Every Professional Hunter has his own way of hunting leopards and this article is about how I like to do it, and if your PH has his own set of tricks, please don't think he's not necessarily doing it the right way - he is just doing it his way.
I'm a perfectionist when it comes to hunting leopards and the reason for that is because they're just so incredibly wary and clever creatures. Because of that we need to think like a leopard to bring a suitable trophy animal to the bait.
We'll first need to find at least one perfect 'leopardy' tree and location to hang the bait. If we can find three or four trees, then so much the better. The tree itself needs to be fairly big with nice wide spreading limbs, not too many thorns and have some but not too much undergrowth growing at its base. This is to allow the cat somewhere to hide until he feels secure before he actually goes up the tree. It also helps to have a little bit of cover above the bait branch if possible - you can always trim this as necessary, once the cat starts feeding. If the main trunk is slightly angled, then we have an added advantage as we want to make everything as easy as possible for the leopard to gain access to the bait. However, it mustn't be so easy that other predators such as hyena and lion can get to it. (What's that I hear you mumble, someone told you lions don't climb trees? Don't you believe it!) We want the tree to have a fairly open area all around it to allow us a safer follow up if it becomes necessary and we also would prefer at least a small tree or bush within 30 - 50 yards of the bait tree which we can incorporate as a natural location for a blind.
The blind location should give us a good view and sight picture of where the leopard will be laying as he eats the bait. When I'm choosing my blind site, I like if possible to locate it amongst some natural foliage and I like to take my time testing the winds by lighting a few dry elephant droppings and leaving them to smoulder in various positions. I find this helps me a lot in selecting the perfect blind site(s). Incidentally, if you have a swirling wind, I've also used these same 'smoke bombs' when we actually sit for the cat, as a precaution to mask our human scent. Sounds crazy, but it's worked for me a few times.
We also want this tree to be near some sand roads and/or dry river beds, so the cat is comfortable when he walks. Just like your domestic cat, leopards are lazy and like an easy life. We would also like the tree to be close to good, clean water. If we can't find a spot close enough to water, we'll resort to the first of the sneaky tricks - sinking a bucket into the soil near the bait tree and filling it with water. We can also tie a feather or two to short pieces of fishing line in suitable places to use as wind indicators and also sweep a few nearby areas to make it easy for us to check the size of the paw prints. If necessary, we'll place a few obstructions in appropriate places to guide our quarry onto these swept areas.
If we can find two places on opposite sides and equidistant to the bait tree where we can locate the blind, then that's also an advantage. There is usually a prevailing wind of some kind and we'll site the blinds to suit these winds but winds can change which is why I try to have two blinds to each bait tree if possible. I like to have the blind sited across the wind rather than facing into it as there's nothing worse than sitting for hours and having the stink of a half rotten bait blowing right into your face.
Once we've located a suitable tree or even better, trees, we'll shoot a bait animal (zebra are usually particularly good and one animal can easily provide five baits) to hang from the best limb at a suitable place. Mark the branch with two small pieces of reflective tape 1.3 meters apart to use as a measuring aid for the size of the leopard. Use some of the stomach contents of our bait animal to spread around the tree limb and trunk. This not only eliminates our scent it also makes the tree very attractive to the leopard.
Then using the stomach and intestines from the bait animal(s), make drags from the bait tree to the nearest road(s) and/or dry river beds, continuing for at least a mile. If at all possible, these drags will be in at least two or three separate directions to maximise our chances of a passing leopard walking into the scent lines. I like to refresh these drags on a daily basis if possible or every other day at least.
So now we're pretty much ready for step two of the leopard hunt which happens to be the one that drives me crazy. We wait for Mr Spots to pass by, give his approval and start feeding. If after a few days, we've found his tracks near our baits but he's ignoring them, we might consider moving the bait to a different nearby tree and if that doesn't work, we'll try another sneaky trick or two... but I'm going to keep those up my sleeve for now and you'll just have to wait and wonder what they are! Sorry Bwana.
If we get a strike or strikes, we'll assess the size of the tracks and decide if we might have a cat of a shootable size. If we do, then we'll attach a trail timer to the bait to see what time the cat feeds and then we wait another day or two (if time allows) to give the cat time to get really comfortable. Cats are creatures of habit and will almost certainly come to feed at much the same time every night. When we have established his feeding pattern, we'll build the blind(s) which are about three metres square, made of grass and poles and even if there is no moon at all, we'll put a roof on it as well. Even starlight coming into the blind is enough to give the game away to our spotty friend. On the subject of the moon, a lot of people claim a full moon or near full moon is a problem for leopard hunting. From my experience, if you set everything up the right way, the moon phase doesn't matter at all. I'd say that close to 50% of the leopards I've taken, have been at, or close to the full moon. In fact, I've always found a full or near to full moon, actually makes a leopard rather more helpful to us hunters. He'll usually dine earlier and come to bait before moon rise.
