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The Stories Behind 25 Flags You'll See in the Olympic Opening Ceremonies

 LOIC VENANCE, AFP/Getty Images
LOIC VENANCE, AFP/Getty Images

When the opening ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics take place on Friday, February 9 in Pyeongchang, South Korea, athletes and representatives from dozens of countries from all over the world will flaunt their nation's flags as the competition gets under way. But while we're admiring the nearly parade of brightly colored flags, what we won't see is the history and meaning behind each one. Every country's flag is more than just a design—it's a part of its heritage and can tell us something about its history. So get better acquainted with the nations at this year's games by reading the stories behind 25 flags you'll see in the Olympic opening ceremonies.

1. ECUADOR

Flag of Ecuador
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The Ecuadorian flag is made up of three horizontal bands of color: a double-width band of yellow, followed by one blue and then red. The colors themselves all hold significance with yellow representing the abundance of crops and the fertility of the country's land; the blue symbolizes the sea and sky; and the red represents the blood that was spilled for freedom and independence.

2. ERITREA

Flag of Eritrea
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The flag of Eritrea features the colors red, green, and blue to represent (again) the blood spilled for freedom, the country's agriculture, and the bounties of the Red Sea, respectively. The triangle on the flag was inspired by the shape of the country itself, while the 30 leaves of the wreath in the center stand for the number of years the country spent fighting a civil war for independence.

3. KOSOVO

Flag of Kosovo
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In the lead-up to the adoption of the Kosovo flag in 2008, the provisional government held a contest to determine what the new design would look like. The current flag features a yellow silhouette of Kosovo itself on a blue background, with six white stars standing for the country's major ethnic groups: Albanians, Serbians, Turks, Gorani, RAE (Romani, Ashkali, and Kosovo Egyptians), and Bosniaks.

4. MALAYSIA

Flag of Malaysia
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The Malaysian flag features 14 horizontal lines alternating red and white to symbolize the 13 states and federal government of the country. The same is true for the 14 points on the flag's star, which again represent the states and government, but are here unified to form one shape. The star is then partly surrounded by a crescent representing the nation's official religion, Islam. Known as the Jalur Gemilang, the flag was designed by Mohamed Hamzah, a public works department architect in the late 1940s. The design was tweaked and finalized before it was flown for the first time on May 19, 1950, and it has evolved as Malaysia's states have changed over the years.

5. NIGERIA

Flag of Nigeria
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The Nigerian flag is striking in its simplicity. The bold vertical bands tell the story of the country's agricultural wealth (green) and its peace and unity (white). The white also represents the Niger River that runs throughout. The flag was designed in 1959 by a 23-year-old named Pa Michael Taiwo Akinkunmi, who came across the opportunity after reading about it in the newspaper while in college. For his work, he won 100 pounds—or roughly $280.

6. SINGAPORE

Flag of Singapore
Brian Jeffery Beggerly , Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The red and white flag of Singapore makes a bold statement about its ideals. The crescent moon on the flag is meant to represent a young nation growing in power, while the five points on the star prioritize the country's dedication to democracy, peace, progress, justice, and equality. This flag replaced Britain's Union Jack in 1959, and the striking red background is meant to represent brotherhood and unity.

7. ARGENTINA

Flag of Argentina
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The flag of Argentina is famous for its image of the "Sun of May" sitting on band of white, with two bands of blue above and below it. That's the official flag used for military and official government, and for years civilians could only use an alternate version of the flag without the sun. In 1985, however, that was changed, and now anyone, as long as the proper respect is paid, can flaunt the official Argentinian flag.

8. IRELAND

Flag of Ireland
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The three colors on the Irish flag—green, white, and orange—tell the story of the hopes for the unification of its people. Green stands for the native Irish, who were Catholics; the orange is for the later Protestant settlers from Britain who supported King William III (also known as William of Orange); and the white portion in the middle is there to show the hopes for everlasting peace between the two groups. And if those unique color shades catch your interest, the Pantone code for the green is 347 U and the orange is 151 U.

