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Rifle Magazine
January - February 2003
Volume 1, Number 1
ISSN: 0
Number 1
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Cover photo by John R. Ford.
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My passengers nearly went over the hood of the hunting car when I unconsciously nailed the brakes. A thorn in the corner of my eye would have had less impact than the gigantic track that snagged my peripheral vision. We were, as we always were, no matter what the immediate purpose of the day, hunting leopards, and my eye had just found a monster.

The news on my first day in the new hunting area was not good. The local hunters and trackers told me no one had taken a leopard in that district for years. This, in spite of the fact it had been almost continuously occupied by some professional hunters of high repute. With that information, given an option, I would have moved. But there was no option. I had been assigned to hunt here. My client arrived in five days and he, like most, placed leopards high on his list. This safari   was going to be ruled by my general rule of life: “Can’t does not exist, and the impossible just takes more effort.” But the news was not all bad.

As I traveled through the new area, everything I saw said “leopard.” The streams were classic “sand rivers,” that is, dry sand beds choked on both sides with extremely dense tropical jungle. They would flow with great amounts of water during the rains, then withdraw to a few scattered pools during the dry season. The surrounding country was a mix of brush, grass and almost-mountains. Further, there was game, or said another way, leopard food, everywhere. Before sundown on the second day, I had proven my point. The pug mark of a large tom appeared in the sand. The hunt was on!

The hunt began, not with a search for the leopard in person, but for the perfect tree to catch him with. You see, leopard hunting is not so much about the cat but the tree. In most of “good” Africa, leopards are relatively common. Having a leopard to hunt is expected. Getting a shot at them is another matter altogether. For me, the spotted wonders are a passion, a wild and untamed chess match, with success very much dependent on the setting of the hunt.

My tree-search was more revealing and rewarding than I could have hoped. The local trackers immediately rebelled at my tactics. They could not imagine why I wanted the perfect setup, a setup that usually entailed a long, hot walk through horrible thorns. They told me “how to hunt leopards.” Or more accurately, they told me how the others had hunted leopards. It was simple, you just put a bait up a convenient tree, somewhere it is handy to drive. You drive by every day to see if the leopard has fed. When he does, you take the bait down from this random, handy tree and drag it to a better one. Then you make a blind and sit and wait.

I could not imagine better news. There was a very good reason why they had not taken a leopard in 12 years. They did not know how to hunt them, or they did not care to try. Not only did I have leopards to hunt, but best of all, for 12 seasons they had only been pursued by amateurs. But all this only meant it was going to be possible, not easy.

Chui, in northern Tanzania, was many things: large, beautifully furred and reasonably common, but he certainly was not easy. While safari hunting had no effect, the local tribesmen hunted them ruthlessly. Leopards like to kill and eat calves, and they were pursued mightily, even poisoned, for the crime. Further, there was the double-edged-sword luxury of the lions. There were lions everywhere, many lions everywhere. This was the best lion district in Africa, but lions will kill leopards. Lions like to steal leopard food, and these lions could and would climb trees almost as well as their spotted cousins. Combine all this with very plentiful game and we have a recipe for leopards that do not like to come to bait and are not terribly apt to return to even a natural kill.

We did not “hook” the first leopard track we found, nor the second, or the third. It was a 21-day safari, and I told myself there was no need to panic. Be patient, hunt hard and believe. I kept telling myself these things so I could look Mario in the eye and honestly tell him we would find his leopard. It was time to pull out the stops and get extreme.

This day was a magical one, a day of exploration. We had eyed the big mountain in the distance. It was far enough away to look blue, but my locals assured me it was still in the concession. It was called Banguetti. Our luck had been good, with many of the other game animals Mario wanted already drying in salt. We had the luxury of time to take a chance, perhaps wasting a day and, almost like Star Trek, go where no one had been - if not before, at least in a long time.