All four sides of the blind will have shooting and observation holes. Most Professional Hunters only put these in the front of the blind, but I learned my lesson a couple of years ago when I had two lions fighting just one yard from the side of my blind. To add insult to injury, the winner then mated with one of his girlfriends right in the same spot. During all this time, we couldn't even see anything and had to wait another two hours before we could get a shot at the lion! So now I put holes on every side of the blind and then put 'curtains' over all but the front holes. After we've built the blind(s) we'll then place a movement detector above the bait and the receiver in the blind and also place two or three small red LED lights around the branches to give us a little illumination. We switch these on sometime during the day preceding the evening or morning before we're scheduled to sit in the blind. Cats incidentally, don't see red light at all. So the only things left to do is build the rifle stands into the blind and equip it with those plastic garden chairs that don't squeak, blankets to sit on for the sake of comfort and silence and more blankets if it looks like getting cold, spotting scope for the PH, red spotlight and two way radio (turned off until we need to use it) and rifles.
On the subject of rifles, the client ideally needs something in .30 calibre or larger and fast expanding, soft point bullets. This rifle should be equipped with a scope of 4 or 6 power with a large light gathering aperture at the business end. Once everything is all set up and ready, we'll use the rangefinders to zap the exact distance from blind to bait and measure height from bait to ground and then go elsewhere and set the clients rifle up to shoot 'bang on' at that exact range and height. I don't just set a target up for this. Nowadays, I like to take a long cardboard box and draw a life size outline of a leopard on it and then I fix a small bottle of water inside, where the cat's heart would be. Then I'll sit you down in a chair and set you up just as you'll be in the bind. Then all you have to do is put three consecutive shots through the bottle of water. Only then are you ready to sit for the cat. If you can't make those three consecutive shots on the target, then it's not a problem...we'll just practice until you can.
When we go into the blind, the client's rifle will be placed in the rifle rest with a round in the chamber and the safety catch ON. The rests will have been positioned in such a way that the client just leans forward into it, looks through the scope and will see the leopard.
Once everything is set up to my complete satisfaction and a couple of hours before the cat is due to arrive, or just before dark (whichever comes first) we'll go into the blind and sit and wait quietly/read/doze. We'll probably get some kind of audible warning of the cat's approach. The birds and monkeys usually go crazy with alarm calls as the leopard passes and it's usually possible to mark the cat's progress through the bush. When that wonderful movement detector lights up, it means we have something on the branch. I'll peep through the observation hole for a first look. We won't rush things (so please try not to get excited) and we'll give Mr Spots plenty of time to get comfortable. Then I'll take a look through the spotting scope and put a red spotlight into the trees and then move it down onto the cat. If he's shootable, I'll reach out and squeeze your knee. This will mean you're to get yourself comfortable and ready for the shot. IT DOESN'T MEAN SHOOT! I'll then give your knee another squeeze and then remove my hand. When that happens, you can shoot anytime you like. There's no rush, so don't feel you have to hurry at all. It's far more important that you shoot accurately rather than quickly. Please remember that you're shooting uphill and into a three dimensional target. Imagine the skin of the animal as a glass container with the heart in the centre of that container. Aim slightly low to allow for the uphill shooting and shoot for the heart - remember all that practice at the range. If you've got it right, then the next thing we'll hear after the shot is a soggy plop as a dead leopard hits the ground. If we hear an angry growl, then it probably means we've got problems and may have to do a follow-up. If the leopard charges then it has to be stopped at close range. If you come along on this, make sure you remove your scope beforehand. I did a follow up a while ago and shot the cat in mid air just seven yards from me. This picture shows me kneeling where the cat fell and was taken from where I shot. Now imagine it in complete darkness except for the light from a head torch. If possible, I'd like to avoid the experience.
After the shot, keep quiet and if you can still see the leopard, then try to get another bullet into him if you can. About this time, I'll ask you how you felt about the shot and we'll try to work out what we think happened. Then we'll call the hunting truck on the radio and tell it we've shot a leopard but they should wait until we call them back before coming in. After 20-30 minutes, if nothing else happens, we'll whistle up the truck and have them drive right up to the blind where we step quickly and quietly into it. Then we'll drive to the bait tree and look for blood spoor or hopefully a dead leopard. If we can see the cat and he looks dead, we'll have the tracker use a slingshot to fire a couple of stones at it. If there's any response at all, the cat gets shot again immediately. If there's no response, I'll climb down from the truck whilst the client covers me with his rifle. Once I'm certain the cat is dead, everyone can get down from the truck for photographs. If there's any 'trouble' and I end up having a tussle with Mr Spots, please don't try to shoot him from the truck as if you do, you'll probably shoot me as well. Rather get down and get as close to the cat as you can and kill him. If we end up with a wounded cat on our hands then I or possibly we will conduct a follow up tracking job in an appropriate manner - but we won't go into that too much here as I'm sure you'll get it right the first time anyway!
So now you have some idea of how the hunting strategy will planned on your leopard hunt and by doing so, I hope you'll get even more pleasure from it than just being the trigger man while a bunch of strange things go on all around you. If you have any new ideas that you think might work, don't hesitate to let me know. I'm always willing to try something new and as it's your leopard hunt and not mine, I'm always more than happy to try things your way. In closing, please remember the shot at your leopard will probably be the easiest shot of your safari - but it's also the most important shot of your safari. So take your time, don't get excited, pick out a rosette at which you're going to and make sure you hit the cat in exactly the right place.