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My Life with Leopards: Graham Cooke's Story

Biography / MemoirOut of Print

By: Fransje van Riel(Author)

256 pages, plates with colour photos

Penguin Books

Paperback | Dec 2012 | #202602 | ISBN-13: 9780143530299
Out of Print Details

About this book

Human emotion and animal instinct meet poignantly when two six-week-old leopard cubs become the charge of 22-year-old game ranger Graham Cooke at Londolozi. Staying with the cubs in an unfenced bush camp surrounded by lions, hyenas and other leopards, he must first gain their trust before he begins to guide them towards release in the wild. It takes weeks of patience and gentleness for Graham to be accepted into the cubs' small family unit and to find ways of communicating with the young leopards as he slowly begins to introduce them to their new environment. Graham finds himself drawn more to the wary little female than her easy-going brother, but over time both cubs come to recognise him as their protector. They form a bond of friendship through which he can gain unparalleled insights into their development and behaviour. When, a year later, the cubs are relocated to the Zambian wilderness, Graham faces the hardest task of all: to set free the young animals he has become so devoted to so that they can return to a wild existence where he is unable to control their fate.

"No other book I know takes you so deeply into the secret world of the leopard."
- Brian Jackman, award-winning journalist and author of The Marsh Lions, the Big Cat Diary, Roaring at the Dawn and other books on wildlife.

"Reading this graceful book was like camping out in the African wilds. I felt fully alive, and always wanting to turn the page."
- Jonathan Balcombe, author of Pleasurable Kingdom, and The Exultant Ark

"vividly told, beautifully written with lovely descriptions"
- Andre Eva Bosch, author and journalist


"After reading it I can't think of it as a book I found it to be so much more than that. I absolutely love the book in its entirety, but for me what will really stay in my mind is chapter 14 till the end of the book. I don't think I have ever been so moved by something so much since I read Born Free as a kid. I felt and lived every minute with them on the river back and deeply felt the loss and the hope he must have felt. You wrote it in such a simple and yet beautiful way that I could not help but feel I was there. Plus to ask of such a young guy to go through all that emotion while still growing into an adult himself, just blows me away. But the last cheaters really did it for me and I strangely loved the roller coaster ride of emotion I was sent on. I am so happy I found the time to read the last part all the way through and by the time I did I wanted to come to SA and give both you and Graham a big silent hug.

Thank you so much for a beautiful journey :)"

- JM Hull, UK


"Anyone who has read Joy Adamson's books will rekindle some of that awe of experiencing life in the company of our big cats. Graham Cooke's tale is no less engaging, as written as a first-person account by Fransje van Riel. We enter the world of the somewhat whimsically named Boycat and Poepface, a brother-and-sister pair of leopard cubs, and follow their antics from the bush camp in Londolozi to the Zambian wilderness and their eventual release.

From the start it is clear that over a year Cooke formed a very close bond with his charges, and it's this emotional entanglement that makes the story all the more heart-rending. Humans and leopards live in two very different worlds, and this is something Cooke understands. Nature is red in tooth and claw, and the cubs must learn to survive in a very dangerous world, or die.

Author Van Riel does a sterling job of evoking the sights and sounds of the African bush with lush descriptions, and brings readers directly into Cooke's world. Some memorable moments include Cooke's description of the hat game he used to play with Boycat or the chaos the cubs caused during filming in a Maasai homestead. But not once do we forget how dangerous the African bush is. Cooke's brushes with danger involving lions, buffalo and crocodiles serve as stern reminders that the untamed areas are exactly as the name suggests – a wilderness, where man had better tread softly.

With this fact in mind, readers had best beware that any real-life account involving wild animals is bound to reflect nature's harsh existence. What is abundantly clear is that Cooke gave his all to make a great personal sacrifice of a year of his life, and faced death in the process, to see to these big cats' eventual release. This is not a story about conservation, but rather a snapshot frozen in time, illustrating a brief moment when two very different worlds touched. And I'll admit that the ending brought a tear to my eye."

- Nerine Dorman, author and editor

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