Leopards have figured in Hebrew culture for thousands of years. Several references appear in the Bible such as ‘Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?’ (Jeremiah 13:22) alluding to man’s inability to change, and ‘The leopard shall sleep with the kid’ (Isaiah 11:6) – an optimistic view of a peaceful future. The leopard is also mentioned in the Song of Songs.
Many places both in Israel and all over the Middle East are named after the animal such as Nimrah and Beth-Nimrah (from ‘namer’ – leopard) located in what was once Moab. In the Golan there is The Mountain of the Leopards and a valley entering the Dead Sea from the east is called ’Valley of the Little Leopard’.
From this one can infer that in years gone by these animals had much more of a presence, roaming freely not only in Israel but throughout the Middle East from Saudi Arabia to Turkey.
Further compelling evidence came from a visit with my guide Alon to Bikaat Uvda. There we saw the Shrine of the Leopards, dating from approximately 6000BCE and where people worshipped until about 3,000 BCE, which indicated that the leopard once held a significant role in the spiritual life of the people.
We travelled along route 90 linking the Dead Sea with Eilat. There, at the side of the road, largely unprotected, was a roughly marked off area of earth containing sixteen depictions of animals – each created from triangular stones embedded in the earth forming their outlines. Fifteen faced east, these were leopards judging by the shape of their heads and their distinctive long, curved tails. The other faced west and was a type of antelope.
For me, used to viewing archaeological artefacts in museums, it was very special to walk unsupervised amongst these unique forms and marvel at their creation with not another soul around.
Today the numbers of this magnificent large cat have hugely diminished to the extent that only about 18 survive in Israel. In Syria, Jordan and Lebanon they have been completely eradicated.
This decline resulted from climate change, population growth, the destruction of their natural habitat and hunting. The Crusaders put an end to lions in the Middle East whilst the widespread introduction of firearms in the late 19th century and the growing popularity of hunting as ‘sport’ exacerbated the problem. This was particularly prevalent during the British Mandate when it was ‘awfully fashionable’ to chase and kill wild animals in order to hang trophies on walls.
When Israel was established, the law was altered to protect wild animals but it still permitted some form of hunting. However, in 2010, hunting for sport was banned, except where necessary for the protection of agriculture or livestock. Israel’s commitment to nature conservation can in fact be traced back to the Book of Genesis, which stressed the essential link between humanity (adam) and the earth (adamah) underlining man’s responsibility for its preservation.
We next travelled to the far north of Israel to seek another leopard story. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the countryside with rugged thickly wooded hills, deep valleys, lush green foliage and a proliferation of wild flowers.
In the mountain range close to the Ridge of Tyre, we caught our first glimpse of the Cave of the Leopards, named by the Bedouin, Arab el Aramshe. We clambered down from the top of a ridge and suddenly found ourselves on the rim of the cave. The view was spectacular with a sheer drop of 1000 feet to the valley below.
Leopards were feared as they attacked both humans and livestock. The villagers here devised a cunning scheme to trap these predators. The women wove a strong net from goats’ hair which was placed on the ground and hidden by undergrowth. A rope secured the net at one end of the cave and the other end was held by a group of men who lay concealed in the bushes.
The villagers tethered a baby goat in the cave and waited for a leopard to come. Eventually one arrived on hearing the kid bleating for its mother. A lookout signalled to the men below. When the animal was near enough, they pulled the net tight to trap the animal and then all the villagers joined forces to stone it to death.
Considering the small numbers that now exist, it is an anomaly that the leopard still features predominantly in the iconography of Israel.
In 1994, silver coins were struck by the Government showing the animal surrounded by a text from the Song of Songs. In 2011, a set of Israeli postage stamps was printed illustrating leopards for the World Wildlife Fund.
Stories about leopards have also become part of Israeli folklore. One tells of an incident that supposedly happened some 200 years ago. In the Jerusalem hills stood three villages, Abu Ghosh, Ein Nakuba and Saris. Mostly these villages were in a state of hostility. One night a small girl from Saris was playing outside but when her mother called her the child did not respond. The mother searched but, unable to find her, sought the assistance of neighbours who in desperation turned to the surrounding villages for help.
All the men folk gathered and carrying torches searched all night – but to no avail. Early the next morning they enlisted the help of trackers who found the child’s footprints alongside those of several wolves. They came to the tragic conclusion that she must have been devoured by the wolves. They also found the footprints of a leopard nearby which compounded their fears.
They followed these tracks which eventually led to a cave. There they found the child alive, sleeping quietly in a corner. The leopard was lying nearby guarding her. On seeing the men approach it fled. The child awoke to tell the astonishing tale of how she had been saved by the leopard who had protected her from the marauding wolves.
This cave is called M’arat el Nimr – The Cave of the Leopard. Whether true or apocryphal, this fable places the leopard in a heroic role rather than the usual one of an aggressive predator.
In 2007 one of Israel’s few remaining leopards achieved notoriety when Reuters reported that a 45 year old Israeli, Arthur de Mosh, from Sde Boker was woken from his sleep by the sound of growling and found a leopard in his bedroom trying to catch his pet cat. Our hero bravely rescued the pet from the animal’s clutches, wrestled the leopard to the ground where it lay in a catatonic state until help arrived. Arthur’s cat recovered from its traumatic experience, the leopard was found to be suffering from malnutrition. It was taken away for medical tests including (naturally) a Catscan before being released into a nature reserve.
After writing this story I jokingly said to Alon ” Now you have to find me a real leopard!” “No problem” he replied, so next day we drove down south to the Hai Bar nature reserve. Alon had been responsible for setting up this centre in 1966 with the objective of restoring to the land of Israel extant animals mentioned in the Bible.
He introduced me to this magnificent leopard which came within 12 inches of my camera. Fortunately, I was well protected by a heavy glass partition. But the thrill of seeing it at such close quarters prowling back and forth, observing its rippling muscles and almost feeling its breath, made me realise why these creatures were held in such awe and why they had once had such a prominent place in the lives of our ancestors.