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My Life with Leopards

In 1993 game ranger Graham Cooke was given the opportunity to parent two six-week-old leopard cubs. Establishing himself and his charges in a small tented camp in the middle of the South African bush, Graham set about his task of habituating the cubs to the dangers of the wild in preparation for their eventual release into the bush.

But first he had to gain the young leopards’ trust. Boycat, the slightly bigger male cub proved to be an easy-going character and, after his initial reservations, he soon settled in. His sister Poepface however was not that easily swayed. Her complex character and strong reservations appeared to persist, despite Graham’s efforts to win her trust.

Eventually Poepface relented and so began a love story; a powerful bond between a man and a young female leopard.

When, a year later, Graham and the leopards moved to the remote South Luangwa Valley, a heavy-hearted Graham knew it was the beginning of the end and that soon it would be time to let them go.

Set in the bushveld of South Africa and the pristine wilderness of Zambia’s South Luangwa Valley, My Life with Leopards is a story of love, triumph and, ultimately, heartbreak.

Right: Sky News presenter, Stephen Dixon.

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A Life Less Ordinary
A ranger’s efforts to raise a pair of orphaned leopard cubs makes a heart-breaking tale.
Twenty years ago, John Varty, co-owner of Londolozi Game Reserve on the border of the Kruger National Park, took in a pair of six-week-old leopard cubs that had been born in a private zoo in Zimbabwe. A film was in the offing dramatizing his conservation work, and the orphans would male for some great footage. But first Varty had to find someone willing to raise the cubs until their eventual release in the wild.
My life With Leopards, by wildlife writer Fransje van Riel, tells the story of surrogate mum Graham Cooke, a young ranger at Londolozi. He soon discovers that – even though Boycat and Poepface, as he names them are adorable balls of fur – caring for cubs is no easy task.
At first they hiss at him through razor-sharp teeth. But, as the months pass, Cooke wins their trust, allowing him to enter the parallel world of Africa’s most exquisite cats.
Set in the spectacular wilderness of the South African lowveld and later in Zambia’s South Luangwa Valley –both vividly portrayed – this is as poignant a tale of unrequited love as you are ever likely to read. And, like the best animal stories, it tugs at the heartstrings without ever descending into anthropomorphism.

Brian Jackman, Wildlife WriterBBC Wildlife Magazine

‘Author Van Riel does a sterling job of evoking the sights and sounds of the African bush with lush descriptions, and brings readers directly into Cooke's world. This is not a story about conservation, but rather a snapshot frozen in time, illustrating a brief moment when two very different worlds touched. And I'll admit that the ending brought a tear to my eye”.

Nerine DormanIndependent Newspapers Tonight Section

This compelling story is a ‘must-read’ for anyone who loves nature and the challenges of helping two young leopards get back to their wild world. Well written, entertaining and emotional; to be enjoyed.

Richard Leakey

No other book I know takes you so deeply into the secret world of the leopard.

Brian JackmanUK’s top safari writer

Author Fransje van Riel gives such a vivid, detailed account of Graham’s story it’s hard to believe she wasn’t there with him.

Go Magazine

A Wild Read.
This is the story of Boycat and Poepface. Born in a zoo in Zimbabwe, the six-week-old leopards arrive at the Londolozi private game reserve in the Kruger National Park and ranger Graham Cooke. 22, is tasked with their care.
It tells how he gains their trust before he starts to prepare them for release into the wild.

Sarenda Eloff-VorsterGood Housekeeping, SA

…fascinating read.

Africa Geographic Magazine

My Life with Leopards is the incredible and unique story of a heart-rending bond between a person and two super predators. Moving, dramatic, powerful and at times infinitely funny, the story allows the reader a unique insight into an adventure of a lifetime and the breath-taking relationship Graham Cooke shared with the incredible big cats.

Africa Geographic Online Blog

Fransje tells the tale in such detail that it sometimes feels as if she was there with Graham and the leopards. She explains, however, that it took hundreds upon hundreds of emails and hours of interviews to get all the detail out of Graham, a guarded man to say the least. But she succeeded greatly and when you read this fascinating tale, you’ll be drawn in to experience the process of hand-rearing these animals as if you were there yourself.

Getaway Magazine Online Blog

My Life With Leopards is a great read, it is powerful story of a bond between human and animal and the trust they share. The story is filled with highs, lows, humor and “wow” moments, it will leave you with a unique perspective on an experience that only a few individuals have been blessed with. It is also a reminder that nature is amazing and at times very unforgiving, it truly chooses no favorites.
I found myself turning the pages wanting to know what was coming next, and I admit at times getting choked up and teary eyed. Having been fortunate enough to have visited the South Luangwa Valley, many years after this story takes place, I wondered if any of the Leopards I saw there were the descendants of Graham’s Poepface.
My Life With Leopards Graham Cooke’s Story is on my Favorite Cat Themed books list and is available online from in traditional Paperback or for Kindle. If you love the big cats, Leopards and wildlife be sure to pick this book up.