9. MONACO

Flag of Monaco
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The national flag of Monaco is a simple one—two equal, horizontal bands of red and white. This is the flag that citizens use and it's the one that represents the country internationally, such as at the United Nations and Olympics. There is, however, another flag that the country uses on its government buildings and for the prince. This one shows off Monaco's coat of arms on a white background.

10. POLAND

Flag of Poland
włodi, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

There are two flags associated with Poland—one is the simple red and white design which is the inverse of the flag of Monaco. If history is any guide, this is the flag you'll see the Olympic athletes use during the opening ceremony. And then there's the variant with the country's national emblem—an eagle—displayed on the white portion of the flag. This version is used on Polish government buildings around the globe and on sea vessels.

11. TONGA

Flag of Tonga
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The color red and the image of the cross on the flag of Tonga represent the blood of Christ for a nation that is made up primarily of Christians. And don't expect the look to change anytime soon—it's written into the country's constitution that the design of the flag can never be altered [PDF].

12. REPUBLIC OF KOREA

Flag of South Korea
Valentin Janiaut, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The flag of South Korea is a busy one. The central symbol is the red (Pantone 186 C) and blue (Pantone 294 C) image of Ying-Yang, representing opposites (positive and negative), with four sets of three bars surrounding it. The bars—or Kwae—are meant to elicit a sense balance or harmony. The white background emphasizes the Korean people as unified and peaceful. Though the flag was originally conceived in the late 19th century, it took until 1997 to establish standardized [PDF].

13. ESTONIA

Flag of Estonia
Heikki Siltala, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The Estonian flag was originally adopted by the country's provisional government in 1917 and was used until the Soviet occupation of 1940. The design was immediately banned until the nation regained its freedom and was officially adopted again in 1989. The flag's blue, black, white colors all represent something of importance to the Estonian way of life—blue for the seas, lakes, and sky; black for the fertile soil; and white for its snowy landscape.

14. SWITZERLAND

Flag of Switzerland
Fredrik Rubensson, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Other than the Vatican, Switzerland is the only sovereign state to have a square flag, rather than the standard rectangle (though some rectangle variants still exist in certain situations). The Red Cross uses the inverse of the Swiss flag, in honor of Henry Dunant, a Swiss businessman whose book A Memory of Solferino helped inspire the idea for the organization.

15. KYRGYZSTAN

Flag of Kyrgyzstan
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The red field that makes up the backbone of the Kyrgyzstan flag is meant to conjure images of "bravery and valor" based on Manas, the country's national hero. Some, however, are still skeptical of such a bold use of red, fearing that it still retains the DNA of the Soviet regime that the country escaped in the early '90s.

16. GEORGIA

Flag of Georgia
young shanahan, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The modern flag of Georgia is relatively new—it was officially adopted by the nation in 2004. It's similar to flags used intermittently from the 8th through 15th centuries, and the design is fairly simple: four small corner crosses sectioned off by a much larger one in the middle, known as St. George's cross. The overall design is a take on the "Jerusalem cross," which some believe symbolizes the five wounds of Christ.

17. BELARUS

Flag of Belarus
iStock

Like many flags, Belarus's has colors representing past struggles (red, likely for blood) and hope (green, which also has links to the country's forests). The one thing that makes the Belarus flag stand out is the red and white ornamentation at its hoist. This was inspired by designs typically found in Belarusian society.

18. UKRAINE

Flag of Ukraine
iStock

Simple but striking: the Ukrainian flag's colors are meant to symbolize the country's fields of wheat (yellow) and blue skies (blue). After the flag's design was chosen, people would fly the flag with either the blue or yellow at the top, not knowing which way was up or down. It would eventually take an act of parliament in 1918 to cement that the blue goes on top and the yellow at the bottom.

19. GREAT BRITAIN

Picture of the Union Jack
iStock

The flag of Great Britain is a composite of three centuries-old flags from the various lands that now make up the United Kingdom: St. George's Cross of England, St. Patrick's Cross of Ireland, and St. Andrew's Cross of Scotland. The process was a long one, though. The first two flags—England and Scotland—were first combined in 1606, leaving almost 200 more years before the union was complete when Great Britain and Ireland united in 1801. And if you're wondering why Wales isn't represented on the flag—it's because Wales and England unified in 1536, predating the idea of a "Union" flag and, well, kind of leaving them out.