The sand track led for nearly 50 miles, across two river beds and wide, almost endless miles of open plain and thorn scrub. Much of the country was surprisingly devoid of even common game. This was difficult to explain. There was water, feed and virtually no human population. Soon we found the answer. There were wire poachers’ snares everywhere. The camp we burned had enough dry meat piled to fill a large truck and enough killed that day for a big pickup load. In this unhunted, unpatrolled, wild area, the great scourge of Africa was hard at work. The poachers had killed almost everything in sight.

With at least one camp of varmints out of the way, we returned to our hunt. We had rounded behind the mountain and now looked up at its northern slope. A dark green line ran down the face and into the gray bush, indicating another river. No roads were a fine luxury, and the Toyota headed to where green vein met the flat plain at the base of the mountain, by dead reckoning. Mountain, dense jungle, water, rocks, brush and a sand river bed all equal: leopard. The car was lugging through the heavy sand, pulling hard when it hit me.

The track might as well have been made by a lioness, it was that large. But as my fellow said, “This is chui, Bwana, sure, sure!” The knowledge of a giant tom cat was like electricity. Fortunately I had Sax, one of my old Zambian trackers, with me. He, too, was a leopard hunter, and we immediately ignored the ignorant protests of the locals and went to work. Mario beamed; this was a special cat in a special place. Life had a purpose!

The sand bed itself was about 20 yards wide, while the tropical jungle on the banks varied from a few feet to nearly 100 yards deep. The river meandered in a very complex way, forming islands and oxbows. Sax and I walked the bed, searching for the perfect place. Some have asked me, “How do you know it is a good place for a leopard?” The answer is relatively simple: The best place to get a shot at him is the very last place you want to look for him after you shoot.

To the uninitiated our place looked like the rest of the jungle, but it was the most perfect leopard setup I had ever seen. The river made a deep bend, forming an oxbow and leaving an island that was choked with terrible grass and thorns. Just below the island its channel narrowed, plowing to bedrock and leaving a small pool of water, and just below that another sharp kink in the watercourse created a wide belt of jungle on the east side.

The tree was on the west bank, its sloping trunk was accessible by the cat from the sand bed itself and very near the open plain on that side. After sloping upward, the main limb went almost horizontal and was about 6 inches in diameter. The limb was visible through a small hole in the jungle, when viewed from the opposite side of the river and from a place fully 20 yards back in the dense vegetation. Last but not least, we could situate the “blind” slightly downstream. This would place it not only downwind from the prevailing westerly but also below the evening flow off the mountain. We had it: a perfect tree, sand, water, jungle and, oh yes, the limb had blue sky behind it, offering us visibility at the last edges of dusk.

The cape was off the huge impala, and he waited in the tree well before sundown. Now I drove with more urgency, looking for the most direct, fastest track back to camp. Under the best circumstances, the journey took four hours. Put another way, leopard hunters must be dedicated. From now until the conclusion, we had at least 8 hours of rough “road” in every 24. But this, perhaps, grandfather of all leopards was worth it.

We left camp the next morning in black dark, stomachs churning with anticipation, and we were not disappointed. The once tidy impala-in-a-tree had been transformed into a shapeless ball. More than half the meat was gone. He was a giant cat with a giant appetite. I left the locals, in the charge of my tracker, to make the minimal blind necessary under the circumstances, while Mario and I went in search of another   animal on license to renew the bait. I was taking a calculated risk; I did not want to hunt him that afternoon. Instead I wanted to offer him more meat and another day of peace and quiet to increase his confidence. All this was with the intent of getting him to come early, to come to the tree while there was still shooting light. The bait was renewed, and we were on our way by early afternoon. Tomorrow we would return, check the bait, hunt for a few hours and then set up for the leopard hunt about 3:00 in the afternoon.

We were back early the following morning, and again huge quantities of meat were gone, but enough remained to cause the cat to return and perhaps feed well again. The stage was set; he was almost ours.

