The rattling chatter of a vervet monkey gave him away. A few minutes before everything had gone deathly quiet - I knew the cat was close. A pair of Natal francolin exploded from the scrambling undergrowth beneath our blind announcing what we already knew. Then,nothing! We waited and waited, the anxious minutes ticking by, becoming longer and longer. After an hour had passed I knew we were history. The old Tom's sawing grunt grew further and further away. He knew we were there - the hurried blind showed too much light in from behind, failing to camouflage the inhabitants sufficiently from eyes and ears that miss very little.
One often hears long established PHs talking about 'educated' cats - normally with reference to leopard but occasionally about lion, and often with reference to a stock raider. Part of the key to successful wildlife management in Africa is the partnership between farmer and hunter - and using sport hunters to take off stock killers is an integral component in that partnership.
Originally there were two solutions to problem leopards. One was to reach for the strychnine bottle and put out poison baits, and the other was to send to the nearest kraal for the resident hunter (poacher) to bring his dogs. Both systems had their shortfalls. The wise leopard soon learned to vomit up any funny tasting meat, and man's response was to put crushed up "valoid" (anti nausea) tablets in with the strychnine. My experience of this was that the leopard was still too wise to try the meat (maybe he had learned the smell of strychnine) but, we did have 17 dead civets to show for it! Bringing in the local poacher with his dogs was not only a good way of giving him a legal, open look at the lie of the land, but was also a sure-fire way of upsetting the S.P.C.A, not to mention the hospital bills that were often payable to the poacher/dog handler when 'Spots' piled into the fight. As an aside, my firsthand experience of this is limited to a single incident. The "Indigenous Hunter" to give the local poacher his politically correct title, and his pack of four half-starved hounds quickly tracked the problem leopard to a cave, whereupon the poacher rushed in, ahead of the guns to protect his dogs. I wish I had a film of the result. Mr and Mrs Spots were home and resented the intrusion. One man, four dogs and two leopards came rolling out of the cave in a single ball of fur, snarls and curses with a knobkerrie rising and falling periodically above the fray. The three of us with rifles could only watch in absolute awe! The fight spiralled down the kopje, with the dust cloud getting thicker obscuring the finer details of the engagement, but leaving in its wake, first a dead dog, then a dead leopard, another dog, torn and dying and finally the dust settled and the "poacher" stood up grinning with his two surviving dogs tugging at the dead leopard at his feet. It took the old 'Vrou' (lady) at the house hours to sew man and dogs back into reasonable shape! Sport? Absolutely! But not something you could take a paying client along on too often.
How do cats get educated? And how should hunters deal with them? The following is a synopsis of comments and ideas from six well-respected professional hunters.
Consensus is, that cats have a limited ability to pass information on. This is more true of leopards who are solitary animals. Once a cub is weaned he or she is on her own, and dad plays next to no part in feeding or rearing cubs. So, cats are educated by hunters. They only learn if you make a mistake. And then they learn fast! This education is not simply a case of a hunter shooting at and missing or wounding a cat - though this guarantees one seriously skittish cat for the future if he can work out how he was 'set up'. Being sloppy when sighting a bait and blind is often all that is needed to give a cat the idea that he is being hunted. Bear in mind that leopard have some of the most acute senses of sight, smell and hearing in the animal world, allowing them to easily detect anything 'out of place', that might mean an easy meal - or danger. Often though, it is a combination of mistakes that creates a truly educated leopard. One mistake and you will probably get away with it. Two, you are pushing your luck! Three mistakes and not only are you as the hunter, bound to fail, but the cat will carefully consider everything that has gone on and emerge from the attempt much, much wiser. You can get away with shooting at and missing a cat, provided everything else has been perfectly set up.