20. GHANA

Flag of Ghana
Elliott Brown, Flickr // CC BY SA 2.0

Like many countries, the Ghana flag features red to remember bloodshed, gold to appreciate its natural resources, and green for vegetation. But the stark, black star in the middle is what will catch anyone's eye. This star represents Africa's united fight against colonialism and was put in by the flag's designer Theodosia Salome Okoh.

21. BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA

Flag of Bosnia
iStock

When the country itself couldn't settle on a final flag design, Carlos Westendorp, an outsider and the International High Representative for Bosnia, made the choice himself. The three points of the triangle are meant to stand in for the three principal ethnic groups in the country: Muslims, Croats, and Serbs. The blue background calls to mind the flag of the European Union, while the stars are cut in half at the top and bottom for a reason: when the flag is folded, these would form a new, whole star, suggesting unity.

22. PUERTO RICO

Flag of Puerto Rico
iStock

Though it has less stars and stripes than the similar U.S. flag, Puerto Rico's is no less full of symbolism. The five-pointed star stands for the commonwealth itself, while the three points of the triangle it's housed in are for the Judicial, Legislative, and Executive branches of government. The red stripes—as is the trend—are for the blood spilled throughout its history, while the white stripes stand for the freedoms afforded to individuals. It was adopted as the national flag when Puerto Rico officially became a commonwealth in 1952.

23. GREECE

Flag of Greece
iStock

There are two main thoughts regarding the nine stripes on the Greek flag. For some, each stripe is for a syllable in the phrase Eleftheria H Thanatos or "Freedom or death." Another story, however, sees them as the nine muses found in Greek mythology, with the blue and white representing the sea and clouds. The historical record regarding the flag's origin is spotty, and even the exact shade of blue has changed from light to navy over the decades.

24. JAPAN

Flag of Japan
iStock

There are two names given to Japan's flag: Nisshōki, meaning "sun-mark flag" and Hinomaru or "sun disc." And while the flag has existed in some form since the early 8th century, it wasn't officially adopted by the Japanese government until 1999. One variation of the Japanese flag is the "Rising Sun" flag that was prominent in the late 19th century through World War II. It's still in use today by the Japanese Maritime Defense Force (as well as in certain advertisements) and has become controversial because of its association with the nation's imperialistic past.

25. NEUTRAL ATHLETE FLAG

Olympic flag
Scazon, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Of course not every nation has their flag flown during the Olympics opening ceremonies. Athletes whose countries do not officially participate in the games—including countries that boycott or are disqualified—compete under the Olympics flag. For the 2018 Winter Olympics, this is the flag that the "Olympic Athletes from Russia" will come out with for the opening. It's a standard white flag with the interlocking Olympic rings emblazoned on it. The logo debuted in 1914 and the rings were meant to represent the five "continents" that participated in the games: Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, and Oceania.

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Aidan Monaghan/AMC
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History
What AMC's The Terror Got Right (And Wrong) About the Franklin Expedition
Aidan Monaghan/AMC
Aidan Monaghan/AMC

WARNING: This post contains spoilers for The Terror. If you haven't finished the show, don't read further!

We know the outcome of Captain Crozier's battle with Tuunbaq in the AMC series The Terror, and that he chose (as some rumors have suggested) to live with the Inuit rather than return to London when he has the chance. Now, it's time for a post-mortem (sorry) of the show's historical highlights. While Dan Simmons, author of the book on which the show is based, created Lady Silence and her supernatural evil spirit—Tuunbaq definitely wasn't stalking the men of the Erebus and Terror back in 1847—much of the show is faithful to the actual events of the Franklin expedition, one of the most enduring mysteries in polar exploration. Here's a rundown of what The Terror got right, and where the show slipped up.

