A Magnificent Obsession: An Excerpt from Unspotted

Quinton Martins is mad. Not in some superficial, mildly nutty way, but rather with a deep and abiding insanity. His madness began in 2003 when he became obsessed with the idea of finding the near mythical Cape Mountain Leopard. Most Capetonians know they exist—their tracks are occasionally spotted in the mountains and a farmer kills one every few years, to much public consternation—but no-one ever actually sees them. So really, they only half exist, occupying a place on the borders of public mythology.

In 2003 Quinton started looking for the elusive cat in the Cederberg mountains. He would go for weeks at a time, hiking alone in their remoter parts, searching for any sign of leopard. His passion grew into a master’s, then a doctoral, thesis. He poured all his time and money into finding the cat. Sometimes he’d lug a backpack filled with 16 cameras high into the berg to set up camera traps with infrared sensors. A week or two later he’d return to retrieve the film (there were only 36 shots to a roll) and set the traps in new positions. For months there were only blank film strips, or shots of small, non-descript mammals. Then one day he was in his local camera shop collecting photos and, as usual, he idly asked if there’d been any shots of cats in the latest batch of film.

“Ja, I think there’s a nice one of a spotted kitty,” said Zelda, the shop assistant.

It was as though a bolt of lightning had struck Quinton. Before he was fully aware of his actions, he’d vaulted over the counter and run through to the back room. Sure enough, it was a male leopard. He was destined to become M1, the first in a long line of cats that would consume Quinton’s life.

It was nine months before he actually glimpsed his first leopard and another year before he captured and collared one. He ran out of money and sold everything, including his car, to keep the research going. He’d have to hitchhike from Cape Town to the berg and do his research on foot, covering thousands of miles in the mountains in temperatures that were well below freezing in winter and as high as 116ºF (47ºC) in summer. He carried no tent, just an old sleeping bag. When it snowed, he sheltered in a cave or rocky overhang. Madness.

I, too, have a thing for leopards. I wanted to meet Quinton… and, hopefully, one of his spotted friends.

This is an excerpt from Unspotted: One Man’s Obsessive Search for Africa’s Most Elusive Leopard, a short ebook by Justin Fox.

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