I, early this year, finished my first leopard hunt. After booking the hunt I thought I had better research the subject, which resulted in using books, magazine articles and the Internet. Now after the hunt I think it might be of interest to anyone thinking of hunting leopard to read about the other side...the bits the books didn't tell you.
Where to start? The 14-day hunt was booked though Kuduland Safaris in the Tuli Block, Botswana. The first thing to do before anything else was to sight in the rifle. For this hunt I was using Steve Robinson's .404 Jeffery by Sabi Rifles, using 400gr Woodleigh soft points loaded to 2300 ft/sec. I cannot say enough about this rifle. I don't class myself as a good shot but I'm competent. Below is the sighting target (70 yards); my hat is off to Sabi Rifles and Steve's reloads. For a rifle of this calibre to tack drive like this is nothing short of amazing!!
So back to the hunt, after sighting in the rifle the next order of business was to check the 2 baits that had been put up before my arrival and take 2 more impala. As these had been up a couple of days, the 2 impala were to replace them. The preparation of a bait animal is interesting...first of all the gut is removed and in our case kept in a plastic dustbin with a lid, to be used for the drags. The baits were hung differently from those in the books I had read and seen. In these, the bait was hung under a suitable branch at two points - the back and front legs. Colin and Steve hung their baits by the hind legs or sometimes by the neck. Trail timers were set on some of the baits to get an idea as to what time it had been fed on.
You get an idea as to how strong a leopard is - a female pulled the bait on to the branch which was then eaten by her and her two cubs.
You become aware very quickly that leopard like their meat very ripe and drags made with very ripe (another word is putrid) guts. In fact after less than 2 days if you looked under a bait you'll see a pile of maggots with other continuously failing from the carcass. If a bait is replaced the previous one has to be removed and dumped far away from any bait, which means transporting it in the hunting vehicle. This smell problem arises all the time even when sitting in a hide if it's down wind of a bait. This goes on day after day until you get your cat. So the first point of leopard hunting is it's very, very smelly.
The pro's and con's of bait checking. During bait checking several other processes are carried out at the same time:
The first thing every day is the baits are checked. In the case of my hunt, bait checking lasted up to 4-5 hours. The hunting vehicle is parked some distance from the bait. Rifles are loaded with a round chambered and the safety is on - you never know if a cat will be still on a bait. Walking up to a bait not knowing if a cat is there, produces a tremendous high. This high is added too if the PH stops and looks intently in the direction of the bait...even more so if he uses his binoculars. The first few days of this are interesting but then it loses its edge, even more so, if none of the baits are hit. Taking impala is also an interesting pastime - when you're not after one, you see hundreds. In fact you could say they're totally stupid. But when you want one they're as rare as hens teeth!! All I'll say about dragging is, this too, is very smelly, especially when the guts have been in the bin over a week old. Spooring is one of the few times you get to walk in the bush, this I love.
Leopards are CITES Appendix I, ie, Endangered. In the first week we had spoor of several females with one or two cubs of various ages, lone females, two females with toms in tow as well as two lone toms. In total running into double numbers and this was on a 4300-hectare ranch - not bad for an endangered species. One other thing I need to say - moving from bait to bait is by hunting vehicle (a good point), the bad point is the distance travelled each day (then multiplied by the number of days till you get your cat) over rough ground sitting on a thinly padded seat. On my hunt this amounted to just under a 750km and my rear-end remembers every km of it. If the area you're hunting is large enough, then you might be able to hunt other species. I did hunt for bushbuck around the camp a couple of times, which was away from the main hunting area and fished the Limpopo for catfish. So the next points of leopard hunting that you are not told is that it is boring and monotonous, and last but not least, very hard work both physically and mentally.
What happens when a bait is hit? The first item on the agenda is to determine what hit (ate) the bait. This is where your PH and tracker come into there own - was it a leopard if so, was it young, a female, a male, a shootable male or a combination, a hyena or a small cat, genet etc. Is it a male and shootable? This is determined by the size of the footprint - the measuring stick in our case was a 500 Jeffery round (loaded length 3.5 inches) - if it was same size or larger then it was shootable.
Now every thing goes in to overdrive - first a position for the hide has to be located/determined. Now hunting with two PH's become fascinating, to see how they both summed up the situation. Is the hide placed down wind (with smell-avision while in the hide) or across the wind and at what range? Each time a hide was set up these discussions took place. You learn very quickly that the range is not long, but more of that later. From the moment a bait is found to be hit, all talk is in whispers just in case the cat is laying up close by. Once a position for the hide has been decided, it is built. I used two types of hide one built in a suitable clump of bushes and a portable metal-framed, camouflaged hide, which was then covered with mopane branches. Once the hide was built and camouflaged, the shooting rest was created and works of art they were.
Now that the hide was finished, the distance to the bait was measured using a rangefinder. It was then back to the range to sight the rifle in on this exact distance. I sat in hides three times the ranges 36, 37 and 40 meters close, very close. After the range, it's back to the camp for a bite to eat and then bed. Depending what time the cat hit the bait, we left camp to sit. If no trail timer had been set on the bait then it was daylight (4-5 o'clock). Sitting in a hide in daylight is tolerable, oh yes, the rules are you cannot make a sound, no movement, in fact, no nothing. The African bush at night is so quiet and still it's hard to describe. I found I could sleep but not sleep...difficult to explain - call it a light sleep but several times I was nudged followed by the whispered word 'snoring' - oops! So what are the pros and cons of sitting in a hide at night? The most boring and difficult thing I've ever done - a minute takes an hour to pass, but (there always a but) when you hear kudu barking, impala blowing, baboons shouting, it means Mr Spots is on his way, then the blood pressure goes up big time.