Having located the spoor of a huge cat on a ranch, we were carefully and quietly building a blind, when I got that 'watched' feeling. That old leopard had survived a few brushes with farmers over the years (been shot at, lost a couple of toes in a gin trap and poison attempted) and knew the hunting game - which is why we were being extra cautious and quiet about the building and siting of the blind, and the approach. The set up though, was perfect. A small stream with a trail along side that the leopard apparently used every night. A perfect Hemingway 'Bait Tree', a covered approach to an almost 'natural' blind in a thicket surrounding a termite mound. A good shooting lane to the tree without any brush clearing needed. Couldn't be better - and yet, I looked up at the kopje whence the stream originated and, sitting on a rock, watching all our careful work, was Mr Leopard! (See photo above) Needless to say, we didn't get him.
So what are the signs that you are dealing with an 'educated' cat and what to do about it? Once any of the signs outlined crop up, you know the cat is suspicious, aware of what human hunters are and may well be onto you. Still, that doesn't mean that you are out of the game or even need to call in a houndsman with a trained pack. With care, attention to detail and a few tricks, you should still be able to score.
The Fussy Feline: One that walks past a bait but will not feed. This is often the result of poor hunting technique. As mentioned earlier, sloppy work is a direct route to failure. Hang your baits carefully, build your blinds professionally - and do it yourself. Do not send your 'crew' to do it for you and when checking baits, again, do it yourself - don't send your tracker down to the bait as he will invariably drive right up to the bait to check it, with cigarette in mouth and take a pee at the same time!
Remember, that once a cat has fed he may well rest up in the immediate vicinity, possibly even close enough to watch you walk up to inspect the bait and see if anything has fed. Even if he doesn't lie up that close, he may well be within earshot, and the next time he comes to feed he will be on the look-out for what was interesting to those human hunters! One should always assume that the leopard will be lying up within 100 yards or so of the bait. Check baits from a distance with your binoculars. If it's necessary to go near the bait to see the spoor, then only one person should do so. Leave your client and hunting crew a distance away. If you have a 'hot' bait site then it helps to build your blind at the same time that you hang your bait. This eliminates disturbance of cutting and clearing brush after the cat has already fed.
The Picky Eater: Feeds only once from a bait, or even worse, does not return to its own kill after a single feed, or cats that only eat once you have left the blind or before you have arrived. Be aware that if the cat approaches from behind the blind or hears you in the blind, or sees you entering the blind, they often hold off going to the bait. You will be able to determine this behaviour pattern by checking the surroundings the next morning and reconstructing the cat's movements.
In either case the solutions are the same - build a second blind either 50 to 100 metres behind the first blind with a cleared, yet camouflaged path to approach from when the cat is feeding. You will require the aid of hearing devices. The PH and client sit in the farther blind and wait. If the cat checks the blind out and finds no one home then he will probably feed. You hear him from the second blind and sneak into the shooting blind and hopefully the rest is history.
Altermatively, build a second blind 200 to 300m from first blind and drag the bait past this new blind and into a new tree. Sit that night. When the cat comes to the old bait site he will find the bait moved and no one in residence when he checks out the old blind.
You could also use a timer and see when the cat comes into the bait. If it is always just after you leave, do the old trick of pretending to leave - have the vehicle drive up, lots of talk and movement and then quickly go back into blind and have the vehicle and staff drive off.
The Old Pro: Leaps from the tree the moment the light comes on. If the cat is a young adult that has not been hunted he may carry on feeding as though nothing has happened when a spotlight comes on, but if he has been hunted before it's more likely he will be gone within a few seconds. A truly educated cat will flee instantly.
A red coloured lens over the spotlight tends to work better than plain white light and will not spook a 'half educated' cat. Even better, a bulb hanging above the cat, illuminated with the aid of a rheostat - turning the light on slowly - almost as if the moon is rising. This is a winner on a smart animal.
