Ah, leopards — majestic creatures. Fearsome hunters, the dappled cats glide across Africa's plains like ghosts, able to melt away into the landscape, day or night, and rain terror upon unsuspecting prey.
All that would be news to the star of a new film premiering soon on Nat Geo WILD, "The Unlikely Leopard." The documentary tracks the first years of a clumsy, awkward, mama's-boy of a leopard who seems a bit ill-suited for the lofty mantle often reserved for these big cats.
The film is the latest from Dereck and Beverly Joubert, seasoned filmmakers who have dedicated their lives to documenting the dramatic stories of Africa's lions and other big cats — and their increasingly dire circumstances, which have sent their numbers plummeting in recent decades. It can get a bit depressing, they said, to compare the crowds of lions and other cats they regularly saw 30 years ago, to the far more paltry numbers they see today.
Enter "The Unlikely Leopard," a film that introduces its star when he is a tiny, 10-day-old, thoroughly irresistible cat. The film is certainly a departure for the duo, the husband-and-wife team said. There was a lot more laughter than usual.
"There were moments that we would crack up over and over just watching him fall out of a tree or play with something he shouldn't play with," Beverly told OurAmazingPlanet. "He seemed to not quite want to do what normal leopards do."
The Jouberts said they had no idea the little leopard would prove to offer such comic relief. "We just happened to find a young leopard, and I think that he told us his story," Dereck said. [See images of the unlikely leopard]
Beautifully shot, impeccably edited and skillfully written, actor Jeremy Irons' narration — which is delivered with both gravitas and understated British humor — adds a final bit of sparkle to an already arresting film.
Life among the cats
The Jouberts, South African natives who have lived out of a tent on an island in Botswana for nearly three decades, said that despite the laughter the leopard's antics provoked, filming the growing cat and his watchful mother was an enormous challenge. Unlike lions, which make their presence known and are very social creatures, leopards are far more solitary, and tend to stay on the move, blending seamlessly into their surroundings.
"So we had a rule," Dereck said. "One of us had to be watching the cat at all times. If I had to change a lens, Beverly had to watch the cat. With leopards, if they even just roll over, they can disappear."
In fact, leopards are indeed disappearing, suffering steep declines in many parts of Africa, due to human-cat conflict and a thriving black market for their unmistakable spotted fur, coveted for both its beauty and as a symbol of power. The big cats are nearly extinct in north Africa, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, an independent body that assesses the status of species around the world.
Yet in spite of the serious underlying issues, Beverly said, "making this film and spending time with this leopard was a wonderful chance to be joyful."
The Jouberts said they hope that their film not only provokes some laughter, but provokes thought and — perhaps most important — further action to protect leopards.
"The Unlikely Leopard" premieres Sunday, July 15, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Nat Geo WILD.