By Peter Feuerle
The leopard cannot be seen if he does not want to be seen, and that makes hunting him the perfect hunt. If you want a realistic chance to shoot a leopard, you must make him come to you, which means hunting over bait, or following a pack of hounds.
An occasional chance encounter does happen – but getting a shot this way is a gift of the hunting gods and never proof of your own skill or determination. My chance encounter for a leopard was in Namibia a good many years ago. I was actually looking for a cheetah, although then (as now) cheetahs could not be imported into the United States. In a fit of vanity, I wanted to be able to brag that I hunted all three of Africa’ s big cats. As it turned out, my PH Fred Bezuidenhout and I could not find a cheetah, despite mile upon mile of patrolling and glassing the wide-open, rough and treeless terrain. Then one day, accompanied by the land owner, we saw three spotted cats calmly amble up a close-by hillside. Spots they had, except they were leopards, not cheetahs. But the landowner, like ranchers the world over, was no friend of predators, and shouted, “Shoot one, shoot any one of them.” He had permits, so we bailed out of the bakkie, I got on the sticks, let fly at the one trailing behind just before it reached the ridge, and it was down. It was a young male, that I would not have shot but for the rancher’s vocal demand.
This was my third leopard. The other two were on my very first African safari, in each case with spectacular lack of success. My first attempt was over bait in the last few minutes of shooting light. After a few afternoons in the blind, nothing happened except no-shows, so we changed location. At the new spot, hunting at night with artificial light was permitted. I was very optimistic, but the outcome was even worse than the previous attempt.
It had started promisingly enough. In the blind, less than two hours after dark, we heard a cat feeding on the bait, crunching ribs and generally leaving no doubt even to my inexperienced ears that we had a leopard.. My PH, Dean Kendall, slowly turned up the spotlight, and there it stood, broadside, fetchingly illuminated in red. It glimpsed in our direction and slunk away before I could get my act together. Seeing a leopard in the wild for the first time does interesting things to one‘s composure!
But nothing strengthens one’s resolve like a little humiliation. So I booked another hunt with Dean, in the Dande safari area of Zimbabwe, where using lights was not permitted. It is mostly hilly woodland, and probably had been for millions of years, judging from the large grove of petrified wood that we saw – even entire tree trunks. Perhaps by now the area has become a place for fossil collectors.
Finding the right leopard track in the first place can take days or can happen within hours. One has to distinguish those of a cat from those of a hyena, tell how old the tracks are, or even to determine whether they are from a male or female. When a fresh track is found, generally size of spoor suggests gender, which can be confirmed when a cat is on the bait. You hang a trail camera or two and hope to get a shot of the cat’s rear end. We were lucky, and it did not take us long to find what my team of experts, after spirited debate (how I wished I could understand Shona and Ndebele!) deemed it the right cat.We still needed bait and I had a good time shooting for the larder, the cats and the camps. We found a suitably shaped tree, in the right place with an optimal distance between it and the blind with a clear shooting lane. Scent trails were laid around the area and clear paths were made to get in and out of the blind noiselessly in the dark – I found that pieces of toilet paper as a guide show up amazingly well by starlight.
My wife Nancy was with us, and as we rolled away, she casually asked, “That big tree branch we cut to clear the shooting lane, what kind of tree was that?”
” Oh, an ebony tree.”
” Stop! Turn around! I want a piece of that wood!” Slight amusement in the bakkie, but this was Africa, and what the lady wants, the lady gets. So we turned around, and our men hacked out a chunk of ebony, the black heartwood, using axes forged from leaf springs and kept sharp. It seemed no rural Matabele male goes out without his axe. Nice, economical swings each hit exactly in the same notch, no undue exertion, letting the steel do the work. I still have that chunk of wood. I drilled a row of half-inch holes in it, and it is now a display rack for decorative wine bottle stoppers.
Dean and I went into the blind around four o’ clock. It was still sweltering from the heat of the day. Two hours till sundown. No talking, no loud swatting of bugs, anxiously watching the sun drop lower and lower. And no sign of a cat. I confess that my tolerance of frustration was tested. But then things came together. The cat showed up while I could still get a decent sight picture and identify the cross hairs against its body. I squeezed the trigger, was blinded by the muzzle flash, and the next thing I knew was Dean slapping me on the back and saying (much more calmly than I felt) “Good shot, Peter”. We waited the proverbial cigarette time, and with our flash lights walked over to the bait site. There on the ground, lay my leopard. Dead.
Buoyed by my success using the classic method of hunting leopard, I decided to try something completely different, a hunt with hounds, something I had done in the North American West for cougar. (The main difference is that in America we may not use baits – everything depends on the tracking ability of your hounds.) I found a hound hunt in Namibia on a cattle ranch not far north of the Naukluft Mountains. That area seems to be a veritable breeding ground for leopards that invade the surrounding countryside. The cattle operation is limited by the nature of the terrain, which is largely flat in the east of the property, while to the west it becomes mountainous and rises to a high escarpment bordering the desert of the Namib. The cattle do not venture into the rough country, so there are no fences in the hunting area.