RIGHT: THE TERROR’S ARCTIC ATMOSPHERE

A scene from AMC's The Terror with Sir John Franklin and James Fitzjames
Capt. James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies), left, and Sir John Franklin (Ciaran Hinds) survey the ice.
Aidan Monaghan/AMC

Right off the bat, The Terror envelops viewers in an icy world that increasingly mirrors the crews’ isolation and desperation. In the first tragic scene, a sailor falls overboard into a sea of accurately rendered pancake ice. In another scene, Captain Francis Crozier sees a sun dog—a solar phenomenon caused by sunlight refracting through clouds of ice crystals, often witnessed by polar explorers. The officers' uniforms and caps are also recreated with authentic details. As the hopelessness of their predicament dawns on the officers and men, summer’s 24-hour daylight vanishes, replaced by the 24-hour darkness of winter. The imprisoned ships tilt with the pressure of the pack ice.

There were a few hiccups noticed by sharp-eyed viewers in the Remembering the Franklin Expedition Facebook group, however. Caulker's mate Cornelius Hickey has a fondness for cigarettes, but most sailors probably smoked pipes at the time, and definitely not inside the ship. (Good thing they had that fire hole bored into the ice!) And assistant surgeon Harry Goodsir’s technique with the Daguerrotype camera in the blind would have produced a terrible photo. His 20th-century stopwatch wouldn’t have helped.

WRONG: FRANKLIN’S BACK-UP PLAN

A scene from AMC's The Terror with Sir John Franklin and Capt. Francis Crozier
Captain Francis Crozier (Jared Harris), right, tries to convince Sir John that they're going to need rescuing pretty soon.
Aidan Monaghan/AMC

In a flashback in Episode 3, Sir John Franklin’s good friend Sir John Ross asks the soon-to-depart commander if the Admiralty had any plans for his rescue. When Franklin says one won’t be needed—since the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror are the best-provisioned ships ever sent to the Arctic—Ross warns him that he’s being naïve. In real life, this conversation was much different, and it didn’t take place at the Admiralty.

Franklin and Ross knew firsthand how a well-provisioned expedition can become a fight for survival. (In Episode 6, Captain James Fitzjames hears the story of Ross’s disastrous Victory expedition from the Erebus's ice master Thomas Blanky, who was really there in 1829-1833.) Ross instead offered to rescue Franklin himself, and captained (at age 72!) a privately funded schooner in search of his lost friend in 1850. And because Ross and the Admiralty had had a major falling out decades before, Ross wouldn’t have been chatting with Franklin at the Admiralty's HQ in Episode 3, and he definitely wouldn’t have been there to hear Lady Jane Franklin’s plea for a search party in Episode 4.

Sir John Ross was the uncle of Sir James Clark Ross, whom we see in the first scene of Episode 1 and its replay, from a different point of view, at the end of Episode 10. In real life, Sir James was one of Crozier's closest friends.

WRONG (MAYBE): KILLER CANS

In a foreboding sign of things to come, Franklin removes a tiny blob of lead from his mouth while eating dinner with Fitzjames in the first episode. By Episode 4, the ships’ cooks are complaining that much of the canned meat is spoiled, and able seaman John Morfin shows up in Goodsir’s infirmary with a blackish line along his gums, an ominous sign of lead poisoning. To test that hypothesis, Goodsir feeds the monkey Jacko some of the canned meat, and then reveals his theory to the surgeon Stephen Stanley: The meat is contaminated with lead and the men have been eating it for more than two years.

The storyline is built upon a famous theory that is now in doubt. In the mid-1980s, forensic anthropologists found high levels of lead in Franklin crewmembers' remains. They suggested the source was poorly sealed food cans, and that lead poisoning led to the men’s deaths. But recent research has pointed to the Erebus’s and Terror’s unique water systems [PDF], which used lead pipes, as the primary source of contamination. And, a 2015 study compared lead content among seven crewmembers’ remains and found wide variation, suggesting some men may not have been debilitated.

