The rules of Serengeti have been laid down for centuries for one reason-Survival! It contains the collective intelligence of millions of years.There is a reason why the Tiger hunts down Gazelle and Snakes gobble Rats.If you wonder why doesn't the Elephants stomp on rabbits and eat them instead of starving for months to find a particular tree to chomp on leaves,the answer is a simple process called Evolution!
That's why the story of Layla,the strong hearted, stubborn but tender Lioness from Serengeti and Raja,the intelligent,arrogant but skillful Snow Leopard from Maasai Mara is unique.
They came together for survival in a strange migratory land in the plains of Maasai Mara.It had been fourteen months of drought,the longest ever both had witnessed.Layla had to feed her little precocious cub,Luna, while Raja was looking for a land to call his own. As the drought continued, Raja realized he needed a partner to conquer this land. As he saw the strong lioness migrated from Serengeti walk towards the plain, he decided to do what no other Leopard has ever done before him for millions of years. Make a Lioness as his partner in hunting. He showed Layla the lay of the land.
In the jungle, everyone has to earn their keep. To Raja's surprise, Layla proved to be more than a worthy partner.She surprised him with her moves striking with less energy while Raja would strategize for hours changing positions ten times before a kill. Raja's stealth matched Layla's straightforward kill.Together, bound by survival,they forged an unknown,unusual, unique bond.Their differences vanished under the stars filled sky as they shared stories of plains filed with rivers and beautiful deers. When the survival instinct recedes, when the necessary niceties go away, you peel a layer that's more honest and true. That's where Raja saw Layla's unique way of seeing life in the Jungle and realized how similar they were spiritually. They both 'kill for necessity"and not for the joy of hunting. They shared tid bits of their life that revealed a master canvass of each other that was being painted on each other's psyche. It was a controlled revelation yet contained nuggets of truth that both knew contained precious vulnerability. They shared in trust knowing the other could usurp the land. First hesitantly, then willingly, and on some days when their respective individualistic free animal spirit took over, none whatsoever.
In the plains of Maasai Mara, they climbed trees, hid low in the grass and counted the star streaks in the open sky together. They left clues in the trail and met at the rendezvous point in the wee hours of winter mornings. It was only a matter of time before one of them did the unthinkable. As always, it turned out to be the impulsive Leopard,Raja. He fell for Layla. He knew about her cubs, her pride but he also knew this was not based on survival probability or prosperity in the plains.This was purely a soul connection that tugged at his heart during lonely hunting nights. There was a need for sensing each other in the core that reassured and replenished each moment together with content and bliss but at same time light and warm in the grassy playground with tender touch.
Life is transient in the plains.It is cruel, unforgiving and hits you hard with reality. Raja knew he was holding on to Layla because his kill had a purpose beyond feeding oneself. When they hunted together, plotting each move, matching each one's step, arriving at same pace,backing away at right moment before plunging on the prey, what got killed was lost in their minds and what mattered most was what got created in their hearts. Raja knew the truth in that moment that Layla makes him alive. With her, it's not surviving the plains but living the plains. He felt sure that Layla felt the same. He knew that their time together was the soul nourishment that fueled the time in between when they were not together and his days were not counted by the Sun but by the intervals between their meetings. It had nothing to do with other members of his species or hers. He felt the bond that he knew was special and wanted to believe Layla felt the same.
Raja decided to let Layla know his feelings. What better way to let her know than by sacrificing his kill for her ? As Layla looked at his elaborate hunt laying infront of her, she withdrew. She wasn't sure what Raja needed. She couldn't believe that this Leopard would be so stupid to pursue someone who was from a different species altogether.The biology, anatomy and physics, all of them denied together in her core. This created a slow rift as Layla felt conflicted. Raja knew he can wait as one day Layla would know he meant the eternal bond that defied everything she knew but Layla began to sense the danger in this relationship.While she was thankful on one hand,she had a hard time categorizing this bond between them. After all, they were two independent cats responsible for their own members of their family with fear of revealing too much as they wanted to protect their identities and the free land.
There is a saying in Serengeti that says "The dreamer is entertaining, inspiring and rejenuvating but in the end, he will get you killed". Layla knew this fact and has always been a realist. She made sure she was a spectator in Raja's dreams as she knew his world revolved around her. It only made her feel more proud but as she returned with the food to feed Luna, she knew where she belonged.She was sure where her loyalties lay.She was sure she would return back to Serengeti from Masaai Mara soon.
Raja would get glimpses of their old times after that day and then suddenly she would turn into the head of pride that is solely responsible for the protection of Luna. He didn't mind the dualities as in his mind, what they had was unique irrespective of the other realities. He was happy as long as they met in the plains to do their dance. Some days, Raja would get frustrated at her lack of acknowledgement of what they have.They began to hunt separately now and share whenever Layla felt sorry for Raja. Every time she indulged out of gratitude, Raja would build more castles between them.
Layla did not understand what made Raja to be so enamored with her. She was a Lioness and he was a Leopard. She could not allow herself to be dragged into a dreamer's world that would conflict with her pride family. She knew that was her purpose in life.She liked this crazy Leopard that dives, rolls and hunts just to please her but she knew she can't acknowledge what he wants. She did not believe in his eternal bond as it interfered with her realistic world.She realized he was making it difficult to leave this place without feeling guilty. She sent him on a mission to fetch the finest of water from Nile river in Northern plains.
Layla finally left Maasai Mara to Serengeti as Raja went on his mission. She knew there was no easy way to do this. As Raja returned to find an empty plain, he knew she had left. The winter set in as the trees became bare. Raja sat alone in the middle of open ground and looked at his face in the Northern Nile water. He saw what Layla saw in him and why she left. He is but a Snow Leopard imagining a unique connection with a Lioness that has a different purpose. Layla can never accept Raja and come on his soul journey because she believes in the life on the plains. Not the one beyond it.
As Layla saw her little cub Luna join the big pride in Serengeti, she knew she had come home!
Raja began his long walk out of Maasai Mara, never to be seen again!
Life in the jungle continues unabated!
*Picture taken in Taronga Zoo in Sydney