By Don Stoner
The Land Cruiser rolled to a stop on the rough, hard-packed ruts my PH called a road. Then, shifting into four-wheel drive, we slowly turned onto the soft white sand of the dry river bed. Five minutes later we caught the odor of the rotting bait wired to a branch overhanging the river. There were leopard tracks, and large ones at that, but the warthog bait had not been touched. The trackers began the unpleasant job of cutting the old bait down and replacing it with a fresh ham of zebra.
As we left the river bed, jolting up a rocky track, we saw some bush cattle grazing through the thorn scrub. It was these cattle that had brought us to this isolated ranch deep in Africa. The ranch was owned and run by two elderly settlers in their seventies. In 1946 they had come out to this wilderness area, where they had wrestled a livelihood for fifty years. How they managed to eke a living from such a harsh land at their age was a wonder. Unfortunately, a large leopard had taken a liking to their scrawny cattle and in recent months had killed five of them.
This was a significant financial loss to such a small ranch. A leopard that has lost its fear of man and hunted where people worked, was bound to present a threat to humans sooner or later. As a result, the game conservation department had issued a permit to kill it, and the couple had asked for our help. I had not had plans to hunt leopard on this safari but it was hard to refuse such a request. This would be hard, potentially risky, and time-consuming work that the old gentleman couldn’t manage, but we just couldn’t refuse.
Over the next day we shot and placed three fresh baits in likely places. Each morning we carefully checked for any indication that the leopard had found one, but to no avail. We walked through swamps, along streambeds and through dense areas that looked like they might yield clues to the big cat’s location, but with no luck. Then, on the third morning, the old native caretaker came to tell us he had heard the cat calling as it followed a streambed during the night. He thought he knew exactly where it had been. We immediately set out to see if he was right and if we could find the spoor.
A small but deep stream cut through a very thickly wooded portion of the property and came from wild “protected” land into their small ranch. We had already picked this as a very likely route for the leopard to use if he came in looking for cattle. However, our bait, nicely situated on the south bank of the river, had been completely ignored. There was no easy way across the stream and, since it was inhabited by both croc and hippo, we were not inclined to wade. We thought that if the cat did walk the north bank he certainly would smell or see the bait and could, more easily than we, cross the river. I was to learn that hunting leopard, especially a cattle-killer, was not to be so easy.
As we followed our guide, he led us right to this same stream. The big cat had apparently followed the north bank and completely ignored our inviting bait. After quite a search along the south bank we eventually found a small tree which had fallen across the river creating a shaky, slippery bridge. By reaching from limb to limb it was possible to balance on the thin trunk and shuffle across. There is nothing quite like the knowledge that the black water running under your feet is home to both crocs, and hippo. Our native tracker’s bare feet did well, but our boots gripped less surely. In addition, the branches were fairly small and, while they offered assistance balancing, were not strong enough to support our weight if we lost balance and fell. It was a shaky crossing but eventually we all, including my brave wife, made it, and on the far side we found the tracks. The leopard had coolly walked right past our bait to the backyard of the ranch house.
We had some hard decisions to make. If we wanted this particular cat, it looked as if we would have to go onto his turf, as he wasn’t coming to ours. Old cattle-killers are smart, well-educated. They have usually been hunted hard by ranchers and if they have survived long enough to get old, they have become very wise to the ways of man. This one was old, smart, and felt secure in the morass of vegetation on the far, inaccessible side of the river. If we were to hunt him, it would have to be in this thick riverine bush. Just to get bait across the river would be a daunting task. It would have to be carried across the tree bridge and then some distance though dense cover. And what about the proverbial “correct leopard tree”?
I knew that the selection of a tree in which to hang leopard bait was very important. It must have a large limb, accessible to the leopard but out of reach of lion and hyena. This limb should be in a position to allow a blind, or hide, to be built down wind and in a direction to have the setting sun behind the tree to silhouette the leopard as he comes to feed. In this jungle we couldn’t even see fifty feet let alone find a tree with a limb that would have light behind it. We were, in fact, in a depression formed by the
Author Don Stoner.
banks of the river which, during the flood season, must get quite large. The thought of sitting in this mess to wait out a cattle-killer was less than inviting. Still, if we were going to get this one, it looked like this was what we would have to do.
