall is a freestanding group of eight elephants, poised as if to charge,
What you see in the Akeley Hall of African Mammals is an accurate portrait of what Akeley and other explorers saw in Africa from the Belgian Congo to the Serengeti Plain.
In 1923 Akeley wrote In Brightest Africa (Doubleday, Page), an account of his travels in Africa. It remains an exciting read today.
One of the most incredible stories is Akeley’s description of killing a leopard with his bare hands.
The sun was setting, and with little to console us the pony boy and I started for camp. As we came near to the place where I had shot the diseased hyena in the morning, it occurred to me that perhaps there might be another hyena about the carcass, and feeling a bit “sore” at the tribe for stealing my wart hog, I thought I might pay off the score by getting a good specimen of a hyena for the collections. The pony boy led me to the spot, but the dead hyena was nowhere in sight. There was the blood where he had fallen, and in the dusk we could make out a trail in the sand where he had been dragged away.
Advancing a few steps, a slight sound attracted my attention, and glancing to one side I got a glimpse of a shadowy form going behind a bush. I then did a very foolish thing. Without a sight of what I was shooting at, I shot hastily into the bush. The snarl of a leopard told me what kind of a customer I was taking chances with. A leopard is a cat and has all the qualities that gave rise to the “nine lives” legend: To kill him you have got to kill him clear to the tip of his tail. Added to that, a leopard, unlike a lion, is vindictive. A wounded leopard will fight to a finish practically every time, no matter how many chances it has to escape. Once aroused, its determination is fixed on fight, and if a leopard ever gets hold, it claws and bites until its victim is in shreds. All this was in my mind, and I began looking about for the best way out of it, for I had no desire to try conclusions with a possibly wounded leopard when it was so late in the day that I could not see the sights of my rifle.
My intention was to leave it until morning and if it had been wounded, there might then be a chance of finding it, I turned to the left to cross to the opposite bank of a deep, narrow tug and when there I found that I was on an island where the tug forked, and by going along a short distance to the point of the island I would be in position to see behind the bush where the leopard had stopped. But what I had started the leopard was intent on finishing. While peering about I detected the beast crossing the tug about twenty yards above me. I again began shooting, although I could not see to aim. However, I could see where the bullets struck as the sand spurted up beyond the leopard. The first two shots went above her, but the third scored. The leopard stopped and I thought she was killed. The pony boy broke into a song of triumph which was promptly cut short by another song such as only a thoroughly angry leopard is capable of making as it charges. For just a flash I was paralyzed with fear, then came power for action.
I worked the bolt of my rifle and became conscious that the magazine was empty. At the same instant I realized that a solid point cartridge rested in the palm of my left hand, one that I had intended, as I came up to the dead hyena, to replace with a soft nose. If I could but escape the leopard until I could get the cartridge into the chamber!
As she came up the bank on one side of the point of the island, I dropped down the other side and ran about to the point from which she had charged, by which time the cartridge was in place, and I wheeled — to face the leopard in mid-air. The rifle was knocked flying and in its place was eighty pounds of frantic cat. Her intention was to sink her teeth into my throat and with this grip and her forepaws hang to me while with her hind claws she dug out my stomach, for this pleasant practice is the way of leopards. However, happily for me, she missed her aim. Instead of getting my throat she was to one side. She struck me high in the chest and caught my upper right arm with her mouth. This not only saved my throat but left her hind legs hanging clear where they could not reach my stomach. With my left hand I caught her throat and tried to wrench my right arm free, but I couldn’t do it except little by little. When I got grip enough on her throat to loosen her hold just a little she would catch my arm again an inch or two lower down. In this way I drew the full length of the arm through her mouth inch by inch. I was conscious of no pain, only of the sound of the crushing of tense muscles and the choking, snarling grunts of the beast.
As I pushed her farther and farther down my arm I bent over, and finally when it was almost freed I fell to the ground, the leopard underneath me, my right hand in her mouth, my left hand clutching her throat, my knees on her lungs, my elbows in her armpits spreading her front legs apart so that the frantic clawing did nothing more than tear my shirt. Her body was twisted in an effort to get hold of the ground to turn herself, but the loose sand offered no hold.
