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Seated prominently in the pantheon of animals which bear great significance in the cultures of the Igbo is the leopard. Known as ‘agu’ in the Igbo language, these wild cats are revered and regarded as supernatural creatures by many of the cultures and societies of today’s southeastern Nigeria. From the reference point of the Igbo, the leopard is viewed from a dual perspective. On one hand, it is regarded as an elegant and mystic creature that stalks its lonely forests, often gracing unsuspecting trespassers with its rare appearance―perceived as an omen of good fortune, if the person were to survive such an encounter, that is. On the other, it is a malevolent beast capable of intense ferocity: terrorizing entire communities and populations, stealing livestock, causing havoc and claiming innocent lives.

Killing a leopard was not only an incredibly daring and dangerous pursuit, but also a feat worthy of recognition. Men who had slain leopards were awarded with the title ‘Ogbuagu’ (leopard-killer) and could wear its pelt as a badge of honor. However, it was (and still is) believed that killing a leopard came with very real consequences such as retribution and ambush by the dead animal’s vengeful comrades. In order to avoid such a fate, the slayer would have to undergo a period of mourning, isolating himself from society, offering sacrifices, wearing rags, and expressing sorrow and regret for his crime.

In studying the behaviors of wild leopards, many Igbo [and non-Igbo] societies [alike] have interpreted them as models for human social, legal, and martial organization, establishing ‘leopard societies’ such as Okonko and Ekpe for the purposes of justice administration, solidarity, and interregional trade and politics. Unfortunately, however, due to the heavy poaching and urbanization catalyzed by British colonizers, not many wild leopards remain today.#igbohistory


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