Caption: Rudolph Stephan, Tim and Mary Sylvester.
By Richard Lendrum
I was talking with Tim and Mary Sylvester when they were out on their safari and somehow the conversation turned to recalling a previous hunt they had done – a leopard in Zimbabwe almost 7 years ago. I said hold it there, I want to try something – and got my recorder. It is a but rough, and my first, but I’m hoping that this is something that could work.
Listen to a short account of Tim’s leopard hunt…
February 5th 2023, nearly 7 years later, over dinner at Afton, Tim recalled the experience as if it was yesterday. His South African PH Rudi Stephen Zimbabwean PH, Ian Rutledge and hound handler, the late Theuns Botha – all in pursuit of Africa’s greatest cat.
Ian was carrying a Ruger Redhawk, it’s a double action stainless steel gun, and a .44 magnum, and he had a side by side 20-gauge, which had buckshot. And then he had a pretty good size knife.
Rudolph had a pack on and he had a Remington 870 and he had it stuck through his pack, and we’re just walking through the grass. Earlier in the morning they found some tracks and we were on the other side of the preserve, so we go over there as fast as we possibly can, and it’s just barely light and they start tracking it, and they turned the dogs loose. The dogs take off, and we’re tracking it and we’re just meandering, going everywhere, just through the creek twice up, around here, down over there, and we were walking and walking, and it’s getting light out, and of course the trackers, they walk with their head down and their hands behind their back.
And just walk, and very carefully, and then they would stop once in a while and one would point at something and the other one would shake his head, and then they would keep going. It was really cool. So we’re walking along and it’s light out there, but maybe not even 7 o’clock, 6:40, 6:45.
Early. So we hear one dog barking, fairly close, but we can’t see him.
How many dogs were there in the pack?
I think there was… I don’t know, 8, 10 – quite a few dogs. It was a pretty good pack, but we just heard one dog barking. So we kept walking up through the grass, and the grass is not quite waist-high, it’s up to your thigh. And the trees are kind of just here and there. And so we hear this dog barking, so we’re walking in that direction because that’s the direction the trackers are going also. So we get up there and we come around this tree and there’s a leopard 20 yards away in the tree; and the dog isn’t excited, he’s just barking but it’s like he’s just barking to bark, and not like he’s excited.
Oh no, he’s just… he’s doing his job. I mean, no, you’d think he’d be more excited. And it caught us flatfoot, absolutely. I can remember saying a few words, and they weren’t very Christian. And Rudolph said, I only heard, put a round into my rifle, just (snaps fingers) like that. And Rudi turned and tugged the shotgun out of his pack, and I then lost track of Ian at that point, and so this leopard just… he sees us and he lets out this ungodly scream, just… I mean, if it doesn’t get to you, if it doesn’t scare them, nothing will – nothing will on this planet, will scare you like that. The scream! And he leaps out of the tree at the dog; and the dog, not his first rodeo, he steps aside, the leopard runs through the grass. Well, I said the grass is thigh-high…
…we can’t see a damn thing. And so, I’ve got the rifle pointed right here, so if this leopard comes just directly at me, I’ve got a chance. If he comes from any other direction, I’m going to get… yeah, it’s going to be bad. And then suddenly, all of the dogs show up. Everybody else shows up. Everybody’s yelling, all the other dogs are barking like crazy and it’s absolute… it’s pandemonium. It’s crazy. Everybody’s gone wild. And the leopard goes up another tree and they said, ‘Shoot him, shoot him, shoot him!’ And I can’t get a good, clear line of sight on him where I can make a clean shot, because (sighs) what’s been impressed from years ago, back in the 70’s, reading Capstick is, you don’t want to wound the leopard. So I want to make a good shot. So, this leopard jumps out of that tree, and like I said, to me, all I can hear is screaming, barking and the cat growling, and it’s just gone crazy. ‘Shoot him, shoot him, shoot him!’ And I can’t shoot yet, can’t see, because he goes up the third tree and he’s about maybe 60 yards away. And I brought a Marlin 1895 model in, 45/70 which I customised because Rudi says it’s going to be close, you want to put a big hole in him and you want something that’s quick. So I had this short little 45/70. So the tracker passes me my 300. I can’t really get another good line on him. And Rudi looks at me and gives me this look that he is really kind of irritated with me, and he said, ‘Here!’ And he taps his hands three times, taps on his shoulder, and I go up, and I put the rifle on his shoulder and the scope is on the leopard. Three seconds later, I pull the trigger and the leopard drops out stone dead, didn’t even flinch. And now… and it’s quiet. But everybody now was beating me on the back, telling me what a great shot it was, telling me I’m the biggest hero. And a couple of minutes later, I mean, earlier… I mean, ‘Shoot that!’ and everybody screaming at me. And now…
I’m the hero. And I’m shaking like crazy. I mean, I’m just shaking. I can do good at drama. Oh yes, I can do that well. And so, Rudi -when we shoot something that can kill us back – Rudi gives me a cigarette. I don’t smoke, but after… well, after a minute we were able, because of my shaking, we were able to get the cigarette lit. I smoked the cigarette in four drags. Just … (inhales). And they bring the trucks up, Rudi gives me a beer. By now it’s like 7:15 or something, and I’m spilling out the beer, but I’m drinking the beer, shaking. And everybody’s just picking up that this is the greatest day on earth. And then Theuns brings his truck up, or somebody brings it up for him, one of his guys, and he brings out this enormous flask of brandy, and they line up all these little cups, and we’re all going to toast the leopard. But Theuns is like me – he is shaking like a leaf. He can’t pour the brandy. So Rudi steps up, Rudi pours everybody a brandy, and we toast the leopard. And by that time, I’m starting to come back down to earth; I’m not in outer space anymore. But it was tremendous. It was wild. But when he was in that grass, you couldn’t see him – it was just…terrifying. Yeah. Just… you know, you’re there, and you’re there for a purpose, so you’re not going to run, you’re not going to run, you know, (sighs) sit down and cry like a baby – you know what you have to do, but… yeah, it’s serious. Serious shit. So, yeah, we took the pictures, and it was a good day.
7 years later, Tim & Mary Sylvester are on another safari with Rudolph – this time in pursuit of interesting creatures like a honey badger and a few remaining members for Mary to finish the Tiny 10.