Born Free Foundation - Keep Wildlife in the Wild

A ‘Christian the Lion’ moment for Kuma and Alberto - 16th August 2012

Kuma before arriving at Shamwari
Kuma - back in 1999

Kuma recognises his rescuer after 14 years

Kuma the leopard, rescued from an Ivory Coast zoo in 1999, has been living at the Born Free Foundation sanctuary within Shamwari Game Reserve in South Africa.  Born Free Foundation adoptive parents of Kuma will know his story, but for those of you who don’t, here is how Kuma came to be at Shamwari:

Kuma and his brother Tango were just a few days old when a young Italian, Alberto Lena, found them being offered for sale on the edge of a forest.  Wanting to rescue them, not realising he could be encouraging the trade of such wildlife, Alberto bought them and hand-reared them and they grew into beautiful young adults.  They loved people and their favourite games were had playing on the beach.  However, as they grew older their wild instincts came to the fore and their behaviour became unpredictable.  Alberto realised they needed rehoming and his friend, Hanne Beasley, contacted the Born Free Foundation.  Could we help?

Plans were made to bring Kuma and Tango to Shamwari, where three acres of bush would be fenced off at the Born Free sanctuary.  Sadly, the Ivory Coast government would not give permission for the export and insisted the leopards were rehomed to Abidjan Zoo.

Alberto was distraught, as were the leopards.  They endlessly paced their barren, concrete cage in the zoo and cried out in distress.  Two weeks later, Tango broke out and was shot.

Efforts were redoubled to get Kuma rehomed and finally, after the kind intervention of the Italian Ambassador to Abidjan, the government relented.

It was in March 1999 that a tearful Alberto coaxed Kuma into his travelling crate and whispered goodbye through the bars.  Offers were made for Alberto to travel with Kuma but for various reasons this wasn’t possible and after some time contact was lost with Alberto.

So there was great excitement amongst the staff at Born Free and Shamwari when, in July, an Alberto Lena contacted Shamwari to ask if a leopard he had rehomed there, many years ago, was still alive.

Kuma was indeed alive - and thriving!

Glen Vena, the Born Free Foundation and Shamwari’s Animal Care Manager, takes up the story:

I was so excited when I heard that Alberto had been in touch, but I was very nervous too as I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Many questions were going through my head.  Would Kuma remember him?  How would Kuma be when Alberto left him again?  Would his behaviour change towards us…?

Alberto Lena arrives at the Jean Byrd Centre

I had heard a lot about Alberto from Tim Parratt who used to run the sanctuary many years ago, also from our vet Dr Johan Joubert, as they had both gone to Abidjan Zoo to collect Kuma, and had described the horrors of the zoo.  Johan said Alberto was a very gentle, soft-speaking man. So, ja…. I felt good about this, however animals are unpredictable so that nervousness was inside me too. 

On the 16th August, Alberto arrived on Shamwari and Johan went to collect him and his family at the airport.

I was at the Jean Byrd Centre at 9.00 am making sure all was okay and that Kuma was relaxed as we had decided to encourage him into his hospital camp overnight.  He can disappear into the bush in his main camp and it would be so sad if Alberto had travelled all that way to see Kuma, and then Kuma had remained hidden!

Kuma in his hospital camp, relaxed, not knowing who he is going to meet later

Well Kuma was just fine and was relaxing in his camp, not bothered with me and Headman, he just looked hungry.  I was waiting for Alberto to arrive before we fed him so I chatted to Kuma and said he must just hang in there as a old friend will be visiting him and his old friend would love to give him something to eat and share this time with him and observe him.  Well Kuma, he just yawned and went to sleep again.

Now the clock was ticking until 11am when Johan would get there with Alberto.   Johan, as the vet, would have to keep out of sight as none of our cats are keen on Johan, they see him as the person who has darted them and they never forget; Johan would not even be able to talk, as they would recognised his voice even though several people will be there.

Some of the visitors at the JB Centre walking with Jean Byrd, the sponsor of the Jean Byrd Centre, and with Sidney, animal care assistant – both on the right

Kuma is usually nervous around strangers, and with some of our guests coming to see this special reunion, it had to be handled in such a way as not to stress Kuma.

Finally every one arrived and everyone got a briefing from Johan first and then I gave them a very short explanation about our work.  My voice was a shaking as my attention was not with them, my mind was all over the place and my hands sticky …. The man of the moment Alberto said how he had rescued Kuma and Tango and how he used to take them to the beach and play soccer with them! By then I was tearing up and feeling like … I still don’t know.  My word, I could not believe myself.

Alberto, Headman and I then walked towards Kuma, and Sidney and Catherine took the rest of the people onto the platform/viewing deck.
Alberto had a white T-shirt on a small stick that was about 60cm long in his hand.  When I asked what this was for Alberto smiled and said it was something Kuma might remember.

Alberto with his white T-shirt and little stick

This was the moment Alberto was waiting for, I could see the anticipation on his face.  Kuma was not sure who Headman and I had with us, and he flattened his ears and made himself very small.

Alberto was very cautious.  He kneeled by the gate and he spoke in French with Kuma and showed him the white t-shirt with the stick.  The next moment I will never forget: Kuma had been on the ground, ears flattened in an attack mode, or like a cat stalking a mouse, but as he heard Alberto’s voice, he got up, crying, meowing. I’m not sure how to put those sounds he made into words for you. 

He then put his nose and forehead against the fence and rubbed his head against the fence, I went to touch Alberto on the shoulder and remind him about our no handling policy, but Alberto had instinctively rubbed him back through the fence, talking to him French all the while and Kuma talking back.  What a conversation it was….

It was just amazing and I was speechless.  We have never, ever seen Kuma like this.

The meeting
The walk

Then they took a walk down the side of the enclosure and along the front towards the viewing deck, which is where everyone was. They walked together, Alberto talking to Kuma, and Kuma talking back, and then they would stop and look at each other and I’m sure if that fence was not separating them they would have hugged.

Kuma and Alberto
The Talk

Once in front and with Kuma relaxed, Alberto offered him something to eat, he gave him bits of meat out of his hand and Kuma took it like a dog would take a doggie cookie out of  hand, very gently. He would eat it and then take the next piece.  

Even if we were allowed to touch Kuma, I can’t believe he would let anyone take such a liberty but the memory he has of Alberto and the kindness Alberto had showed him, showed what their relationship used to be, and still was. 

Alberto returned the next day, as he was leaving on the 18th so they had some time alone just talking by the fence.

The goodbye. It is just them. The conversation must be just between them.

Looking at them, my concerns had been answered. Kuma looked energized, more alive, his facial expression was different; Headman commented on this too, that Kuma looked more confident and at ease.

I’m sure it is sad for both Kuma and Alberto to go their different ways again but Alberto said he is going to be back and hopefully next time to stay longer.

Update on the other bug cats in Shamwari

Born Free Foundation
Broadlands Business Campus, Langhurstwood Road
, Horsham, RH12 4QP, UK - Charity Reg. No. 1070906

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