Independent streak is what gives the leopard her appeal

The smallest of the big cats has fascinated human for millennia, and still has a place in the popular imagination.

Scanning the front page of The National on November 30 I was struck by the unmistakable image of a leopard. For an instant I hoped against all hope that there had been a sighting of the critically endangered Arabian leopard - in the mountains of Ras Al Khaimah perhaps - but no such luck.

In reality, the leopard image was an advertisement for the renowned jeweller, Cartier. The relationship between the House of Cartier and the leopard (le panthère in French) goes back to one of Cartier's most celebrated designers, Jeanne Toussaint (nicknamed the Le Panthère), the creator of Cartier's first panther piece, commissioned by Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor.

This bejewelled bracelet, in the form of a leopard, is now rumoured to wrap the wrist of Madonna. The House of Cartier also has long standing links with the Gulf; Jacques Cartier first visited the region in 1911 in search of the legendary Khaliji pearls: Lulua, Mozah and Hessa. Now the panther has returned, this time in the form of an advertisement heralding a jewellery exhibition at Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi.

Cartier, however, has no monopoly on cat. Walking around the UAE's malls, I'm struck by the longevity and omnipresence of leopard print. Adorning bags, shoes, even the occasional abaya, the iconic markings of this predatory feline are everywhere.

What is it about the leopard that has made it so timeless and cross-culturally appealing? Why has this creature, the smallest of all the big cats, become so iconic; its spotted pelt associated with divinity, royalty and military prowess throughout the ages? Today, this elegant predator's distinctive markings perennially bestride the catwalks of the big fashion capitals, and adorn the wardrobes of millions of women (and the occasional man) around the globe.

For the earliest evidence of leopard-skin garments we have to travel to France - where else for fashion? It was here, in the 1960s at a Neanderthal cave site, that archeologists unearthed the remnants of a leopard skin garment worn more than 60,000 years ago. Similarly, in central Turkey, an archaeological site known as Catalhoyuk, hailed as the world's oldest city, is totally dominated by leopards. One of the more famous artefacts from this ancient site is the iconic figurine of an enthroned woman with her hands resting on the heads of two leopards.

Each year, coach loads of visitors descend on Catalhoyuk from all over the world. Many of these visitors are women from the "goddess community". For these intrepid pilgrims of third-wave feminism, some from as far away as California, the leopard represents female power, sovereignty and divinity: If the lion is king, then the leopard is queen.

Catalhoyuk isn't alone in its love for the little-big-cat; we find symbolic representations of the leopard throughout the ancient world. In Pharaonic Egypt we see leopard-skin-clad high priests performing sacred rituals. In ancient Greece the leopard was associated with Cybele, Dionysus and Eros, among others. In China it carried lunar and imperial connotations, and was worn by Fu Hsi, a Chinese hero figure associated with the advent of writing. Similarly, in India and Africa the leopard is repeatedly associated with magic, royalty and military power.

Leopards are undoubtedly first-rate predators, and there are a few isolated cases of injured leopards actually turning to the easy pickings of human flesh. One particularly bad-kitty, referred to as the "Spotted Devil of Gummalapur", is reported to have killed at least 42 people before being thoroughly exorcised by three shots from big game hunter Kenneth Anderson's trusty Winchester.

This less than complimentary view of the leopard as a stealthy man-eater is perhaps reflected in the association between leopard skin clothing and the idea of the predatory seductress. This connection may partly be based on the leopard's actual mating habits. Female leopards generally engage in "overlap promiscuity", which basically means the female will mate with any older male she encounters (any male whose territory overlaps with hers).

The average length of her relationship with each male is 48 hours, during which time they mate, perhaps share a kill together, but then that's it. The female leopard will give birth and raise her cubs alone.

Perhaps this female independence is another popular aspect of the leopard's symbolic appeal in the 21st century.


Justin Thomas is an associate professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi

Published: December 10, 2012 04:00 AM


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