Thoughts of Jim Corbett’s accounts of hunting man-eating leopard in India hung in the back of my mind like a dark apparition. But, if Keith, my PH, was gutsy enough to go for it, I certainly wasn’t going to back out. Finally, we picked a tree with a big branch about fifteen feet off the ground. A blind was then constructed out of branches and grass about fifty yards away. Then a tunnel had to be cut through the heavy foliage to enable us to see the bait. Thick bush surrounded the blind. The leopard would have no difficulty approaching unseen and unheard if he became suspicious of the disturbed vegetation. This was not the way I had always heard you hunted leopard. This was his game in his ballpark and, somehow, I was beginning to feel more like the bait than the zebra quarter in the tree. Keith, however, had a reputation for success at hunting leopard, and he seemed confident.
I have grown up hunting in the swamps of Florida. I am used to hunting in vegetation so thick you have to push your way through, but somehow the realization that a cat big enough to kill a full-grown cow would be sharing the same tangle of vines and bushes in the black of night with nothing but branches to hide behind, is sobering. Visibility you ask? We could see perhaps three yards with a light, except for the tunnel we had cut to the bait. At this point I was beginning to question my professional hunter’s sanity, not to mention my own. Still, this was not sports hunting nor was it intended to be. It was an attempt to kill a specific problem cat, and I had been “lucky” enough to have the opportunity to try.
When all was ready, we left the dark gloom of the dense riverbed to wait in hope at this bait. The following morning was spent discussing leopard. We found an old book of leopard photographs in the camp and made a detailed examination of each picture to discuss exactly where to place a bullet for an instant kill. Keith patiently talked me through each instance. There must be no error if we were to try to take a cat in this situation. A wounded leopard in that tangle of jungle with no way to get out safely would truly be a disaster. I’m sure there could be potentially worse situations, but somehow none came to mind.
I have read and been told that more hunters miss shots at leopard than any other dangerous game. This may be due to the relatively small size and quickness of the cat, or sometimes it is the poor light. But mostly, it is just nerves. How can you miss a target at fifty yards from a rest? Either you can’t see it, or you rush the shot, or you are so nervous you jerk the trigger. This time we simply couldn’t afford a poor shot and risk a wounded leopard. Compounding the problem was that since this animal seemed to be very cautious, it suggested that it had been hunted before and, as a result, would probably take no chances. It was unlikely that it would come to the bait until it was quite dark. If true, we would probably have to use a flashlight to see well enough to shoot. I was told that I would have only a few seconds to get my shot off once the light came on. I was also told that once we were in the blind at four pm we would stay there until either full light in the morning or the leopard came. No leaving once it was dark, no matter how cold or uncomfortable. I also realized that the flashlights we were talking about were good old-fashioned Eveready – one with two cells and one with four. In this day of modern portable lights, we tend to forget just how faint a D cell flashlight with a bulb is at fifty yards. How I wished I had brought a really good light.
Marvelous bulls, but too young to take.
The seriousness of the situation was reinforced when Keith gave me the game plan. Hydrate well in the morning but stop drinking by one pm. Nothing except the clothes I wore with no metal buttons or trim. No moving in the blind, not even to urinate. Even the ammunition was limited to reduce the risk of unwanted noise. One round in the chamber and four more in the magazine. There would be no spares in the pocket or belt loops to jingle or risk making noise. Back to the rifle range to recheck the scope and to zero it at exactly fifty yards, the distance from the blind to the bait. I began to feel the pressure. This must be both a quick and an absolutely correct shot. Keith would have a 12 ga shotgun with SSG buckshot and the two flashlights. That is all we would carry for the night. There would be two folding chairs and a wool blanket in the blind. Ever try sitting on a folding chair for twelve hours without getting up or moving?
Well, dangerous game is why I came. This was no joke, no joyride, only deadly serious business. If I blew it, we would have real honest-to-goodness deep trouble. To make matters worse, not only would I create a problem for myself, but for my PH as well. More professionals are injured hunting leopard than any other of the Big Five dangerous game. I appreciated the confidence Keith was willing to place in me.