RIGHT: SERIOUS SCURVY

A scene from AMC's The Terror with Goodsir and Young
Dr. Goodsir (Paul Ready) tries to save David Young (Alfie Kingsnorth).
Aidan Monaghan/AMC

David Young, the first fatality of The Terror, doesn’t show any signs of scurvy in Goodsir’s autopsy. But by the summer of 1848, the remaining crew camped on King William Island hasn’t eaten fresh meat in three years, and the Navy-issued lemon juice rations have either run out or lost potency. Signs of severe Vitamin C deficiency appear: Fitzjames’s old bullet wounds, which he boasted about at the officers' table in the first episode, begin to open up, and a rough-looking Lieutenant George Henry Hodgson loses a tooth as he chews the leather from his boot (a nod to Franklin’s awful 1819-1822 Arctic expedition) in Episode 9. The scenes match what most, though not all, historians and researchers now believe: that a grim combination of scurvy, starvation, exposure, and underlying illnesses spelled the end for Franklin’s men.

(VERY LIKELY) WRONG: FRANKLIN’S CAUSE OF DEATH

A scene from AMC's The Terror with Sir John Franklin and Tunnbaq
Tuunbaq takes a deadly swipe at Sir John.
Aidan Monaghan/AMC

The terrifying scene in Episode 3 in which Tuunbaq mauls Franklin to death and shoves him down the fire hole is most likely not the way it actually happened. Historically speaking, just after the men abandon ship in April 1848, Crozier and Fitzjames updated the note left in the cairn the previous spring. They reported that “Sir John Franklin died on 11th June 1847”—just 19 days after Lieutenant Graham Gore and mate Charles Des Voeux had left the same paper behind on May 24, 1847 and reported the crews “all well.” Unfortunately, it’s the only record ever found about the expedition’s progress, and no one knows for sure how Franklin died or what happened to his body. Inuit oral histories collected by Franklin scholar Louie Kamookak suggest Franklin was buried under a flat stone somewhere on King William Island, but to date, no trace has been found.

RIGHT: THAT CRAZY CARNIVAL

The wild masquerade party in the middle of the bleak and frozen Arctic, which Fitzjames orders as a morale-booster for the men in Episode 6, may seem like a total anachronism. In real life, it was a time-honored tradition. (We don't know for sure if the Erebus and Terror had a carnival because no logbooks from the expedition have been found, but it's likely that they did.) In 1819-1820, Sir Edward Parry led the first polar expedition to purposefully overwinter in the Arctic. He worried about how the men would fare psychologically during the months of darkness and teeth-cracking cold, so he brought along trunks of theatrical costumes and launched the Royal Arctic Theatre, a fortnightly diversion for the officers and men to perform silly plays and musicals. It kept the men busy writing shows, practicing their parts, and building sets, which Parry thought was the key to staying sane. The scheme was such a success that subsequent expeditions kept the tradition going. But unlike in The Terror, the frivolities didn’t end in fiery conflagrations and mass casualties. 

(POSSIBLY) WRONG: HICKEY’S MURDEROUS MUTINY

A scene from AMC's The Terror with Cornelius Hickey
Mr. Hickey (Adam Nagaitis) cooks up a mutiny.
Aidan Monaghan/AMC

In Episode 7, Hickey plans a mutiny and convinces enough of the desperate men to follow him, splitting the remaining officers and men into two groups and, in Episode 9, taking Crozier captive. Hickey also kidnaps Goodsir because, as the expedition’s sole remaining surgeon, he is the only one who knows how to wield a bone saw. We don’t know, though, if there was an actual mutiny among the Franklin survivors. The remains of some of Franklin's men were found in different locations, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate a breakdown of order. Smaller groups may have split off from the main group because they simply couldn’t march any farther or had decided to return to the ships. Despite the harsh conditions of service in the Royal Navy, mutinies were quite rare.

RIGHT: CANNIBALISM

Hickey’s followers, starving and desperate, dine on morsels of steward William Gibson in one of Episode 9’s most wrenching scenes with historical precedent. Hudson’s Bay Company trader John Rae discovered the truth about the Franklin expedition from interviews with Inuit in 1854, including testimony that the men resorted to cannibalism to survive. In his infamous letter to the Admiralty, he wrote, “from the mutilated state of many of the bodies, and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative as a means of sustaining life.” Victorian England refused to believe it—but Inuit testimony and forensic research [PDF] supported Rae’s account, finally revealing the expedition’s fate.

