No one ever accused me of being the smartest guy in the world, and maybe me being an addicted leopard hunter lends to that perception. I am not saying you have to be stupid to hunt Chui, but if you are sane and have had the luck, or misfortune, that I have in this pursuit, you probably would have cut your losses moved on to other things. Not me, I am hard-headed to the end.
Let me start by saying there are two general ways of hunting leopards in Africa today; by baiting, and with hounds. Baiting is the more widely used method whereas a bait animal is hung in a tree, out of reach of lions and hyenas, and checked daily in hopes that a leopard has fed upon it. When and if this happens, the hunters build a blind a short distance away where they hide and wait for the cat to return. In some countries and some areas, only daylight hunting is allowed, and in some places you may hunt at night with the aid of a light.
Hound hunting is a whole different ballgame. Usually with this method, baits are put out, but when one has been hit in the night, a pack of hounds is put on the fresh tracks the next morning, and they chase and hopefully tree or bay the cat. This method has been controversial over the past few years because success rates are high, but also, hunters may be very selective about which cats are taken out of the population. This method also results in many more charges than baiting. For the record, I would like to say that I am a proponent of both methods as long as they are carried out in a legal and ethical manner.
My first leopard hunt happened by accident. I was on a buffalo hunt in Charisa, Zimbabwe. I killed 2 bulls the first four days, and there was a leopard left on the areas quota. The safari operator told me to give it a go, and if I was successful, I could just pay the trophy fee. We shot, hung and checked baits for a solid week, but we never had one leopard even come close to a bait. So in hindsight, I guess I was leopard hunting, but it wasn’t much of a hunt.
My worst leopard hunt was a couple years ago in Namibia when hound hunting was still going strong. I booked with a leopard/hound specialist who had a great track record, and we were even filming the hunt for ESPN. I was told about how many baits and how huge an area we would be hunting, and that it shouldn’t be a problem at all to take a nice tom.
Reality set in as soon as I was in Africa. Our bait run took us about 45 minutes each morning. Half the baits were almost petrified they were so old, they were mostly along the border of our very small hunting property, and the only tracks seen in 10 days were those of cheetahs and one small female leopard. To top off this wonderful experience, my professional hunter and outfitter left me in camp after the second hunting day to go entertain some big money clients over 1000 miles away, and I never saw him again. He left us with the landowner/dog handler. I have more failed leopard hunt stories, but I won’t bore you with my troubles.
So last summer I get word that a hunter missed his leopard with the PH I was scheduled to hunt with a month later, and that the cat would be available on quota when I arrived. I was hunting in Dande in the famed Zambezi Valley of Zimbabwe with Buzz Charlton of CM Safaris, and my hunt was booked as a tuskless elephant and buffalo trip. The leopard changed everything.
I had Buzz do some prebaiting for me, and we spent the first day or so of the hunt getting more baits out. I even brought some Covert trail cameras over, and we put them on the best baits. With all the prep work done, we began hunting.
We checked some baits early and Jappe, our camp manager, checked some for us as well, and then we would head out after buff and elephant. I was fortunate to kill a good buffalo bull the first day we hunted them, and I got my elephant on day 5. During this time, we had some leopard baits hit, but each time it was by a female.
From day 5 on, we really concentrated on leopards. We hung and checked baits almost all day, every day. At one point, I had 5 females on bait, but no males. This was odd as a big tom had been a regular feeder on a bait at a dry river bed up until my arrival, but I chalked that up to my normal leopard luck.
On day 8, the big tom hit the bait. We had a zebra quarter in a tree, but we had also placed a buffalo ham in the riverbed the tom had come in just at dark, and he fed on the bait on the ground. We built a blind about 60 yards from the baits, and about 3:00 on my 9th afternoon of a 10-day hunt, we slipped back to our hide.
Nothing happened the first few hours, but 30 minutes before dusk, two lions began roaring in the distance. They were quite a distance away, but I just thought that hearing things like that are why I love to hunt wild Africa so much. Darkness began to fall, and my heart was dropping as fast as the sun when Buzz tapped me on the leg. That was my signal that the leopard was at the bait, and as I peered out my viewing hole, I could just make out his head behind the bait as he lay in the sand.
Then he was gone! Like a ghost, he made one bound and was out of the riverbed. I was heartbroken, but Buzz whispered that we would wait until dark to see if he might come back. Ten minutes later, as the sun was virtually gone, Buzz again tapped me. This time I looked first through my scope. I was using a 4x16x50mm Nikon Monarch for its incredible light gathering, and it came in handy. I saw the cat, settled in to the rifle, and as I placed my finger on the trigger, the spotted apparition again bounded out of the riverbed.
I was in the middle of an unsavory oath when Buzz whispered, “He stopped at the edge of the brush. Shoot him if you can see him.”
I swung my .300 TC Icon to the right, found his shoulder, and squeezed off the shot.
We waited a few minutes and went to look for the cat. He was not to be found. We called the trackers in, and it was dark by the time that we all got geared up and found the first drop of blood. We spent 45 incredibly tense minutes tracking, crawling and climbing through the thick riverine brush with sporadic blood and tracks to follow.
Finally Buzz and I decided that we should back out until morning or someone was going to be mauled. The cat was not dead, and the area was not conducive to a night charge. We put some more bait in the riverbed to hopefully attract and feed any hyenas in the area to keep them off the leopard’s trail, and we went back to camp.
After a miserable night, we got back on the trail the next morning. Within 5 minutes we found my leopard, but two large male lions had found him first and eaten his complete underside from neck to tail. Buzz and I were both just sick, but I must admit that I was a little relieved as I was so worried that someone was going to get scratched up or worse because of my hasty and misplaced shot.
He was a gorgeous old cat, and he deserved better than what I gave him, but we are not perfect, and all of us make mistakes in the hunting fields. I did what I thought was my best, and it wasn’t good enough. I guess in the end, my leopard luck, or lack thereof, continued.
Author’s note: Still as stubborn as ever, I have two leopard hunts on the books for this year. I will be in the Namibian Highlands in May and then to the famous Niassa Reserve in Mozambique in August. Mr. Spots will be my #1 priority on both trips. I have to believe at some point, my leopard luck will turn.