So just to summarise, leopard hunting is boring, monotonous, repetitive, smelly and hard work both physically and mentally but with colossal highs.
My hunt? I sat in hides on three occasions; two were called off after 2-4 hours. Once by me, I was unable to see the cross hairs in the scope with the light from the lamp and the other time by Colin because the wind was blowing from us to the bait. These were the only hits by toms we had, the others were by females, cubs and small cats. I had set a date by which if I hadn't got my cat, I would then hunt plains game so I at least came home with something. That was day 12 - if we didn't have a good hit on the morning of day 12 then that was it as far as cat hunting went. My two PH's had other ideas. I have to say that as time went on I could see the pressure on Steve and Colin increasing, not from me but themselves both being a 100% on leopard. On the 12th day another impala had to bite the dust, but it had to be big. A big ram was finally located and fell to the .404. This was hung in a tree at the far end of the ranch 40 yards from a dividing fence. Why? When we were hunting elephant (another story) on the next-door ranch, we came across a set of monster tom leopard tracks going up to the fence. The idea was to see if we could pull this leopard across to our side. I had seen quite a few baits hung during the last 11 days but none like this one. It had to be hung in the right position, height and attitude...this was precision bait hanging. Then Steve did his bit by spreading the contents of the stomach over the tree and the ground in front of it - to cover every last smell of us. The riverbed was dragged from the fence to the bait and then down. Then we left, I have to say that all that morning I was not feeling that well which got worse and worse as time went on. Getting back to camp I went to bed at about 1 pm and woke up at 6 the next morning, not a 100%, but a lot better than the day before. All had been sorted - I was to hunt plains game with Colin, while Steve went and checked the baits. We were to meet up at the riverbed bait. I ended up with a good impala. (I'd shot enough of them, so I might as well take one home).
On meeting Steve some distance from the bait, yes you got it, it had been hit big time by a monster tom. This time things went into overdrive plus. I was not even permitted at the bait until the hide had been built. Then it was only to build the shooting rest. It was then back to the camp for eats and bed. We knew (by the trail timer) what time the cat had fed and I can't write what went through my mind when Colin said we'll be in the blind some hours before that time - the cat had fed at 3.15am. I can't write what went though my mind when Colin said we'd be in the hide from 5.30. And it didn't feed till 3! I'll let you put the relevant words in. Colin and myself with the tracker, Jerry were dropped off quite a distance from the bait compared to other times (really meaning business!). When we were settled in the hide Jerry went back to Steve in the vehicle and parked 2-3 km away but in radio contact. One thing that happened just after we got in the hide - there was a huge bush pig that had tried for 10 minutes to get at the bait, before disappearing back into the bush. I was still not 100% and I have to say that I went to sleep (even after sleeping for 4 hours earlier). Before I relate the rest, I have to give you the signals - 1 squeeze of the leg meant something was there, 2 squeezes meant get ready, the light going on, 3 squeezes meant shoot when ready. OK - I'm asleep so I miss the squeeze 1, I feel 2 squeezes but waking up was a bit slow, but because of the 2 squeezes the brain was in panic mode. As I lifted the rifle up the light goes on I can't see a thing. A piece of the camo-netting was blocking the scope - panic even more. Then Colin said 'shoot' as he can't find my leg because I'd moved to get a better shooting position. I have to say here, that a lot of time was spend by both Colin and Steve discussing the shot. The one both told me not to take, was if the cat was standing at the bait but to wait till it was sitting on the branch and go for a spine shot. All you read about leopard hunting is that it's the easiest and most difficult shot. I can give that my vote. So Colin said 'shoot' and I, at last, found a way through the camo-netting. All I could see was a monster cat standing up with one foot on the vertical branch and one foot one the bait, looking right at ME.
It was huge! My brain went into overdrive - can't use the front leg as reference point, so work backwards 3-4 ribs up, 1/3 of the way in to the body as it's slightly quartering...Bang! This all happen in 10 seconds. Next thought - once again unprintable, then Colin said 'good'. All I heard was a running cat then nothing. Nothing happened for the next 10 minutes then Colin called up Steve to come back. Steve's comment was 'why'? Colin - "we've shot the cat. Steve - "no ****!'. While Steve and Jerry were coming back, Colin said 'he's yours, there by that tree about 21 yards from were you shot it'. Me - 'Yes Colin'. I'm still in you-messed-it-up mode. Steve and Jerry arrived and the vehicle was parked in the river bed with it's lights on the tree. After making the rifle safe, I was taken to the vehicle told to sit until told to get out. To see Colin with a shotgun (loaded with SSG) in the lead, with Jerry second with the lamp and Steve third, low down with his .500, following the spoor is something I will never forget. And yes, the cat was found where Colin said it would be. He fed that night at 9.20pm, but to me it could have been any time. I'm asked why I don't look happy (to use a word) in the photos. It took me the best part of 3 hours to get rid of the thought that I may have put my friends in danger by taking the shot that I'd been told not to make, even after I'd seen the dead cat. This I think is one of the down sides of hunting leopard at night. A messed-up shot means added danger for the PH due to the darkness. Yes, it was right to take the shot, the cat was stationery and I'd done my homework (my thanks to Kevin Robertson's book, The Perfect Shot). My shot was spot-on, taking out the lungs and completely removing the top of the heart. So I got my cat, which makes Rowland Ward. Would I do it again? A very simple answer - NO! The strain before and after is too much, but it was some of the most interesting and exhilarating hunting I've ever done.
So to end, my thanks to Lisa and John. My special thanks to Jerry and Colin Kirkham (PH) (I'll hunt with you anytime, mate) and finally to Susan and Steve Robinson (Kuduland Safaris) - thanks once again for another holiday of a lifetime and yes, Steve, we'll hunt buff one day.