Lauren St John hasn’t let me down. She follows up White Giraffe and Dolphin Song with The Last Leopard, a touching story set in troubled Zimbabwe.
The Last Leopard: By Lauren St John, Orion Books, 200 pages, Rs 550.
To cut to the story, 11-year-old Martine is spending an idyllic holiday between school terms riding her white giraffe, Jemmy, at the Sawubona Game Reserve which, incidentally, happens to be home. Martine is no ordinary girl. She has the power to heal animals. Giving Martine company is Ben, an excellent tracker, her grandma Gwyn and their Zulu help, Tendai. The only exciting thing that happens is when an irritated warthog almost unseats Martine from her giraffe during one of their early morning runs through the park.
The calm is shattered by a phone call from one of Grandma Gwyn’s oldest friends, Sadie, who runs the Black Eagle Lodge in Zimbabwe. Sadie, who has broken her leg in an accident, wants Gwyn and Martine to come over and help her till she gets better. Martine is reluctant, but sensing the importance of the event, agrees to accompany her. Ben, too, is ready to go with them.
As they set off, Tendai’s aunt, Grace, who can read the future, has this to say: “When you journey to Zimbabwe, all the time you must stay together (Ben and Martine). Any time you be separated, danger will follow.” After a bone-rattling weary drive of thousands of kilometres, they arrive at what looks like, to them, the end of the world. But one incident, during a break en route, shakes them up. Ben and Martine get separated as they trek up a mountain and Ben falls off the edge, escaping death narrowly.
Determined to stick together whatever happens, the two help Sadie and her help Ngwenya get the place up and running. With no tourists, the Black Eagle Lodge is rapidly going downhill. Gradually, Martine and Ben discover that Sadie is being pressured by Rex Ratcliffe, who owns the Lazy J ranch next door, to sell out to him. They also find out that Ratcliffe runs a canned hunting (captured animals are shot by “hunters”, who then claim to have killed them in the wild) operation in Lazy J.
Ratcliffe wants something else. He wants Khan, the leopard that Sadie’s father rescued and let out into the wild. Leopards are an endangered species in Zimbabwe. Martine and Ben make up their minds to save the leopard at any cost. However, they are stunned when Ngwenya discloses that his cousin, Griffin, is also out to get Khan. In Griffin’s case, the motivation is that the leopard—as the legend goes—would lead him to the treasure that his ancestors had buried somewhere in the forests around Black Eagle Lodge.
For the rest, pick up the book and let St John work her magic.
The writer is the editor of Heek, a children’s magazine.
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