Zimbabwe: 2011 – 2012
The “Leopard Magnet”
By Richard Brebner
Within 10 days we had three leopard sightings in broad daylight. I had never experienced anything like this, as normally in an area where they are hunted, the big cats are far more secretive and you seldom see them.
“You definitely have your leopard magnet activated to full strength!” I joked to Wade.
August, 2011, in the Beit Bridge area of Zimbabwe, I was hunting with Wade and Cindy Williamson from Parshall, North Dakota. Wade’s son, Matt was hunting with another PH, Terry Anders. Wade was after buffalo and elephant, Cindy was hunting a nyala, and Matt was looking for buffalo and leopard. After collecting a good buffalo and Cindy’s nyala, our focus turned to elephant.
Wade was also anxious to hunt a hyena. As luck would have it, we were cruising along the Limpopo when we saw vultures dropping out of the sky onto a sandstone ridge. My binoculars revealed a hyena skulking among the rocks. I stopped the vehicle and we began a circuitous approach, crabbing our way up the ridge, hoping to catch the hyenas unaware. We found the carcass of a young eland near the top of the ridge, but there was no sign of the hyenas that had obviously heard us coming. Closer inspection of the carcass revealed that a leopard had killed it, and the hyenas were part of the clean-up crew. Looking above the carcass, my tracker Moffat spotted movement, and there, at 9 o’clock in the morning, was a huge tom leopard glaring balefully down at us. Before we could get a good look at him he melted away over the crest. I was sure that he would have run or disappeared into the broken rocks, but we pressed forward to see if we could get another look at him.
To my astonishment he had only gone a few metres and was now above us, silhouetted against the skyline, looking back and down at us. Time stood still as we admired this lithe feline that was giving us ample opportunity to take a shot. This definitely was Murphy’s Law as we were not looking for a leopard and there was only one available tag. The tom stood there for an eternity before moving unhurriedly away. Had we been hunting leopard, this sort of scenario would never have unfolded. On the way back to the vehicle we saw a female leopard on the cliff face, also at the eland.
It was only when we got back to the vehicle that I had a brainstorm and ruefully said to Wade that we should have taken the cat. After all, it was his son in the other party and I’m sure that we could have switched tags, and Matt could have hunted the elephant. However, it was no use crying over spilt milk, and we admitted that it was still an amazing experience seeing two leopards in the space of about thirty minutes in broad daylight.
Our elephant quest continued, and the hunt was drawing to a close. Matt and Terry managed to bag a good tom but we were unable to find a big enough elephant. Wade promptly booked a 2012 hunt for elephant and leopard – we were determined to try to renew our acquaintance with our arrogant cliff-top adversary who had stared at us with such intensity seven days previously. Wade certainly seemed to attract leopard and I was keen to see if his “magnet” worked as well when we were actually trying to hunt one.
Fast forward to 2012. I picked up Wade and Cindy from Bulawayo, and of course the banter and discussion turned to leopard magnets and sightings on the four-hour journey to the Sentinel camp. I had just completed a leopard hunt where my client had gone home without his cat. We had had a huge tom feeding, but it was chased out of the blind by elephants at the crucial moment and we never got another chance. By the look of his track this was a monster leopard and would definitely be first prize for Wade. My last client had had miserable luck and came tantalizingly close, but an alliance between pachyderm and feline had robbed us.
“Maybe your leopard magnet will work this time,” I remarked hopefully to Wade.
At the time of the hunt Sentinel was experiencing a horrific drought and it would be difficult to get a leopard on bait – the weakened condition of the prey species like impala was carnivore heaven, and meals were easy to come by. Anyway, I got Wade to shoot a zebra on the opening day of the hunt. I have always had good luck with zebra baits, and it would be something different from the now emaciated impala that the leopard were having no difficulty in knocking over. We placed our first bait in the same tree that the big tom had been feeding on the previous hunt. It was at a small spring only a couple of hundred metres from the workers’ village. Three other baits were put in favorite locations, and as the days unfolded we supplemented the zebra meat with impala.
We did not have long to wait. We checked first the bait near the village which was close to camp, and to my amazement I saw a zebra leg lying along the branch and the telltale tracks of a huge tom under the bait. He had obviously fed early that morning as there was little disturbance over his tracks. We immediately left, as I was worried the tom was still in the vicinity and might be lying up near the bait. It was a huge, solitary cat, and I had a score to settle with him. It seemed as though Wade had lost none of his powers of leopard attraction from the previous year!
I could scarcely contain my excitement, and although the next bait had been hit by a good-sized tom and a female, I paid it scant attention.