The Night Owl: Will only feed after dark. This applies to any area where night hunting or the use of lights is not permitted. The thing to do here is make the feeding difficult - like securing the bait under the branch or covering it tightly with diamond mesh. The cat will then spend more time on securing a feed and give you an opportunity, either to catch him still feeding at first light, or force him to come in before last light to start the evenings' feed. Also, use the trick of leaving a light near the tree which lasts for +/- eight hours such as a candle or cyalume light stick. Set the light as you pull out of the blind in the evening. The light will then keep the cat at a distance watching his meal until the small hours of the morning when the light goes out. The cat will then close in to feed, and hopefully still be there at first light.
The Mega Cat: Occasionally you encounter a mega-educated cat. Invariably one that has been shot at once or twice before. Such an animal will be very shy about coming to a bait. Still there are tricks that work.
Drop a bait next to the road in the early evening from the back of a vehicle (not too successful where you have hyena). The cat will hopefully discover the bait during the night and drag it off to his chosen hiding place to feed. Come back mid morning and follow the drag - don't move the bait but secure it in place. Construct a simple blind (preferably a pop-up type) with minimal disturbance - remember the cat is likely to be somewhere close - and sit from 4.30 pm onwards.
Where a cat only feeds once - keep the bait up and see if the cat's movements are cyclical - for example, comes by every nine days - then sit with client at approximately the correct date. Ian Rutledge has had success in the Midlands where he uses a similar technique of Zimbabwe in predicting a cat's movements.
At the end of the day, it always pays to assume you are dealing with an educated cat right from the beginning. If nothing else, it prevents you alerting and begining the education of an otherwise naive cat! Trying to recover once you have been spotted and the cat is aware he is being hunted is always more difficult. Remember the 7 P's - Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents a Piss Poor Performance.
Getting the basics right first time is always a good basis for success.
We'll assume you have found a suitable spoor and are now planning the actual bait and blind.
The Basics: Wind direction (which can change in morning and evening), suitable branch with a reasonable silhouette that's not too high so the cat can see you approaching the blind or too low making it easy for lions to reach. Is there thick undercover for the leopards' approach? Which way does he come from - where does he go to? Is there suitable blending cover for your blind and is it not too far away from the bait?
Baits can take on many forms - use what is common in the area. Leopards have different preferences in different locations but impala or zebra seem to work well. Try not to handle the bait more than necessary - limit your human smell on the bait and once its hung or set - there is no need to touch it again unless when replacing it. Cover the bait to keep it fresh longer and keep vultures from finding the bait before the cat has.
Sweep under the bait tree with a leafy branch to make spoor identification easier but remember to remove all loose brush that you have handled away from the immediate bait area and sprinkle anything you have touched with the contents from your "gut bucket".
Situating a blind is another vitally basic but highly important aspect. A natural feature such as a stream or brush line between bait and blind seems to make the cat less wary when approaching the bait. Your approach path must be clear and clean bearing in mind you could be walking into the blind during darkness. Put a marker where your path intersects the road and get to know your route (white toilet paper every few yards is not suitable). Seeing a PH build a blind will give you an idea of what type of hunter you are with. A few leafy branches quickly shoved between two trees will tell you something. A good PH will spend time and effort building his blind and takes care of every little detail. Cats have been killed in quick lean-to blinds, but generally these are isolated cases of extremely good luck only. A good blind will blend into the environment and will need to be closed behind. If you are dealing with a smart cat he will quite often patrol the area before coming to the bait. A sloppy blind with no back and not enough cover will probably have the leopard watching you from cover while you wait wondering where the hell this 'stupid' cat is. If you are in rocky country with granite kopjes and hills around you, a roof over the blind is a must. Reed mats, blankets or hessian inside the blind makes for better camouflage and sound-proofing the blind. Comfortable, quiet seating and a solid rifle rest cuts out much of the error when the client sees the cat for the first time and buck fever sets in. Anything you can do to make the shot easier for your client will ensure chances of a miss or a wounded cat are eliminated - and never send your tracker to build your blind for you!
Andy Hunter, Charl Grobelaar and Don Heath