Mare van der Merwe, one of the owners, was my PH. Our houndsman, Glenn Mel, came all the way from the Eastern Cape, accompanied by a helper and about a dozen tough-looking, noisy, sinewy devils that, it turned out, just loved being cuddled and tried to lick your face if you would let them. On each outing, Glenn would select a dog team of perhaps six or so, and explained that the team had to include distinct specialists: trackers to pick up cold tracks, fast sight hounds to run the cat down once they had spotted it, and bruisers that would hold the cat at bay. I saw later that the trackers actually lost any interest in the cat after it had been brought to bay, preferring to wander around and check out all the interesting scents, while the sight hounds hung around but were content to loudly proclaim to the world that they had won the race.
The first step of the hunt was no different from a hunt over bait. We set up several bait sites, although it took time because the area was large and finding tracks was difficult. The ground was coarse gravel which does not show tracks well, unlike the fine powdery soil I had seen in Zimbabwe. Eventually some of our baits got hit, and then we found the fresh tracks of an encouragingly large cat. Not only that, but Mare said he knew the cat, as its right front paw showed an old scar, possibly the result from pulling out of a leg-hold trap. It was deep but perfectly healed. He said he had actually hunted it but had never been successful.
It was time to let loose the dogs of war, and they didn’t wait around. They started running as soon as they hit the ground, calling out joyfully. Because we expected a long pursuit we stocked up on bottled water, but we were still loading up backpacks when the sound changed and all hell broke out no more than half a mile away. Turned out the cat had gone to ground in a cavern formed by an old rock fall. The hounds were smart enough not to go into the opening – there was something snarling frightfully inside.
We approached at right angles to the cat’s line of sight from the cavern, or rather its line of attack, which promptly came. The cat hurtled through the throng of dogs, turned around, and shot back to its shelter before they could even react.
I had been warned that something like this might happen and had mounted a red dot sight on my rifle. Then I did something that is generally frowned upon. In order to save time the next time around I clicked my safety off. When the next charge came, the red dot was instantly on the cat’s shoulder, no dog was in my sight, I fired, then the cat was back in the cave. But it left a huge splatter of bright red blood on the rock face, and there was no further sound. The leopard, a large male that made the record book, is now a full-body mount in a jumping-up position, with his right front paw stretched out high showing his battle scar. I think I owed that to him. The full emotional impact came later, in replaying the whole drama in my mind.
After that I hunted more leopards, but I have never had the desire to do it again with hounds. I am glad for the experience, and I like dogs. But I think that a leopard does not deserve this humiliation. Call me a sentimental fool. All my subsequent leopard hunts were done in a modified classical method, that is, from a blind over bait, but using artificial illumination or light enhancement.
On one occasion when we checked in the morning, the bait was gone and there were lion tracks. If lions move in, the leopards will decamp. On another occasion, the local game authorities had decreed that, killing a female would carry a US$ 20,000 fine – not a risk to run. We had not been able to reliably determine the cat’s sex, and gave up. Another disappointing situation involved a cat that apparently did not like the location of the bait and paid only short visits. So we un-wired the bait so that the cat could take it somewhere else it preferred. Sure enough, the next morning the bait was gone. We followed tracks and found that a pack of hyenas had ambushed our cat, which had wisely dropped its meal and treed up.
Once we found huge tracks of a brute that patrolled the area but never took any of the baits. I decided that we go after that giant, but in spite of incredible performance by our trackers over two days, we never caught up with it. A problem for today’s hunters is that we tend to run out of time, unlike the legendary hunters of old who could afford weeks or even months.
My latest leopard kill, number four (which will probably be the last one), happened in early 2021 after my eightieth year. We were in a private game conservancy in KwaZulu-Natal. It is rare that South Africa issues leopard permits for export, but the owners of the conservancy has received a “destruction permit” based on the finding by an outside consultancy that the area’s plains-game population could not sustain the number of predators that were found there. So this was basically a cull hunt, though in the owner’s opinion on a far too limited scale.
With Pienaar “Pine” Breytenbach as my PH, I set out. What followed was a circus! Because of Covid-related travel complications I did not bring my own gun but borrowed one from Pine, which carried a thermal imaging device, as we expected all the action to happen at night. We went out diligently in the dark so 1 could practice. We also had a rifle with conventional telescopic sights for daytime work, so I never fired the “night” rifle in the daytime.
When we had a cat on bait and the blind set up, I went into the blind one late afternoon with the “night” rifle, while Pine moved our vehicle a mile or so down the road, to return on foot. But before he got back , with the sun still well above the horizon, our leopard showed up right beneath the bait tree, and calmly stepped forward to inspect the open area between him and my blind – just stood there as if enjoying the view. A thermal imaging device also works in daylight, but my practice shooting had been based on the premise that I would have to use it on1y in the dark. It is a complicated thing, and I did not know which button to push, lever to move, or dial to turn in order to make that thing work in daylight.
So I looked at the cat and it seemed to be looking at me, though of course I was concealed in the blind. I dearly wished I had our “day time” rifle, but that was gone with Pine; you do not wander around an area where the Big Five roam without being suitably armed. After a fairly long while, the cat turned and ambled back into the bush.
I thought I was done, but an hour or so later, now in complete darkness, the cat showed up again to get its meal at last. I had him broadside, picked the wrong reticle, shot and missed, and he calmly slinked down, the way cats do, from the branch down to the ground. But he stayed just long enough so I could change the reticle to the one I had used in our practice sessions, and shot again.
And that was the end of it. The hide was carefully prepared, and I believe that it was offered to the Zulu king as is the traditional local custom.
Like everyone else, I have known for decades that going into the field with unfamiliar equipment is a fool‘s errand, but sometimes the gods favor the fools, in this particular case if they are in their eighties.