Recent sightings of common leopards crossing paths with snow leopards on the Tibetan Plateau got us thinking about what’s probably the most famous high-elevation spotted cat in the history books.
Ernest Hemingway opens his 1936 short story "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" by mentioning a leopard carcass up near the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, at 19,341 feet the tallest mountain in Africa: "Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude."
The short story may be a piece of fiction, but Hemingway's reference isn't. In 1926, a Lutheran pastor named Richard Reusch, who made multiple climbs up Kilimanjaro, did indeed discover a "freeze-dried" leopard at roughly 18,500 feet along the crater rim of the volcano's loftiest sub-peak, Kibo. A photo of the find shows the dead animal looking about as you'd expect after chilling (so to speak) on a mountaintop snowfield for who knows how long.
Reusch suspected the leopard had died in pursuit of a goat, the remains of which he also found a few hundred feet away.
Returning to the contorted mummy the next year, Reusch lopped off an ear for souvenir purposes. At some point or another, the corpse disappeared, but given the Hemingway shout-out, it's about as immortalised as a popsicled wild animal could be. (The general location of the carcass now holds the unofficial label of "Leopard Point".)
Interestingly, this isn't the only time a crazy-looking leopard carcass has greeted trekkers in the thin air of an East African volcano. In 1997, researchers studying Mount Kenya's shrivelling icefields found a more decayed leopard – "skeletal material, spotted skin and whiskers" – being ejected from the nose of the Tyndall Glacier. The unfortunate feline had clocked some major postmortem hours in its glazed-over tomb: radiocarbon dating suggested the remains were some 900 years old, give or take.
Large mammals aren't exactly common sights on Mount Kilimanjaro's upper slopes these days, but leopards do show up from time to time. Sightings and tracks reveal the cats sometimes cruise up beyond the montane rainforest to prowl the volcano's high moorlands and bleak alpine barrens.
Lions are much rarer on Kilimanjaro, but they've been seen as high as 14,100 feet. Most astonishing of all, a pack of five African wild dogs – like Hemingway’s leopard, apparently disposed to mountaineering – was spotted at the summit in 1962: the only non-human mammals ever recorded at the very top.
Top header image: Gimli62, Flickr