I tried to get some sleep during the afternoon before we left the camp. In all probability I would have to be awake all night. The anticipation was too great and sleep wouldn’t come. Keith joked that he slept well in leopard blinds because he knew the client would be absolutely wide-awake listening to every sound. He was right. Somehow, I felt staying awake all night wouldn’t be too difficult.
Finally, we loaded our gear into the Toyota and drove to the river where the faint trail started, leading to the blind, about twenty minutes away. Our tracker went in with us to cover the entrance of the blind with branches after we were in it, and then he returned to move the vehicle away from the area. The two trackers would spend the night in the vehicle waiting until we called on the radio to return. A few last whispers were exchanged and we settled in for the wait. I noticed an uneasy feeling and a heightened awareness that I have felt before when in dangerous situations. The afternoon had been sunny, and since we were dressed warmly enough to stand the cold night, I felt damp with sweat from the exertion of walking to the blind. Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before the chill of evening began to seep through my clothes.
Closed in the blind, sitting in a semi-reclining position, there is nothing to watch but the sky. As the light faded I watched, through the branch of a huge tree overhead, the clouds as they drifted by. Then one by one the brilliant stars of the Southern Hemisphere began to come out. Africa is a fascinating land. In the stillness, the call of birds floated through the brush picking up tempo as the shadows lengthened. Leaves rustled and occasionally a twig cracked as unseen forms slipped by in the shadows and heavy foliage. Antelope, hyena, lion, the hippo whose tracks we had seen, or just a mongoose? It is amazing how much you can hear when everything is absolutely silent. My legs cramped, my back hurt and I would have loved to move. But movement is not an option as it would risk giving our presence away. It is just a case of mind over matter. Or, as a sergeant of mine used to put it, “I don’t mind and you don’t matter”. Years ago, while in the military serving as a sniper, I began to learn this art of sitting without movement and have refined it by many hours of practice sitting in deer and turkey blinds.
The river bed where we had to hunt this leopard.
As the sky turned to indigo, we heard a bushbuck bark three or four times. The cat was on the move. Birds called a warning and we strained to hear any sounds. Then we heard it. Four coughing grunts that could only mean leopard, and, nearby. As the curtain of darkness fell, black clouds passed overhead and the wind suddenly picked up. A storm was coming. We could hear the wind in the brush and the trees and branches began to sway. All I could think was the possibility that the wind would carry our scent to the cat and that we would be left sitting cold, wet and deaf through the night. Rain and wind cover all sounds. He could be within a few feet and we wouldn’t hear, see or smell him. The wind would even cover the sound of teeth tearing at the bait and
the movement of the tree in the gusting wind would prevent us feeling the tug on the fishing line running from the bait to our hand. Things were not looking good. It’s Murphy ’s Law again. If anything can go wrong, it will. The wind continued, but at least no rain came. I felt frustrated and helpless. There was nothing to do but wait and hope. So near and yet so far.
As the night wore on and, just as I finally relaxed realizing there was nothing to do but wait it out, Keith touched my arm. He slowly moved his hand to mine so I could feel the line that was attached to the bait. Yes! It was moving. Was it just the wind? No, it also moved between gusts.
“Get ready. When I turn the light on, shoot.” It was a barely audible whisper. Ever so slowly I eased up into my rifle, trying not to disturb the sights carefully trained on the bait. How many times in the past have I trusted this rifle with its carefully handloaded bullets? The hours of practise will, hopefully, pay off. The light flashed on cutting through the blackness like a knife. My eyes strained to adjust to the sudden change. Yes, there was a huge leopard on the limb, but which way was it facing? All I could see were spots. Then, in a flash, I could make out eyes and a front shoulder. The crosshairs of the scope swerved to center on a rosette of spots just behind the shoulder and I touched the trigger. In the flash of the muzzle, I could see him leap. I saw nothing else, blinded by the flash. It had been all of five seconds, but it seemed like an eternity. Keith muttered, “I thought you would never shoot.”