We drove and glassed for about an hour, really just killing time before the main event. Hunting from the car is not my favorite, so we decided to go for a stroll through some open palmettos and small acacia. His track was very large, but the lion’s feet were all big here. Nevertheless this was very interesting, and we followed. I was not prepared for what I saw when Sax touched my shoulder and nodded to the right front. This was not just a lion, but a magnificent full-maned treasure that could pose for MGM. Mario’s .375 spoke, and one of Africa’s greatest prizes was his. It was a glorious moment and one that tore at my insides. Suddenly we had a tremendous conflict of interest.

I posed the dilemma to the gentleman from Mexico. “Mario, we have a problem. We must take the lion to camp to be skinned and salted. If I nearly kill us driving, and we take two minutes for photos, there is at least six hours between us and the leopard blind. We can make it, but it will be very close. Otherwise we can wait and hunt the leopard tomorrow, but understand we are now running on borrowed time. Every day increases the chances he will become bored with the location; every hour increases the chances something will go wrong. Sir, it is your choice.” It was a moment and a man that made the lot of professional hunter worthwhile. Mario did not need time to decide. “No, Se-or,” he said, “today is for my lion. We must enjoy him, honor him. There is tequila that must be drunk.” And so it was.

We returned as early the next day as a modest cactus-induced hangover would permit. There was nothing left in Africa that could temp our fire. I held my breath for most of the way, secretly knowing that if the cat had finished all the remaining meat, he would not return. Once again good fortune smiled. Although he had fed heavily, there was a good bit of a front quarter and some of the loin remaining. We retired to a fine, shady place a mile downstream for a picnic lunch and a nap. It was perfect, too perfect.

I was just making plans to go to the blind early, knowing things were so perfect this one would be the fourth of my career that we would see in the tree in broad daylight. A leopard in a tree in bright sunshine is wonderful and rare beyond comprehension. He is simply brilliant and magical, glowing as if made of solid gold and dappled by the brush of a fine artist. The sight is one of the most rare and unforgettable in the natural world. Getting it to happen took perfection and luck, and I was basking in both when the distant glint broke the spell.

The sun had glanced off the point of a spear. A look through the binocular revealed a regular parade of shouting, clamoring, red-garbed, exquisitely annoying local tribesmen. What in the *&#% was going on? The news was not good. Someone had stolen someone’s cow. There was more or less a declaration of war. The idiotic procession could go on for hours - all within 200 yards of where our leopard was napping and keeping an eye on his meat. We could only endure and hope.

Mercifully the spear-toting natives were gone by 1:00. We crept into the blind at 2:00. The bush was uncommonly silent; the parade had seen to that. Hours passed and the sun fell with ever increasing velocity. The optimism of morning had turned to hoping against hope that he would come at all. Sunset passed, twilight slipped and black darkness loomed. We had 10 more minutes.

The sight made me hesitate; it did not look like a leopard. No leopard stood that high on the limb. It looked like a lioness, but the Swarovski binocular could still see the spots. I whispered in Mario’s ear to take the shot. The cat had settled into a feeding position on the limb, and I had a little uneasy feeling he was beginning to stand when the voice of the rifle made its ruthless intrusion into the silence. He did not “woof” and bound as a missed leopard would. Instead he did something I had not seen or heard one do. The big cat leapt vertically 4 feet straight above the limb and emitted a roar that would be associated with a lion. It was a horrifying sound. We heard a soft “futt” and then a scramble, followed by the barking of baboons upstream and then deafening silence. Sax and I listened until we could listen no more. I needed help, needed support, needed someone to tell me it was okay.

I broke the silence by saying, “He is dead on the sand.” Sax replied grimly, “No.” I countered, “He is hit hard.” “Yes, Bwana.” Again I grasped at straws, “I am sure he is dead on the sand.”

“No."

My statement was based on a lot of hope and a little information. My “blind and deaf” (to the Africans) white-man’s ears thought they heard the cat stop in the dry river bed. Sax’s unbelievably tuned senses knew better. I did not want to accept the alternative to my optimism.