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(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
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Animals
The Time Carl Akeley Killed a Leopard With His Bare Hands
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.

Carl Akeley had plenty of close encounters with animals in his long career as a naturalist and taxidermist. There was the time a bull elephant had charged him on Mount Kenya, nearly crushing him; the time he was unarmed and charged by three rhinos who missed him, he said later, only because the animals had such poor vision; and the time the tumbling body of a silverback gorilla he'd just shot almost knocked him off a cliff. This dangerous tradition began on his very first trip to Africa, where, on an otherwise routine hunting trip, the naturalist became the prey.

It was 1896. Following stints at Ward’s Natural Science Establishment and the Milwaukee Public Museum, Akeley, 32, had just been appointed chief taxidermist for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, and he was tasked with gathering new specimens to bolster the 3-year-old museum's fledgling collections. After more than four months of travel and numerous delays, the expedition had reached the plains of Ogaden, a region of Ethiopia, where Akeley hunted for specimens for days without success.

Then, one morning, Akeley managed to shoot a hyena shortly after he left camp. Unfortunately, “one look at his dead carcass was enough to satisfy me that he was not as desirable as I had thought, for his skin was badly diseased,” he later wrote in his autobiography, In Brightest Africa. He shot a warthog, a fine specimen, but what he really wanted was an ostrich—so he left the carcass behind, climbed a termite hill to look for the birds, then took off after a pair he saw in the tall grass.

But the ostriches eluded him at every turn, so he returned to camp and grabbed the necessary tools to cut off the head of his warthog. However, when he and a “pony boy” got to the spot where he’d left the carcass, all that remained was a bloodstain. “A crash in the bushes at one side led me in a hurry in that direction and a little later I saw my pig's head in the mouth of a hyena travelling up the slope of a ridge out of range,” Akeley wrote. “That meant that my warthog specimen was lost, and, having got no ostriches, I felt it was a pretty poor day.”

As the sun began to set, Akeley and the boy turned back to camp. “As we came near to the place where I had shot the diseased hyena in the morning, it occurred to me that perhaps there might be another hyena about the carcass, and feeling a bit ‘sore’ at the tribe for stealing my warthog, I thought I might pay off the score by getting a good specimen of a hyena for the collections,” he wrote. But that carcass was gone, too, with a drag trail in the sand leading into the bush.

Akeley heard a sound, and, irritated, “did a very foolish thing,” firing into the bush without seeing what he was shooting at. He knew, almost immediately, that he'd made a mistake: The answering snarl told him that what he’d fired at was not a hyena at all, but a leopard.

The taxidermist began thinking of all the things he knew about the big cats. A leopard, he wrote,

“... has all the qualities that gave rise to the ‘nine lives’ legend: To kill him you have got to kill him clear to the tip of his tail. Added to that, a leopard, unlike a lion, is vindictive. A wounded leopard will fight to a finish practically every time, no matter how many chances it has to escape. Once aroused, its determination is fixed on fight, and if a leopard ever gets hold, it claws and bites until its victim is in shreds. All this was in my mind, and I began looking about for the best way out of it, for I had no desire to try conclusions with a possibly wounded leopard when it was so late in the day that I could not see the sights of my rifle.”

Akeley beat a hasty retreat. He’d return the next morning, he figured, when he could see better; if he’d wounded the leopard, he could find it again then. But the leopard had other ideas. It pursued him, and Akeley fired again, even though he couldn’t see enough to aim. “I could see where the bullets struck as the sand spurted up beyond the leopard. The first two shots went above her, but the third scored. The leopard stopped and I thought she was killed.”

The leopard had not been killed. Instead, she charged—and Akeley’s magazine was empty. He reloaded the rifle, but as he spun to face the leopard, she leapt on him, knocking it out of his hands. The 80-pound cat landed on him. “Her intention was to sink her teeth into my throat and with this grip and her forepaws hang to me while with her hind claws she dug out my stomach, for this pleasant practice is the way of leopards,” Akeley wrote. “However, happily for me, she missed her aim.” The wounded cat had landed to one side; instead of Akeley’s throat in her mouth, she had his upper right arm, which had the fortuitous effect of keeping her hind legs off his stomach.