For a moment there was no change in our positions, and then for the first time I began to think and hope I had a chance to win this curious fight. Up to that time it had been simply a good fight in which I expected to lose, but now if I could keep my advantage perhaps the pony boy would come with a knife. I called, but to no effect. I still held her and continued to shove the hand down her throat so hard she could not close her mouth and with the other I gripped her throat in a strangle hold. Then I surged down on her with my knees. To my surprise I felt a rib go.
I did it again. I felt her relax, a sort of letting go, although she was still struggling. At the same time I felt myself weakening similarly, and then it became a question as to which would give up first. Little by little her struggling ceased. My strength had outlasted hers.
After what seemed an interminable passage of time I let go and tried to stand, calling to the pony boy that it was finished. He now screwed up his courage sufficiently to approach. Then the leopard began to gasp, and I saw that she might recover; so I asked the boy for his knife. He had thrown it away fin his fear, but quickly found it, and I at last made certain that the beast was dead. As I looked at her later I came to the conclusion that what had saved me was the first shot I had fired when she went into the bush. It had hit her right hind foot. I think it was this broken foot which threw out the aim of her spring and made her get my arm instead of my throat. With the excitement of the battle still on me I did not realize how badly used up I was. I tried to shoulder the leopard to carry it to camp, but was very soon satisfied to confine my efforts to getting myself to camp.
When I came inside the zareba, my companions were at dinner before one of the tents. They had heard the shots and had speculated on the probabilities. They had decided that I was in a mix-up with a lion or with natives, but that I would have the enemy or the enemy would have me before they could get to me; so they had continued their dinner. The fatalistic spirit of the country had prevailed.
When I came within their range of vision, however, my appearance was quite sufficient to arrest attention, for my clothes were all ripped, my arm was chewed into an unpleasant sight, and there was blood and dirt all over me. Moreover, my demands for all the antiseptics in camp gave them something to do, for nothing was keener in my mind than that the leopard had been feeding on the diseased hyena that I had shot in the morning. To the practical certainty of blood poisoning from any leopard bite not quickly treated was added the certainty that this leopard’s mouth was particularly foul with disease.
While my companions were getting the surgical appliances ready, my boys were stripping me and dousing me with cold water. That done, the antiseptic was pumped into every one of the innumerable tooth wounds until my arm was so full of the liquid that an injection in one drove it out of another. During the process I nearly regretted that the leopard had not won. But it was applied so quickly and so thoroughly that it was a complete case.
Later in the evening they brought the leopard in and laid it beside my cot. Her right hind foot
showed where the first shot had hit her. The only other bullet that struck her was the last before she charged and that had creased her just under the skin on the back of the neck, from the shock of which she had instantly recovered.
This encounter took place fairly soon after our arrival on my first trip to Africa. I have seen a lot
of leopards since and occasionally killed one, but I have taken pains never to attempt it at such close quarters again. In spite of their fighting qualities I have never got to like or respect leopards very much.
This is not because of my misadventure; I was hurt much worse by an elephant, but I have great respect and admiration for elephants. I think it is because the leopard has always seemed to me a sneaking kind of animal, and also perhaps because he will eat carrion even down to a dead and diseased hyena.
Carl Akeley, the father of modern taxidermy, died in Africa of dysentery after contracting a fever while on expedition in 1926, and was laid to rest where he died.
Akeley’s life reads like something out of the movies. Yet there has never been a film made about him.
Besides In Brightest Africa, I highly recommend three books relating to Carl Akeley
Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History by Douglas J. Preston (St. Martin’s Press), 1986. Not just about Akeley, but the museum and its collections and Akeley is featured prominently. An excellent book.
Carl Akeley’s Africa: The Account of the Akeley-Eastman-Pomeroy African Hall Expedition of the American Museum of Natural History by Mary Jobe Akeley (Dodd, Mead), 1929. Written by Akeley’s second wife who was with him on his final expedition.
Carl Akeley: Africa’s Collector, Africa’s Savior, by Penelope.Bodry-Sanders (Paragon House), 1991. A good overall biography.