It was pitch-black dark. The greatest leopard I had ever seen was somewhere in that darkness, darkness punctuated only by dense thorn jungle and steep river banks. The leopard was somewhere in this darkness with a bullet wound - somewhere. The country crawled with hyenas. If he was dead and we did not find him tonight, there would only be tufts of beautiful hair and bone chips in the morning. If he was alive, well, I would rather not talk about it.

I suppose for a lesser cat and a lesser man I would have done the wise and correct thing and gone home. For this man and this leopard, we were going to wade into hell. I explained things as best I could to Mario, instructed him not to leave the blind under any circumstances, picked up the big flashlight, handed my .416 to Sax and gripped my security blanket. The double 12-bore loaded with buffered No. 4 buckshot did not feel good; it just felt better than nothing at all.

When we were a few yards away, Sax and I held a council of war. I needed to know if we were being brave - or suicidal. We agreed mutually and honestly that the cat was dead. “Sure, Bwana.” I could not extract, “sure-sure” from either of us, which meant we were almost sure. We went first across the sand to the base of the tree where we could find only one tiny spot of blood. Then I urged my companion out of the jungle, back onto the open sand where I could breathe. I held the light and naturally coaxed Sax toward my “hoping place,” the bend in the middle of the bare sand river where I wanted to find him dead. But, of course, there was only bare yellow sand.

It was time to yield to the master. I held the shotgun and gave him the light. We moved inches at a time. Sax’s natural radar led him to that island, that sea of grass and clumps of thorn bushes. There was no blood trail, we were searching at random. The shadows moved in a horrifying way. Each branch cast a moving shadow in our light. Each shadow could become spotted lightning and a very unpleasant death. I noticed that he searched, moved on and then returned again and again to one particularly bad area of green thorn bushes. The light was fading. We had used most of the hour in the big six-cell light’s batteries. We had also used all the adrenaline and courage I possessed. From time to time we would walk into the comparative safety of the bare sand, breathe and then like divers in shark-infested water, go in again. The hyenas wailed nearby.

I had formulated a plan of only semi-defeat. In five minutes we would mercifully be forced to quit. It was just possible that if we made a huge bonfire in the stream bed and spent the night making noise, we could keep the hyenas off our prize. Sax pulled us back into that nightmarish maze once again. Suddenly he froze. My eyes did not focus as positively as I would have liked. Yes, I could see gold and black, but it did not make sense to my brain. What I saw looked like a fuzzy child’s toy, it looked like a small stuffed fur animal. The giant cat was only 2 feet away.

Then it clicked, I was looking at the very end of his tail, curled tightly. As crazy as it might sound, I could only think of one “safe” course of action. I held the gun in my right hand, crushing the triggers almost enough to discharge the cartridges and grabbed the tail. My mind was working in a strange way. It said if I have ahold of him, no matter what, the horror of the last hour is finished. No matter what, if I have ahold of him - at least I know where he is. I seized the tail almost expecting to get hit in the face. I seized the tail and pulled gently and then very hard. The cat did not move nor yield.

Leopards are small and light, and I had several times the strain on the tail it would take to move a leopard. He must be alive and holding on. I heaved hard now. Sax held the big rifle’s muzzle in the bush, and I nearly fired the gun. The dead weight gave. He was stone dead, just too heavy to pull with one hand. I had carried many leopards; the largest were only heavy. With this one on my shoulder I could barely rise from my knees. We carried him quietly the 100 yards toward Mario, whistled to tell him we were there and then gently placed the great cat before him. The flashlight was finished, so his first vision of this wonderful sight was in the flicker of a Zippo lighter.

Mario’s smile of relief illuminated the night. “I was afraid you were dead, Se-or. Now there can be joy for breakfast.”

Epilogue

Our expedition in the dark had really been more dangerous than we might have imagined. The leopard had indeed been beginning to stand when Mario’s rifle fired. The big .375-inch bullet had just nicked the bottom of his chest, had not even penetrated through the chest wall. Instead, it dislodged a small bone chip that had pierced the cat’s heart. In retrospect we could see there had been about a hair’s breadth between the happy ending and disaster.

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