A Kalahari Leopard
By Ryan Phelan of Hotfire Safaris
Max was back! Back on his fourth adventure with Hotfire Safaris, this time in the vast Kalahari of Botswana. The quarry, a leopard.
We had ten days booked to search over a million acres of Kalahari in Unit KD6 for a majestic leopard, and we teamed up with good friend Adrian and his awesome hounds for the hunt.
The ‘Wag-n-Bietjie’ bush has small, black, hook-thorns that grab and hold you – the ‘wait-a-bit’ bush. Hurry up and wag-n-bietjie, aptly describes the ebb and flow of hunting leopard in the Kalahari bushveld. The highs and lows, the slow, frustrating nothing-happening periods suddenly broken by frantic, crazy, adrenalin-pumping action.
The planning and build-up was done, but the anticipation was heightened when we met Max at Johannesburg airport and set off on the road trip to Botswana. We were surprised during our drive to the camp to see the Kalahari transformed into a sea of long grass by an unusually wet season, when about a 1,000mm of rain had fallen. I feared that the odds had been heavily altered in favor of the quarry.
At the camp we settled around the fire with refreshments to discuss how the hunt would be conducted as this was a new type of adventure for Max. This hunt would be different from the normal leopard hunt where a bait is used to lure the cats. The wily Kalahari leopard in the KD6 area do not come to bait!
Adrian explained how his dogs operated, the different scenarios that could happen and how we would need to deal with each eventuality. He said that the scent-holding ability of the dry Kalahari sand is very low and makes it difficult for the dogs to work. It was therefore necessary for us to traverse the vast area by checking all the cut lines and sandy roads in an attempt to find the fresh tracks of a large male leopard. Trackers would then have to follow the track until we bumped the cat and the dogs could be released onto the fresh scent. The vehicles would follow as closely as possible for the safety of dogs, trackers, and hunters in the thick, thorny Kalahari bushveld.
Sounded easy at the time!
With plans all laid out and everyone understanding their roles during the hunt, we flattened a good, hearty Botswana beefsteak and turned in for the night.
Day 1 started at first light, and the two vehicles went out in different directions to scout for fresh tracks. The KD6 area is loaded with predators of all types, from cheetah to wild dog, brown hyena to lynx, jackal, and the occasional wandering lion and, of course, leopards. So, scouting for leopard track was not as simple as it had sounded the previous evening.
Travel a short distance, stop, check the tracks. No, it’s brown hyena. Go, stop. No, it’s cheetah, and so on. I realised as we made our slow progress along the traverse, what a headache the numerous predators were for the local tribes folk living with their goats and cattle.
We had seen many different tracks when sunset brought Day 1 to a close, but the only fresh leopard track was a female. The traversing was, however, a good introduction to the area, conditions, and how the days would unfold.
Before daybreak on Day 2, we set out to look for tracks on a long cutline, which is a straight clear-cut line through the bushveld. We travelled about 280 kilometers, talked to some local villagers about leopard in their area without learning anything helpful, and found some decent leopard tracks that were, disappointingly, about two days old.
We were feeling very down when we got a call from the second vehicle informing us that they had picked up a fresh male leopard track some 60 kilometers away from our location. We hastily headed in their direction with revived enthusiasm and high expectations.
There we learned that the male leopard had killed a porcupine the evening before, rested, and then started moving again. The track looked good, but we only had about two and a half hours of daylight left when the 12 trackers eagerly got to work following the leopard tracks.
Tracking in a normal year in the Kalahari would be done by two to four trackers, but this year, because the incredible rains had resulted in a thick cover of long grass and crusted soil, a large team of highly skilled trackers was needed.
Tracking is slow going at the best of times, but it is incredible to watch these talented men methodically go about their work. They seem to understand the cat and see through its eyes, picking up on the slightest evidence of where it has moved in order to keep on following it. The pace quickened at times in more open areas and then ground to a halt when the track was lost. The group would then fan out, sometimes up to 400 meters apart and circle back, searching for a clue. A faint whistle in the distance would jolt the hunters parked in the shade of an acacia thorn tree, out of their daydreams. The track had been found, and off we would go again.
Hurry up and wait-a-bit.
When the giant red orb began descending in the western sky, we decided to GPS the spot and return the next morning to continue on the tracks. We were lucky to see a pack of wild dogs on our way back. A great sighting, but I pessimistically fretted that the wild dogs might push that leopard further and faster.
Later, after a few whiskeys and an incredible Botswana meat dish at a hot fire, we were off to bed after a hot shower to remove the Kalahari dust.
Day 3 was a cold start, a typical semi-desert chilly morning with a beautiful sunrise. It was back to the last GPS location and on with the tracking.
