The Guy Who Fought a Leopard… And Won

By DENIS 4 Min Read

In a picture that speaks volumes about the rawness of turn-of-the-century exploration, there stands a man, a taxidermist, no less, who looks as if he stepped out of a Hemingway novel. Meet Carl Akeley, a guy whose resume reads like a mix between Indiana Jones and Dr. Dolittle. This is the same chap who brought the wilds of Africa to the display halls of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, forever changing how we’d look at the majestic beasts that roamed a world away.

But for all his achievements in modern taxidermy and his artistic contributions to museum displays, it’s one daunting tale from 1896 that cements his legacy as a real-life adventurer. It’s the story of Carl Akeley vs. an 80-pound leopard—in hand-to-claw combat.

Imagine if you will, young Carl, fresh to Africa’s fierce landscape, seeking out exotic creatures for the Field Museum back in Chicago. The goal was ostriches, but as fate would have it, his eyes caught a form in the tall grass that he mistook for a warthog. Eager for a prize, Akeley aimed, shot, and immediately realized his gaffe—the bloodcurdling shriek that followed was unmistakably not of a hog’s making.

Our dear taxidermist had just angered a leopard, and not just any leopard—a wounded, enraged, and exceedingly dangerous one. Akeley’s initial response was standard: he fired his rifle again… and again. And, as luck would have it, he missed both times. With a grazed third shot that only served to infuriate the spotted fury before him, Akeley found himself in the kind of sticky situation that no amount of taxidermy prowess could fix.

Down to his last resort with an empty rifle and terror biting at his heels, Akeley attempted to reload on the run. It was a desperate act met with the shocking sight of the leopard, bullet-impeded yet undeterred, mid-pounce with death in its eyes.

Now, any average Joe might have crumbled under such pressure, but Akeley? He had no intention of becoming someone’s stuffed exhibit. By some twist of fate (or perhaps the sheer will to survive), the leopard’s injured paw threw its attack off-kilter, allowing Akeley a split second to react.

What followed was not for the faint-hearted. The big cat bit into Akeley’s arm, and the struggle that ensued was primal—man versus wild in the most literal sense. There on the African soil, they wrestled, each contender weakening, yet neither yielding. It was a battle of wills, strength, and survival instincts.

And then, the unexpected happened. Akeley, with every ounce of his being, managed to strangle the leopard. His left hand cut off the creature’s air, while his right arm found its way down the leopard’s throat—a desperate, terrifying move that one could scarcely believe if it weren’t for the evidence captured afterward.

The photo of Akeley standing triumphantly over the vanquished leopard is nothing short of iconic. It’s a snapshot of human determination, a testament to the will to survive, and an image that immortalized Carl Akeley not just as the father of modern taxidermy, but as a man who quite literally fought tooth and nail against the wild—and emerged victorious.

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I simply love Animals. I am also a huge David Attenborough fan.
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