Purr and Roar Online Review

… Van Riel, author of The Crowing of the Roosters and Life with Darwin and Other Baboons, says when she saw photos of Graham with the cubs she ‘knew I had to tell this story in book form”. The result is a welcome addition to the fine tradition of wildlife writing pioneered by authors such as George and Joy Adamson…

Fiona McCleodLowveld Living, SA

If sometimes you feel as though you want to run off and work in bush and escape urban life this book is a great compromise. The beautifully written and moments of these little leopards’ lives are detailed to make one feel as though you are in the camp with them, walking along a thorny path of Londolozi’ s bushveld.
Arguably the most poignant theme of this book is how a deep bond develops between two wholly unrelated species and that love in its most natural form knows no boundaries, remaining an unparalleled wonder that exists between life’s many creatures.
Graham Cooke's story told through Fransje van Riel's words is an amazing story of courage, love, triumph, and sadness as he rears two amazing leopard cubs to re-wild back into the plains of Africa. Heartfelt and emotional, this book will make you smile and touch your heart. The writing will make you feel like you're in the heart of Africa. Anyone with interest in big cats and a love of wildlife should read this book.

Life In Balance Magazine

Graham Cooke’s strong bond with two leopards greatly touched me and following their journey to the end, I felt as though I knew these brave little leopards myself which evoked powerful emotions. Beautifully told, with a message of importance: that we must never take anything we love for granted.

Sibel HodgeInternational bestselling author

Through reading journals Graham wrote during his year with Boycat and Poepface, Fransje van Riel gives readers invaluable insight into the young life stages of these big cats, as well as a heartfelt account of Graham’s emotional journey.
All written in the first person, few details are spared and you’ll see the story unfold in almost film-like detail.

Caroline KingGrocott’s Mail newspaper


A great read which sometimes makes your blood boil, especially if you’re a woman. Makes you wonder what her choices would have been if she had been born 30 year later.

DRUM magazine

If any woman's story can be every woman's story, this may well be it.

Robin Malan

Takes ones breath away.

ELLE magazine

One cannot but be caught up in the story of her life, and deeply touched … I felt greatly enriched, and touched, by reading it.

Beverley Roos MullerCape Argus

As Nomfusi’s scribe, Fransje van Riel tells the story with honest simplicity – a collaboration that opens up inspiring possibilities.

Adele HamiltonFair Lady Magazine

A gripping short history of tribal and township life of the last fifty years. The fact that the author is not African shows in the telling, but it brings a necessary balance to Nomfusi's life story. For many people, the transition from tribe to town is often painful, yet van Riel manages to find the meaningful aspects in this overwhelming process.

The Namibia Economist

The Crowing of the Roosters


When we arrived, paraffin lamps shone dimly from inside three traditional huts. One of these rondavels belonged to Jongile, and the other two belonged to his parents. These were the last rondavels to be found before the Nkonkone Mountains; those mountains that run from Fort Beaufort to Whittlesea and are so beautiful – full of snow in winter, and very cold. The white people call it the Winterburg, I think. The Winter Mountains.

Upon hearing the horse, a small dog that was lying in front of the main rondavel got up and started barking. When it heard Jongile’s voice it stopped. It was now so cold that I was shivering; even under thick jacket Jongile had given me earlier. The cold autumn night came right through it.

‘Come, Nomfusi.’

Jongile opened the door to one of the smaller rondavels and, while he lit one of the paraffin lamps on a wooden table, I looked around the room. There was only one bed, the table with the lamp, and a wooden stool.


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Life with Darwin and Other Baboons


Terri died seven days later.

When the troop appeared at the house, Teleka was walking in front of the others cradling a pathetic ball of limp black fur. Two large pink ears stuck out from the almost unrecognizable scrap. Hugging her partially decomposed infant close to her chest, Teleka behaved as though everything was normal. She foraged with the other females, stopping intermittently to look at her dead baby before feeding again.

After a little while, Teleka’s two-year-old son Pim joined his mother and sat down next to her. He then helped his mother to groom the corpse. Both baboons completely ignored the bloody gaping hole in Terri’s pink forehead.

Karin watched the heart-breaking scene unfold and her heart sank. Had Alfred committed infanticide again? Why had the alpha male killed his own offspring; the baby bearing his own genes? Were Stump’s and Theadora’s new-borns now also at risk?

The baboons’ behaviour towards the dead baby was one of complete oblivion. It almost appeared as if they had not realized that she was dead. Teleka and Pim meticulously picked dead leaves and insects off Terri’s sombre coat, lavishing her with sad, loving attention.

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Captivating from beginning to end.

Kobie KrugerWilderness Family

An important book as it brings us closer to baboons...

Irene van Lippe-BiesterfeldPrincess of The Netherlands

An evocative, deeply moving account. Highly entertaining, and well- researched.

The Sunday Independent Newspaper

A story of strength, courage and the overwhelming desire to follow your heart at all odds.

ELLE Magazine