Then the inevitable question. “How did it feel? Did you hit him good?” Yes, I was sure of the shot, right behind the shoulder. We heard a single rustle of leaves, then a low gurgling growl and silence. Absolute silence. We waited, all the while probing into each bush, tree and clump of grass with the dim lights. Nothing. We waited longer, both half afraid to find out the truth. Was he dead or would we find nothing but a blood trail?
Carefully we got out of the blind after inspecting every shrub in view. Keith took the lead with the shotgun and I followed walking backward, back-to-back, watching the rear. With one slow step at a time, it was the slowest and longest fifty yards I have ever walked. The relief was almost audible as the light fell on the beautiful spotted coat, stretched out in a bush right where it landed as it made its final leap. The open jaws displayed the long white teeth of one final snarl. So beautiful and so savage. I thought of William Blake’s poem:
Tyger tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Then we noticed a surprise! This was not a large male as we had thought, but rather a very large female. My next thoughts were whether she could have a mate close by. After appropriate congratulations and a little backslapping, we hoisted her to start the trek out. Keith hefted her, with my help, onto his shoulders and we both staggered about forty yards before he let her slip to the ground. Keith is big and quite strong but this cat probably weighed close to 140 pounds, and carrying that weight in the dark through roots and mud was just more than even he could do. She was far too big and we simply couldn’t carry her through that dense vegetation in the dark. We needed help. Keith then announced that I should stay to guard my trophy and keep the hyena off while he walked out to get help. Ah, yes! We did try the radio but had no signal. Suddenly the four rounds I had left in my rifle seemed very inadequate. Even in the States I would hardly drive to the corner store without more ammo than that. Was he kidding me? Stand in the middle of a jungle like that in the black of night with lion, leopard, hyena and hippo around with only four bullets? Ok! So I figured out the best approach. I dragged her up against the roots of a huge tree and then sat a bit elevated, with my back against it so I could keep a lookout with the flashlight.
Lion with gemsbok kill. She didn’t like us this close and it was almost a problem.
Then came the punch line! “Doc, those batteries are about done, so better keep the light off unless you really need it because we will need it to get out.” Right! I had a good mind to tell him I would walk out and he could stay. The only problem with that idea was that I wasn’t at all sure I could find my way out. To say I was a bit tense would be an understatement, but there was really no alternative. I admit to feeling a bit uneasy as I watched him disappear into the thick foliage. It would take him at least half an hour to reach the other side of the river where we knew we had radio contact. Another half-hour for the men to get to him and then another half-hour to get back to me. So, I’m going to have a very riveting hour and a half providing they don’t get lost, and that is a distinct possibility. I really don’t like having no light. And yes, I could hear something passing nearby several times. Once when the steps seemed to stop almost in front of me and only a short distance away, I did use the light. Whatever it was scurried away quickly. I’m sure some primitive instinct gnaws at you when you are alone in the dark in a jungle.
After what seemed to be an eternity, I heard voices and saw a dim light approaching. We quickly yelled to each other. Keith was back with the two trackers who were far more sure-footed and used to carrying burdens than we were. Even with help, it was a struggle to get the big cat out. Footing in the dark was treacherous. The riverbed, covered with vines and roots, was wet and slippery. At the river there were new concerns. At first, they felt sure they could balance the cat on their backs and, helping each other, get over. I felt unsure. I certainly couldn’t have made it and I have done some technical rock climbing. After a discussion, I insisted we get a length of rope and tie it to the leopard just in case. To lose such a beautiful animal in the river would have been unthinkable. Halfway across it happened. The slippery trunk combined with the extra weight proved too much and, in a frantic couple of seconds, the cat went into the river with the tracker barely hanging on to a single branch. Keith’s hat, accidently knocked off in the commotion, fell into the water and was swept past my side of the tree. I instinctively reached to grab it, but recoiled as he yelled, “Let it go. Don’t put your hand in that water.” Potential danger is never very far away in this country. After pulling the leopard out of the water onto the far bank, we finally made it back to the truck. We were tired, sweaty even in the cold, but elated.