The day was long but when you walk with the trackers and see and learn from them, and try to understand what they are seeing, time passes quickly. We tracked the cat until dusk with only a short break for food and drinks during the peak heat of the day. Getting closer but still nowhere close enough to let the dogs loose.
We plotted the route of our two days’ tracking in the GPS and concluded that the cat was moving northwest in the direction of our camp, which was about 35 kilometers away. He was probably heading in that direction because of a higher concentration of wildlife attracted by the availability of water in the area around the camp. We did not know whether he would take a day to get there or make a kill en route and take longer, but we decided to look for his tracks in the vicinity of the camp over the next few days.
Needless to say, after that long day, a whiskey beckoned to settle the dust in the throat and boost the spirits again.
Day 4. We started working outwards from camp in two directions and eventually we found a fresh cat track.
We could not decide whether or not it was the male leopard. We compared pictures and measurements of the various leopard tracks we had found. A leopard track in soft red sand pushes out to different dimensions compared with one on firmer sand. The debate raged on and by this point the dogs were baying for action, but we had to be careful. If we committed and released the dogs, there was no calling them off. We had to be sure of the size and sex of the leopard.
Finally, considering that it was only Day 4, we called it off on that track and headed for camp. The dogs would get their day!
Day 5. Dawn broke and we had mixed feelings; heightened concern about time whittling away, we were halfway through the hunt, as well as a strange sense that the big leopard was in the area, and this could be the day.
Once again, we divided our forces to scour the dry sand roads for tracks. At 8.45 a.m. a call came through from Patrick and Max. They had found a fresh track entering the area and fresh scat on the road. Adrian and I rushed to their area with the dogs to where the trackers were waiting, and confirmed that this was the leopard we were after, and off went the trackers. We were hopeful of catching the cat bedded up after a night hunting and feeding, as it was only 10.30 a.m.
The move and wait-a-bit scenario continued in the long grass throughout the day. The body language of the trackers soon started showing that things were heating-up. They even kicked into a jogtrot at times.
We must have bumped the cat but not seen him at around 3.30 p.m. as evidenced by the lie-up area and running tracks. Things started to get real, and the pace quickened. The dogs in the vehicle also seemed to sense the presence of the cat, and started howling.
Suddenly, a tracker up front in the thick thorns shouted that he had caught a glimpse of the cat as it crossed a cut line. It was heading for some very thick stands of ‘wag n bietjie’ thorn bushes. Adrian let loose some of his front runner scent hounds and the chase was on. Trackers running, dogs baying, Land Cruiser trying to keep up, going over, round or through the thick bush.
The rest of the pack was set loose, and the intensity increased. The cat was smart and knew his terrain. He was running circle after circle losing the younger dogs, but the older ones were staying the course and then calling in the younger ones to join the fray. It became clear that this cat was not going to tree, and we realised that things could erupt at any second and then blind fury could come hurling out at us in a flash of spots.
We knew that the cat was getting tired and would soon make a stand but where, and would we see it. The sun was setting, eyes playing tricks, adrenalin playing havoc with the senses.
Then, at last shooting light, the dogs started consistently baying around a small grey bush and I realised that this was it.
‘Wait for my command! We don’t want a dog shot,’ I said to Max.
I spotted the head and neck of the cat. Max suddenly saw it as well and upped the shotgun. ‘Don’t shoot, don’t shoot, the dogs are around it,’ I warned.
And then the cat lunged out at the dogs, causing them to back off slightly and a clear shooting lane opened up.
Boom. Max was ready and dropped the hammer before I could finish the word. The cat spun around and took off for about 25 yards before crashing to the ground.
Just incredible, the sound of the dogs, the trackers elation, the dust in the air, dry throats, the palpable release of tension. It was done, and all were safe.
A clean kill.
A moment to remember for a thousand sunsets.
A few plains game animals were taken in the remaining days to round off an epic adventure.
A big thank you to Max and Hotfire Safaris yet again, as well as to Adrian and his hounds for making a joint success on this hunt.
A special dedication to Dutchess, a lovely young hound that was taken before her prime on this hunt. May she continue to run the scent in her star-life.
The community in KD6 were grateful that the animal that preyed on their livestock was down. They only tolerated the cats in their grazing land because of the benefit that the fees that the trophy tag world bring to them.
The success of organised hunting in community concessions was evident. The 15 local trackers and guides as well as all the camp staff had regular employment and thousands of dollars go into a trust for the community to build schools, drill boreholes for water, build clinics and other upliftment projects.
This model shows that, when animals have a value and the local community benefit from that value, the animals will be conserved even if there is a risk to domestic livestock. The model assures that only the old males will be taken, allowing the number of the species in that area to increase. Strict adherence to the limited tags for leopard in that vast area also shows that it is not about greed and more about sustainable utilization of our natural wildlife.