Friday, 17 April 2015

Single Combat: Man vs Leopard

     In the novels, Tarzan was forever fighting lions, his modus operandi being to jump onto the back of the animal, hold on like grim death, and stab it with his father's hunting knife, all the time uttering snarls not easily distinguishable from that of the cat. Killing a leopard in a similar manner was much rarer, but there were at least two men who killed leopards in single combat - one in a manner not unlike Tarzan's, the other in an even more amazing fashion. Both characters were prominent enough to warrant a Wikipedia biography, but these particular exploits are worthy of being related in detail.

     Jean-Pierre Hallet (1927-2001) was an administrator in what was then the Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi, and which are today the Democratic Republic (!) of the Congo, and the separate nations of Rwanda and Burundi. Standing 6 foot 5 inches (195 cm) tall and weighing 16 stone (224 lb/101 kg), he actually looked like Tarzan. During his ten years of service he had the sort of adventurous life most of us can only dream of - providing we don't mind nearly dying of blackwater fever, being shot with a poisoned arrow, losing a hand and the use of one ear, and inadvertently eating human flesh.
     Although he never allowed fear to interfere with his activities, he insisted he did not deliberately court danger - but I have my doubts. When he learned that many of the Maasai test their manhood by killing a lion, he insisted he wanted to do the same. For those not aware of what this entails, it means having a group of Maasai bearing tall shields act as beaters to drive a lion towards the hunter - in this case, Hallet - who stands behind a shield and waits until the lion is about a body-length away. At that point, he hurls a spear with all his strength, at the same time leaping out of the way of the cat's spring. He claimed that, at the time, he felt no fear, just an intense excitement.
     Another time, he chose to provide protein to a famine stricken tribe by collecting fish using the "instant bait" method ie throwing in sticks of dynamite. Unfortunately, it blew his right hand (his dominant hand) off, and he was forced to drive 200 miles single handedly (literally) to the nearest hospital for treatment. The reason I mention this is that it means he had only one hand when the crucial adventure occurred.
     It was January 1957, and he was hiking with a band of sixteen porters single file through the jungle in Kivu, west of the Ruwenzori Mountains. Suddenly, a scream issued from the head of the column. The porters dropped their loads and fled, while he ran forward, only to discover, around a bend in the trail, the head porter being attacked by a male leopard. Heaven only knows how it happened! Perhaps the porter had surprised the leopard as his turned the corner. The man had obviously tried to flee, because he was lying on his belly with the cat raking his shoulders with its forepaws and his legs with its hindpaws.
     Without giving himself time to think, Hallet leaped, Tarzan-like onto the leopard's back. Unfortunately, unlike Tarzan, he had no weapon. All he could do was to get a scissors grip on the leopard's belly with his own legs, forcing its hindlegs apart, while at the same time passing his arms under the animal's forequarters. Because cats have no collarbone, he was able to force its forelegs apart and up against its neck, partially immobilising its head and jaws.
     But, as he put it, it was "like trying to hold a living hurricane". Only his own great strength saved him, for if he were to loosen his grip, he would be dead. The leopard was only half his weight, but much stronger. It trashed, and writhed, and rolled around, lacerating his body on the surrounding thorn bushes. He called out for a knife. There was no-one around. He shifted the grip of his single hand and tried to strangle it, but to no avail.
     At last, he saw his headman about 100 feet [30 metres] away, holding an enormous knife. "Throw it!" he shouted. The weapon landed about 20 feet away. That left him no choice but to wrestle the leopard over to the knife, a process which took six or seven terrible minutes, and then he took the dreadful risk of releasing the grip of his left hand and strained to reach the knife. He caught it by the tip. Even then, as the combatants rolled over and over, it took a long time to force the blade in and complete the job.
     In the meantime, the injured porter had fled into the bush. Despite medical treatment, his mind was never the same again.
     PS.  If his last name follows the normal rules of French, it would be pronounced, "ah-yay."

     Carl Akeley (1864 - 1926) was hardly in the Tarzan mould, weighing in at only 140 lb (63½ kg) - which makes his achievement all the more extraordinary. As the taxidermist attached to the 1896 Field Columbian Museum of Chicago's expedition to British Somaliland, he shot a hyena. On returning to it, he discovered it had been removed by something which had left tracks he interpreted as belonging to a young lion. At that point, he made did two foolish things: he followed the spoor, although the light was declining, and, instead of reloading the magazine of his rifle, in which only a single bullet remained, he simply carried a spare cartridge in his hand.
     When a low growl issued from the undergrowth, and he sighted a shadowy figure, he made mistake number 3: he fired at the pair of gleaming eyes. Because of the poor light, he missed. The next instant, a full grown leopard charged out of the undergrowth straight at him. Akely turned and ran, at the same time belatedly inserting the spare cartridge in the breech of the rifle. Again, he turned, and fired wildly at the wild beast, just as it sprang at him. The bullet smashed one of its hindlegs, and the rifle he wielded warded off its jaws, which clamped firmly on his right arm rather than his throat.
     It's amazing what adrenaline will do in an emergency. Akeley seized the leopard's throat in his left hand, while simultaneously stamping on its sound hindleg. Somehow, he managed to extricate his right arm bit by bit from those savage jaws, then, since the arm was terribly torn, but not disabled, he added the extra hand to his grip on the big cat's throat. You have to understand just how close they were, and the fact that they were pretty much matched as far as weight was concerned. The leopard was struggling for breath, the man for enough strength to dispatch it. He forced it backwards, onto its hindquarters, while at the same time separating its forelegs with his knees, so that the claws could not be used against him. He was very lucky in two ways. Firstly, its hindquarters turned in the fall, pressing its sound leg against the sand. Also, because the sand was soft, the leopard's struggles only forced its leg deeper into the ground. If the soil had been hard, it probably would have got it free and disemboweled him.
     Akeley knew that if he was unable to maintain his grip on the leopard's throat, it would be the end of him. They were now on the ground, and he was kneeling on the animal's stomach, holding its forelegs apart with his elbows. At last, his adversary's body went limp. He loosened his grip on its throat - and suddenly he saw it begin to stir again.  So once more, the struggle continued. Finally, in desperation, he dug his knees into the leopard's chest so hard that the ribs began to break one by one. In the end, one of them punctured its lung, and that hastened its end.
     The taxidermist was totally exhausted, and his right arm seriously mauled. This was long before the days of antibiotics, remember. However, the head of the expedition, Dr. D. G. Elliot washed his wounds with diluted corrosive sublimate, and later added antiseptics and bandaged it. The wounds healed within a week, though they caused him pain for another year. Dr. Elliot also provided a certificate that the events had happened as described.
     There's a copy of the same photo in colour here.
    Recently (2005), another man killed a leopard by grabbing its tongue, of all things. Another man describes fighting and killing a small female leopard in Namibia.

     Next time, I shall recount how a boy pulled open the jaws of a lion to rescue his younger brother.
In the meantime, here is a storiy of a man who killed a wolf with his bare hands. It appears that a man once killed a grizzly bear bare-handed. In 2007 a man killed a lion with his bare hands, but was himself killed by hyenas.

Jean-Paul Hallet (1965), Congo Kitabu
Ivan Calvin Waterbury, "A Fight With a Leopard", pp 55 - 57 in The Wide World (Paul Safort, editor, Macmillan, 2004) [This is a collection of stories from the old Wide World magazine. The original appears to have been published in 1906.]

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