TWO long-lost friends – a leopard and an Ivorian man – were reunited at the Shamwari Game Reserve yesterday after being separated for 13 years.
Alberto Lena rescued Kuma the leopard from an illegal trader in 1996 in Ivory Coast when he was just a few days old.
When Kuma grew too big 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 Game Reserve in 1999. He had not seen him since then.
The centre gives lions and leopards rescued from zoos, circuses and other captive facilities the space and privacy they need to live as naturally as possible.
"Born Free’s ethos is to put animals back into the wild,” Born Free 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.”
As Born Free Foundation wildlife director Johan Joubert led guests and media to the sanctuary in which Kuma is housed, he cautioned: "We have no idea how he will react because he may or may not remember Alberto. And, unfortunately, no fence can keep a leopard in.”
Born Free animal care manager Glen Vena led Lena to the fenced enclosure, leaving the rest of the delegates on a viewing platform, hoping Kuma would appear because of the presence of a feeding vehicle, which brought his food daily, parked a few metres away.
The leopard emerged out of his bush enclosure. Then Lena approached the leopard, speaking to him in French.
"I am actually shaking from the inside,” Lena said to Vena, circling the fence as the leopard slowly moved towards him, following him around.
Vena replied: "I have never seen him behave with this much affection to a person. It shows that he still remembers you.”
Then, in a bold move which no one at the reserve had ever tried before, Lena reached his hand through the fence to stroke Kuma.
The leopard tilted his head to the side, rubbing his cheek against Lena’s hand.
"This is a different cat. He is showing affection,” Gillson said, with tears in her eyes.
It was the first time someone had touched the leopard since he arrived in the reserve 13 years ago, she said.
Jean Byrd, who sponsored the building of the Jean Byrd education centre and sanctuary where Kuma lives, said: "I am blown away to think that an animal would remember a man by his voice.
"Kuma does not make contact with people but he made personal contact with Alberto. There was heart involved.”
Speaking to the media later, Lena said he had not expected Kuma to still be alive.
It had taken him 13 years to come to South Africa to visit his feline friend because he felt he had abandoned Kuma when he sent him to the rescue centre, he said.
"I am full of emotions. I was not expecting him to remember me, but when I spoke to him in French he recognised me,” he said.
Lena’s Ivorian partner, Marie Roman, said: "I feel deeply happy. I saw Alberto going there and I saw in his body language that something deep was happening inside him.”
Lena said he would come back to South Africa in a year or two for another visit.