It was good luck, but the fight of Akeley’s life had just begun.

Using his left hand, he attempted to loosen the leopard’s hold. “I couldn't do it except little by little,” he wrote. “When I got grip enough on her throat to loosen her hold just a little she would catch my arm again an inch or two lower down. In this way I drew the full length of the arm through her mouth inch by inch.”

He felt no pain, he wrote, “only of the sound of the crushing of tense muscles and the choking, snarling grunts of the beast.” When his arm was nearly free, Akeley fell on the leopard. His right hand was still in her mouth, but his left hand was still on her throat. His knees were on her chest and his elbows in her armpits, “spreading her front legs apart so that the frantic clawing did nothing more than tear my shirt.”

It was a scramble. The leopard tried to twist around and gain the advantage, but couldn’t get purchase on the sand. “For the first time,” Akeley wrote, “I began to think and hope I had a chance to win this curious fight.”

He called for the boy, hoping he’d bring a knife, but received no response. So he held on to the animal and “continued to shove the hand down her throat so hard she could not close her mouth and with the other I gripped her throat in a stranglehold.” He bore down with his full weight on her chest, and felt a rib crack. He did it again—another crack. “I felt her relax, a sort of letting go, although she was still struggling. At the same time I felt myself weakening similarly, and then it became a question as to which would give up first.”

Slowly, her struggle ceased. Akeley had won. He lay there for a long time, keeping the leopard in his death grip. “After what seemed an interminable passage of time I let go and tried to stand, calling to the pony boy that it was finished.” The leopard, he later told Popular Science Monthly, had then shown signs of life; Akeley used the boy’s knife to make sure it was really, truly dead.

Akeley’s arm was shredded, and he was weak—so weak that he couldn’t carry the leopard back to camp. “And then a thought struck me that made me waste no time,” he told Popular Science. “That leopard has been eating the horrible diseased hyena I had killed. Any leopard bite is liable to give one blood poison, but this particular leopard’s mouth must have been exceptionally foul.”

He and the boy must have been quite the sight when they finally made it back to camp. His companions had heard the shots, and figured Akeley had either faced off with a lion or the natives; whatever the scenario, they figured Akeley would prevail or be defeated before they could get to him, so they kept on eating dinner. But when Akeley appeared, with “my clothes ... all ripped, my arm ... chewed into an unpleasant sight, [with] blood and dirt all over me,” he wrote in In Brightest Africa, “my appearance was quite sufficient to arrest attention.”

He demanded all the antiseptics the camp had to offer. After he'd been washed with cold water, “the antiseptic was pumped into every one of the innumerable tooth wounds until my arm was so full of the liquid that an injection in one drove it out of another,” he wrote. “During the process I nearly regretted that the leopard had not won.”

When that was done, Akeley was taken to his tent, and the dead leopard was brought in and laid out next to his cot. Her right hind leg was wounded—which, he surmised, had come from his first shot into the brush, and was what had thrown off her pounce—and she had a flesh wound in the back of her neck where his last shot had hit her, “from the shock of which she had instantly recovered.”

Not long after his close encounter with the leopard, the African expedition was cut short when its leader contracted malaria, and Akeley returned to Chicago. The whole experience, he wrote to a friend later, transported him back to a particular moment at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which he’d visited after creating taxidermy mounts for the event. “As I struggled to wrest my arm from the mouth of the leopard I recalled vividly a bronze at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, depicting the struggle between a man and bear, the man’s arm in the mouth of the bear,” he wrote. “I had stood in front of this bronze one afternoon with a doctor friend and we discussed the probable sensations of a man in this predicament, wondering whether or not the man would be sensible to the pain of the chewing and the rending of his flesh by the bear. I was thinking as the leopard tore at me that now I knew exactly what the sensations were, but that unfortunately I would not live to tell my doctor friend.”

In the moment, though, there had been no pain, “just the joy of a good fight,” Akeley wrote, “and I did live to tell my [doctor] friend all about it.”

Additional source: Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals

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