We returned to the number one bait at mid-morning. I hoped that we had given the cat ample time to move away and that he was now sleeping off the effects of his previous evening’s meal as big cats are wont to do. I debated whether to leave the leopard for a night and try for him the following evening. However, Moffat and I decided to strike while the iron was hot. We found an excellent blind site – there was a small Shepherd’s tree Boscia albitrunca, near the front of the blind with a conveniently placed “V” which was just at the right height to make a solid and reliable rifle rest. I was a little concerned, as the 80-yard distance to the bait was further than I normally like, but Wade was confident that he could make the shot, even at night under a light.
In no time the blind was prepared. The set-up looked perfect and I gave my overhead light one last test to make sure that all was in order. On the way back to camp I fervently hoped that the elephants would not interrupt our hunt. Because of the drought, this was an ever-present hazard – water was scarce, and there were many elephant drinking from our waterhole.
Five o’clock saw us back at the blind and the long vigil began. The noises and voices from the village were clearly audible in the still evening air as people went about their business. Wade was immobile and silent in his chair, and Moffat and I were stretched out on the floor of the blind. Eventually, the noise from the village subsided. There were occasional visits to the waterhole by zebra and eland, their clicking hooves making distinct sounds as they slipped over the smooth pebbles to get to the water. We remained undetected in our ambush position, and a gentle breeze stole in through the front of the blind. So far, the elephants were keeping away – long may it last, I fervently hoped.
At around 10 p.m. my senses were aroused to fever pitch when I heard the unmistakable sawing cough of a territorial male from quite a distance to the right of the blind. I tapped Wade’s shoulder.
“Absolute silence now,” I whispered. The boredom and discomfort of the wait were instantly forgotten. Time passed, and then we heard our tom sawing again – he was definitely closer. Then there was nothing. Automatically doubts began to assail me. Was this rascal merely patrolling his territory? And would he pass us by? No sooner had these thoughts entered my head when our attention was riveted by the zebras’ alarm snorts coming from the left of the blind. I was sure our cat was now at the water, or maybe lying underneath the bait tree. The zebra were not happy about something, and continued their blowing and snorting. The wind remained steady, and I was sure that they could smell leopard near the water.
At precisely 11.15 p.m. we heard the unmistakable scratching sound of the cat getting into the tree. Then we heard him begin to work on the bait. In his excitement, Wade grabbed my ankle repeatedly. I reassured him with a squeeze of the shoulder. I wanted to let our tom get well and truly engrossed in his banquet before we assumed our final positions. The bone cracking continued to break the stillness of the evening. Eventually I signaled to Wade to get ready.
I slowly raised myself to the level of my port in the front of the blind and activated the red light over the bait. It was a sight that always thrilled me, no matter how many times I see it. The tom was huge and was quartering on to us, lying down while he savaged the remains of the zebra leg. I increased the intensity of the light, hoping the cat would stand up and give us a broadside shot. In my pre-hunt briefing I had already stressed to Wade the need for a clear and uncomplicated shot. Time passed, and the leopard did not change his position. Eventually he moved forward slightly, but was still crouched over the bait. I was enthralled by the sight but at the same time knew that this would not last forever. I had seen on too many occasions how suddenly and fluidly a cat can melt away from the bait. Wade’s fervent whisper entered my subconscious: “I can see his shoulder.”
“If you’re sure of the shot, take him,” and I slowly raised my fingers to my ears.
The quiet of the evening was shattered by the roar of the .375 Ruger, and then there was an audible thump. I maintained absolute quiet as we strained our ears to pick up any noise from the bottom of the branch which was not visible to us from the blind. Nothing. I radioed for the vehicle which was waiting only a stone’s throw away at the village. I was sure that the cat was dead, but was taking no chances.
We moved cautiously towards the tree, my shotgun traversing the area leading up to the bait tree, ready for instant use. Moffat carried my .416 and Wade his .375. Our fears and caution were unfounded. As our torch beam illuminated the ground beneath the tree – there he was, stone dead, an absolutely magnificent creature. I was mesmerized as I reverently ran my hands over his beautiful pelt.
Wade’s “leopard magnet” had won the day. He had taken a fabulous tom on his first night in the blind, on the third day of the hunt. Unfortunately we were not able to weigh him, but he was one of the biggest, if not THE biggest cat I had ever taken. None of us, not even big strong Philemon, the number-two tracker, could lift the dead weight cleanly off the ground. Once lifted I was scarcely able to hold him aloft. He was a tad over 7ft in length and had a green skull measurement of 16 10 /16ths. Taking that amazing tom was a highlight of my hunting career, and both Wade and I definitely got the proverbial “cherry on the cake,” taking him so early in the hunt! We added the “cream and jam” on Day 14 when Wade took a very nice, evenly matched 40lb a side elephant, which just goes to show that when the hunting gods shine on you, and luck comes your way, grip it with both hands, enjoy it to the maximum.
It does not happen very often!