The extraordinary animal that changed our lives was still a wobbly, half-blind, eight-day-old cub when we encountered her with her mother in Botswana's Okavango Delta in 2003. We'd been working for many years with big cats in Africa and had developed broad-stroke conservation ideas. But when we met this baby leopard we called Legadema (Setswana for "light from the sky") and followed her for nearly five years, she taught us something fundamental about all big cats: While we go about conservation, we often forget that beyond the alarming numbers, there are individuals with personalities and intricate lives. As their numbers decline, conservation becomes more about saving these individual animals.
Legadema grew up to be magnificent. She's seven now, and thriving. She's become mother to at least two litters. We still visit her from time to time. But in the years that we've known her, other leopards have been less fortunate. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has set quotas that permit the export of up to 2,653 leopard trophies a year. Poaching and the trade for skins used in rituals and ceremonies take a toll as well. Although precise numbers are difficult to pin down, our research indicates a drop in the number of leopards left in the wild.