Two Thousand Leopards Later…
By Bob Adkins
I’ve “shot” over 2,000 leopards in the recent past, but the one I was presently watching was about to escape. This particular leopard was in Mozambique. Specifically, it was in Simon Rodger’s Safaris de Mozambique Bawa Concession on the southwestern shores of Lake Cahora Bassa.
My friend Jack Hodnik had come over one snowy Alaskan afternoon the previous February and announced, “I inherited some money last fall, and I’m going to use it to take Bob Jensen on an elephant hunt in Mozambique. He’s always wanted to hunt elephant.” (Bob was my next door neighbor and one of Jack’s long-time friends.)
“By the way, you’re invited along to hunt that leopard you’re always talking about. You’ll have to pay for your own transportation over and back, but I’ll pay for everything else. All you have to do is tell me your stories when you get back to camp each night.” What an offer!
Jack, an educator in Alaska’s bush for many years, had retired and moved to Haines after suffering a heart attack and stroke several years ago. His stroke left him unable to get around in the woods, so Bob Jensen and I were to “proxy hunt” for him on this safari. He would ride along and video whatever he could from the vehicles. Bob and I would then recount our experiences as we all sat around the evening campfires.
Bob J. and I both had reservations about this, but Jack eventually convinced us that we would be helping him fulfill his life-long dream of going on an African safari, so we finally accepted.
Everything I read about leopard hunting led me to believe that they have a mysterious and disconcerting effect on people. Hunters that could normally hit running rabbits at 300 yards tend to panic and fire their rifles into the air when leopards are the target. As soon as I realized that this leopard hunt was really going to happen, I decided to practice. And practice. And practice some more!
I burned over a thousand rounds of ammunition on trips to our local rifle range. I pinned two 8” x 10” leopard photos to my den wall, one quartering towards the viewer, and one broadside. A camera tripod served double-duty as a rest for my rifle. Every evening I carefully dry-fired 15 or 20 times at one or the other of my leopard photos.
Mentally coaching myself, I repeated over and over again: “Pick a rosette …hold your breath … s-q-u-e-e-z-e the trigger … follow through …” Over a period of four months, I “shot” over 2,000 leopards, and now the real thing was at hand.
For eight days we had driven slowly up and down the primitive one-lane tracks on Simon Rodgers’s million-acre concession. Some days Jack went with us, and other days he chose to go with Bob J. and his PH, Bryn Jolliffe. Each morning we checked our growing number of baits and then looked for more impala to put up yet another. The truck crawled up and down the steep banks of the myriad dry sandy riverbeds, and over promontories pockmarked with huge rocks and boulders, caves and cliffs. The hilly mopane woodland was ideal leopard habitat. The suspense and anticipation grew stronger day by day. When would a shootable leopard be attracted to our baits?
Every day we’d see lots of other animals, and if we saw a herd of impala or a male warthog or bushbuck, I’d jump out and grab the shooting sticks that Obert, Greg’s head tracker, had waiting, and make a stalk. Often the animals would run, but occasionally curiosity would get the better of one, and my rifle would come up on the shooting sticks, a bullet would speed through he thornbush, mopane scrub and tall grass, and another leopard bait or incidental trophy would be procured. One morning Jack was able to video the entire sequence as I spined a nice 21-inch impala ram.
I kept reminding myself I was in Mozambique, hunting real live flesh and blood leopards. But the first one I’d ever seen had just left the bait and climbed down out of the tree…
We could hear the sound of bones snapping and the occasional grunt and growl even before we got into the blind, so we knew there was a leopard on the bait that morning. We had slowly and quietly crept along the trail to the blind in our stocking feet, guided by PH Greg Michelson’s barely visible toilet paper markers. Reaching the blind in the dark just before six a.m., all we could do was sit and listen as the leopard ate at the impala wired to the underside of a tree branch.
We had sat in this blind the previous evening until full dark, hearing baboons curse, guinea fowl chatter and flush, hornbills squawk, and vervet monkeys scream in the distance – but no leopard appeared. While checking our baits the previous morning, the eighth day of our hunt, we found that a large male and female had discovered the bait and eaten nearly all of it. We replenished the bait with another impala, my ninth, and built a blind. Then we waited and waited, but the leopards didn’t show. (Meanwhile, Jack had decided to go with Bob J. and Bryn – he was concerned that he might spook the leopard while trying to sneak into the blind with us in the darkness.)
At 6.15 a.m. there was just a hint of light in the eastern sky. From 80 yards, the distance from our blind to the bait, we could barely make out the outline of the bait tree in the gloom of the predawn morning. As binoculars and riflescope details slowly became clearer, we saw that the leopard was leaving the bait and slowly making its way down the tree before we could identify its gender. Only males are legal game in Mozambique.
I was bitterly disappointed, but Greg motioned me to sit down and remain quiet. We sat there dejectedly for several minutes when, suddenly, we heard the unmistakable sounds of a leopard feeding again. As we cautiously looked, I could see a leopard back on the bait, but couldn’t positively identify its gender. It fed for several minutes, changing positions occasionally. As it turned broadside, we saw it was a male.
“Shoot the bastard,” whispered Greg. All my practice paid off. The crosshairs came to rest on a prominent dark rosette behind the leopard’s right shoulder. Half a breath … hold it … and the .300 Winchester magnum went off almost by itself. I’d practiced the same scenario hundreds of times. As Yogi Berra would say – it was déjà vu all over again.
I lost sight of the leopard during recoil, but seconds after the shot we heard a thud, followed by a low grunt. Then … silence.
“How did your sight picture look?” Greg whispered.
“Perfect!” I responded.
“Well,” said Greg, “he ran off! I’ll get the truck and my shotgun, and we’ll go dig him out of the brush. And you stay in the blind.”
I replayed the scene over and over in my mind. Everything had looked flawless, but I still spent the next 30 minutes worried sick that I had wounded this beautiful, but very dangerous, animal, and now we were going to have to go after him.
Greg drove down a little side trail to within 100 yards of the bait tree. I heard the vehicle grinding closer and closer and then stopping. I heard Greg load his shotgun and cautiously start through the brush towards the tree. Then a pause.
“Bob, he’s right here under the tree,” he shouted. “He’s dead! Way to go, buddy.”
A tidal wave of relief and euphoria swept over me. The trackers were ecstatic, and Greg was as pleased as he could be. Greg and his crew had done a first-class job of putting me in position to take the leopard I’d dreamed of for over fifteen years. They had all worked really hard for eight full days, and then allowed me to pull the trigger.
My leopard had died instantly and fell out of the tree into the dry sandy riverbed. There was no sign that he’d even twitched after he hit the ground. We would have exciting stories for Jack around the campfire tonight!
As we waited for the sun to come up enough to take pictures, Greg radioed Bryn, Bob J’s PH, with the news of our successful leopard hunt.
At the same time Bryn told Greg that Bob J. had just shot an elephant, and that Jack had been able to see it all. They had caught a small herd ravaging a village maize field.
“We took the herd’s leader – still had corn on its breath,” he said.
However, that’s a story for another campfire.
Bob Adkins moved from Michigan to Alaska in 1964 and spent 32 years in public education. He has degrees in engineering, math and physics, counseling, and school administration. He has spent 14 summers as captain of his own commercial fishing boat, and 12 summers as a commercial bush/air taxi pilot in southeast Alaska. He is married and has two adult daughters.
He is a self-taught photographer, and since retiring from education in 1996 has photographed extensively in Alaska, the Yukon, the Pacific Northwest, England, Europe, and southern Africa. His photos and articles have appeared in numerous magazines, calendars, books, CD covers, and news journals from coast to coast and in Europe.