Share this story

9F043F8E 7A85 4A55 A94C D002784E7AC3
Azuka Onwuka

Recently, the five South-East governors announced the launch of a security outfit codenamed Ebubeagu. Like the use of Amotekun by the South-West governors, the choice of the name “Ebubeagu” generated a controversy over its meaning in English. It was variously interpreted as “the aura of the lion/tiger/leopard.”

When Amotekun was launched last year, there were some arguments among the Yoruba whether “ekun” stands for lion, tiger or leopard. Amotekun means “the animal that looks like ekun”. That animal should be “tiger” (or cheetah), but did the ancient Yoruba people have any interaction with the tiger (or cheetah)? The answer is no.

You would not blame many of today’s Nigerians who choose to identify with the tiger or lion in Southern Nigeria as the iconic animal of their people. Watching animal documentaries and reading about the lion as the king of the jungle whose roar sends tremors through the hearts of all the animals or about the “tiger, tiger burning bright”, who would not want to identify with the lion or tiger? No wonder when Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe returned from the United States of America and founded the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, he chose the lion as its symbol. Students and graduates of that university are called “lions and lionesses”, and when they are addressed as such, they roar in response. Similarly, the Eastern Nigerian Government House in Enugu was named Lion Building. Across the border, our Cameroonian neighbours call their football team “The Indomitable Lions”. Likewise, when Prof Wole Soyinka wanted to counter the Negritude movement, he noted that “a tiger does not proclaim his tigritude; he pounces.”

But was the lion or tiger the key animal of the rainforest area of Southern Nigeria? First is that just like the bear, the tiger is not even an African animal. Our forefathers never saw it, at least not in the last 1,000 years. If it ever existed in Africa, that would be some thousands of years ago, which would have made it blotted from the consciousness of our forefathers.

The natural habitat of the tiger is Asia and some parts of Europe. It is the biggest, fiercest and strongest among the big cats, with the Siberian tiger being the biggest of the tigers. The tiger can defeat the lion in a duel, but both of them do not live in the same environment and never meet.

Conversely, the lion is an African animal. However, it lives more in the grassland or savannah where animals that feed on vegetation abound, and where it can operate without any obstruction from trees.


Unlike other big cats, the lion lives in groups called prides. Because lions hunt as a team, they are able to kill big animals like buffalo, giraffe and even elephant, especially small and medium-sized ones. Because of this ability to work within a team and achieve great results, the lion is called the king of the jungle.

The southern part of Nigeria is mainly rainforest where the lions won’t excel in. The trees in the rainforest which form a dense canopy would make it difficult for the lions to hunt. Such rainforest would also not attract thousands of grass-loving animals like buffaloes, wildebeests, deer, zebras, and the like which will sustain the huge protein needs of prides of lions.


The leopard is the iconic animal of Southern Nigeria, especially the non-water areas. The leopard was the big cat our forefathers knew and sang its praises. They held it in awe, because they did not have the cameras of today to film the wild and ascertain the capacity of the leopard. As far as they were concerned, the leopard was the king of the wild, which created fear and panic in the villages. Tales of its exploits were created, spiced and salted generously, before being dished out.

Anytime a leopard was sighted, an alarm was raised and children and women ceased to go near the forest. Even to fetch water from the streams, they would be accompanied by well-armed men. Men would go out in search of the leopard to kill it. Until it was killed, there was no relief in the village.


If eventually it was killed, there would be jubilation in the village. In Igboland, the person who killed it acquired the exalted title “Ogbuagu” (killer of the leopard). The leopard would be skinned and the killer would keep the skin as his trophy. He would hang it in his reception hut and don it on special occasions.

When the British colonialists came into Nigeria in the 19th century, it should be noted that of all the photographs of Igbo or Yoruba great men they took, rarely would one find any featuring a lion skin. Rather the spotted skin of the leopard was usually in display in such photos. The early books written by missionaries about Igboland mentioned the leopard, buffalo, giraffe, elephant, etc, as animals found in Igboland. Mention was usually not made of the existence of lion, let alone the tiger.

When the translators of the bible into Igbo did their work, they translated “lion” as odum, while “leopard” was translated as agu. Consequently, the lion of the tribe of Judah is “Odum nke ebo Juda” in the Igbo bible.

Similarly, when Chinua Achebe, Chukwuemeka Ike, and other early indigenous writers wrote about the Igbo world, they wrote about the leopard and translated it as “agu”. When the Republic of Biafra was declared in 1967, its coat of arms featured two leopards and the eagle. After the leopard, the eagle is the second most iconic animal among the Igbo.


Furthermore, Igbo sayings are filled with praises for “agu” (leopard). The lion “odum” is rarely mentioned. That points to the likelihood that our forefathers knew so much about the leopard but so little about the lion. Those Igbo who interacted with the Middle Belt area of Nigeria (where the grassland starts) could have come in contact with the lion. The only memorable saying that features the lion in Igbo world is: Odum na-egbu agu (the lion that kills the leopard). Nobody can say for sure how old this saying is. It could have come into existence some decades ago when people already had TV and book knowledge of the lion.

However, there are dozens of sayings and names involving the leopard:


Anu eyi agu – No animal compares to the leopard
Agu na-eche mba – The leopard that guards the city
O me ka agu – He who acts like the leopard
Agu nwaanyi – Brave woman
Onye akpana nwa agu aka n’odu – Let nobody touch the leopard by its tail

The term “agu” has also been used to name some other animals like the crocodile (aguiyi – water leopard), hawk (agu nkwu – the leopard of the palm tree), wall gecko (agu ulo – house leopard). These animals have spots or patches that make them have a semblance with the leopard. They also attack their preys stealthily and swiftly like the leopard does.

Lennox Mall

However, when our people began to watch the TV and read books and saw the exploits of the lion as against those of the leopard, they began to associate those encomiums poured on agu on the lion rather than the leopard. The wrong name given to the dress called isi-agu probably in the 1970s worsened the situation. The cloth which has the head of the lion was mistakenly named isi-agu instead of “isi odum”, thereby complicating the matter.

In spite of not being as big as the lion or tiger, the leopard has features which are admirable. It is the only big cat that has the capacity to live in virtually all the climates and terrains: rainforest, savannah, desert, mountain, cold region.


It is the only big cat that can climb a tree with an antelope bigger than itself in its mouth. It can jump from a tree to another. It is the only big cat that can jump from the top of a tree that is as tall as a one-storey building, land on a prey and kill it. Unlike the lion which depends on the team to easily kill its prey, the leopard works alone and succeeds alone.

These exceptional traits of the leopard should not be belittled by those who do not look beyond the surface.


Do you have an important success story, news, or opinion article to share with with us? Get in touch with us at or Whatsapp +1 317 665 2180

Join our WhatsApp Group to receive news and other valuable information alerts on WhatsApp.

Share this story

Leave a Reply