The cold night air cut through our damp clothes as we rode in the open truck. We were anxious to get back to camp and wake everyone, but we felt we must first show the rancher the cat to be sure this was the right one. If so, their anxieties should be greatly relieved. As we pulled up to the house it seemed so isolated in the cold moonlight. I could imagine many of our pioneer homes were very much like this homestead. The native foreman quickly identified the leopard as the one they had seen. The rancher and his wife were delighted when we showed it to them. She seemed particularly relieved. I believe she had felt very uneasy with this killer so close to her house. What would have happened if she had stumbled on the bold cat in the barn or her back yard? Those of us who live in civilized places simply can’t understand the intimate threat of predators, but I think our forefathers would have.
“Jy moet eenvoudig inkom om fees te vier,” they said in Afrikaans, inviting us to come in and celebrate. It was like stepping back in time as I went through the door. It was an experience I won’t soon forget. The joy, relief and heartfelt thanks were almost overwhelming. We all sat at a handmade, wooden kitchen table in a kitchen lit by an oil lamp that looked like a movie set for a Western. Remember, no electricity in this simple house. “You must have a drink with us to celebrate.” The old gentleman took a bottle from a shelf along with four glasses. He carefully poured three glasses with what I would call two fingers of whatever it was and then poured me a full glass. Then with a great smile, he made a toast and we all clicked glasses. As we sat and talked, or rather as Keith talked, it was easy to understand the gist of the conversation even if I couldn’t understand the words. Occasionally Keith would speak in English to explain something to me. Soon all the glasses were empty except mine. Being a near teetotaler, all I could handle of the strong stuff was about two sips. After a half-hour of visiting and really enjoying their hospitality, Keith gently nudged me and said, “Come on finish up.”
“Keith, I can’t drink a whole glass (about 6 oz or slightly more)!”
Don Stoner with warthog kill.
“Come on now, don’t embarrass me. They have shown you a great kindness and it would not be proper to leave it.” With that injunction, I managed to finish it all very quickly. Remember that I had not eaten or drunk anything over the last twelve hours. We then excused ourselves to return to camp as it was about 1:00 am. Before we were in the vehicle, I knew I was drunk because I felt unsteady. The drive back to camp over the next hour was a dizzying, swirling, nauseating run. In the open vehicle with no doors and no seat belts and nothing to hold on to across rough terrain, I repeatedly had moments of fearing I would lose balance and fall out. Thank God, the cold air and the hour or so drive helped sober me. By the time we returned and woke the entire camp, I was a little more steady and not quite as queasy. After the renewed celebration and pictures, I finally collapsed into bed and deep sleep, not waking until about 8:00 am. What a night it had been! One I will never forget, but also one I felt blessed to have experienced.
Over the next several months Keith checked with the little ranch to be certain no more cattle had been taken. Thankfully, we had indeed killed the right leopard and all was well. I have to say that I experienced a certain sense of pride for having helped these two old homesteaders and their little community of workers. I also felt deep appreciation for tough old folk like them who, in this day and age, were still surviving by hard work and daily risk. It was probably at least twenty miles to the next neighbor through rough country with no paved roads and no electricity. They grew most of their own food and produced beef to sell. They also supported a little community of native help who seemed to be almost like family. Most striking of all, they seemed to be happy and content with so little. How sad that we, who have so much, find so little contentment. I think that way of life may offer more than all the conveniences and wealth we have. I am thankful I had a small opportunity to experience it and possibly provide some needed help.
Now, more than a quarter century after the episode above, recorded as accurately as possible, I can still relive the experience and feel both the great apprehension and elation. The sounds still rustle in my ears and the feeling and smells still come to life in my mind as if they have been indelibly imprinted. As I re-read Jim Corbett’s book about hunting killer-leopards, I can relate to some of his experiences. This is what hunting and life in the wild is about. It is living to the max, experiencing the full impact of your emotions, fears and triumphs. It is about learning how others live or have lived. We have lost so very much in our “civilized world”. I may be among the last generations that will have the opportunity to experience these things, but I pray that will not be so.
I hope my children or grandchildren will not be deprived of similar experiences.