My fascination with the world’s big cats probably started in the fourth grade after reading the book Lion Hound by Jim Kjelgaard. It kindled my interest in hunting cougars and other large cats. Eventually I would have my own “lion hounds” and thrill in the pursuit of mountain lions in northwest Montana. Like author Jerry A. Lewis said, “If you follow your own hound on a fresh cougar track through a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, you can never come all the way back home.” Later in life I read the book Hunter, by J.A. Hunter, and that was the catalyst for the dream of hunting leopard in Africa.
In 1997 my Dad and I went on a leopard and plains game hunt in Zimbabwe with Wayne Jardine. Wayne came recommended as a leopard specialist. While visiting with him at the SCI Convention, he kindly cautioned us that it is a tall order to have two leopard hunters in camp at the same time on a 14-day hunt. In spite of his advice, we proceeded to book two leopard hunts for the upcoming August.
Unbelievably, my dad killed a giant 192-pound leopard on the first day. As the hunt progressed, we had females and sub-adult males on bait, but my heart was set on a mature male. Finally, on day 16 of a 14-day hunt, we had a large male leopard hit our bait. That would be my final opportunity, as we had already extended our stay.
As it turned out, the leopard approached directly downwind of the blind. On a coal black night, mere inches from where we sat in our grass enclosure, I could actually hear Panthera Pardus sniffing the blind. The only shooting hole faced in the opposite direction toward the bait. The big cat must have decided that we didn’t really smell like dinner and softly padded away, leaving me to return to the States without a leopard of my own.
Time passed, and life got busy raising a family and building my business. I had dismissed the idea of ever getting back to Africa — sometimes fate has another plan.
Wayne had disappeared from the hunting scene after a motorcycle accident and the takeover of his Karna hunting camp by the Zimbabwe government’s “redistribution plan.” In 2011 I ran into Wayne at the SCI Convention. During our reunion visit, he realized that I had never fulfilled my dream of taking a leopard. He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse — to return to Zimbabwe for another leopard hunt. Unfortunately, during that hunt a bout with “tick fever” caused me to become very ill and I had to cut the hunt short and return home; so ended my second chance at a leopard.
Last February during the SCI Convention, Wayne invited me back for my third attempt at leopard. He truly felt bad that I was still “leopardless” since it is a rare occurrence that one of his hunters is unsuccessful. I assured Wayne that even though I hadn’t taken a leopard, I considered each trip to be a real adventure and thoroughly enjoyed the experiences.
When I arrived in Zimbabwe this past June, Wayne put me into the hands of his nephew, Heath Jardine. Heath is part of the ZimAfrica Safaris team and his obsession is hunting leopard. He had just finished two leopard hunts and had taken two cats in a row with 16-inch skulls. Quite a feat! I told him it was my dream to take a mature male. What were the odds of him getting three big cats in a row?
Heath decided to concentrate our efforts on private cattle ranches with predation problems. One ranch in particular had a very large leopard killing cattle for the past several years. Heath made multiple attempts to connect with this cat, but it would hit the bait once or reject it entirely. The problem with mega leopards is that they are so well fed, fat and lazy that they refuse to climb trees. The baits have to be left hanging near the ground, which makes the meat vulnerable to other predators like hyenas and wild dogs.
With baits in place on the ranch for more than a week, a female did the only feeding, but we saw the track of the very large cat in the area. The rancher told us that this particular cat was very wise and was the dominant male of the area. He told us that a local man bayed the cat with his dogs, but before he could dispatch it, it attacked and killed the unfortunate chap.
With only a few days left on my hunt, the rancher contacted us and told us that his hired man found where the big leopard had killed one of their yearling heifers. Since it was almost evening, it was doubtful there was enough time to travel to the ranch and set up a blind before dark, so Heath made the wise move not to rush in and possibly spook the animal. We would wait until the next day to unfold our plan. The hired man was directed to return to the kill and wire it to a tree so the leopard couldn’t drag it away.
Arriving the next day, we went to check the kill. It was definitely the big leopard’s, and it had actually fed for several days. There was only enough meat left for one more feeding. Big leopards like this one come back to their kill early in the evening to defend it from marauders. Some leopards are powerful and fierce enough to fend off these other beasts of the night. This one was one big bad hombre!
We arrived at the ranch early enough to give ourselves plenty of time to set up the blind and try to get everything “just right.” The kill was situated against a rock mountain, so the placement of the blind was tricky. The wind had to be considered and there was only one reasonable place to put the blind, which was across a barbed wire fence. Heath assumed the leopard bedded up on this big rock promontory and would approach from that direction. Perhaps he was watching us at that very moment. Another challenge to consider was the barbed wire fence. Heath wanted to remove any chance of the bullet hitting a strand of wire and deflecting, so he contrived a way to tie the strands to create a “hole” to shoot through.
After getting the blind set up to the crew’s satisfaction, we had a few hours to relax and get “psyched up” for the evening hunt. Sitting in a leopard blind is a unique experience if you have never experienced it. I compare it to being a field goal kicker with a shot at winning the game and two seconds left on the clock. A person has to keep his mind right and remember to squeeze off the shot when the moment of truth arrives. There really is a lot of pressure as everyone works so hard to make this whole thing come together. It all comes down to the hunter making the fatal shot.
I have only spent two nights in a blind in Africa and both nights were absolutely pitch black. Inside the blind the hunter is unable to see
the rifle that is positioned in a rest and pointing at the bait. So as we sat in the blind waiting for darkness, I continually leaned forward, grabbing the rifle and putting it to my shoulder so that it became a natural movement and could be done in the dark without mishap. Heath coached me on the sequence of events that would hopefully occur. Silent signals were instituted to coordinate our efforts. Talking would not be permitted during our wait. Whispering could occur at the time the cat was on bait and it’s hearing muted by the act of chewing. Sometimes an unintended animal or possibly a female leopard will arrive at the bait. This is the point where the experience of the PH is crucial because he has to make a split second decision on whether it is the targeted animal.
With all the preparation in place, we settled in to wait. Heath calmly explained, “please don’t wound it; this thing is big enough to kill people.” Talk about pressure! I nodded and thanked him for giving me this opportunity.
I have to admit that I really enjoy being in a blind. Finding that mental place similar to a trance allows me to sit for hours without talking or moving. It is quite peaceful to listen to the sounds. If the big feline returned to his kill, it would most likely be quite soon after dark. Perhaps 20 minutes after dark we heard something run past the front of our blind. To me it sounded like a soft-footed animal and not like the hard hooves of an ungulate.
We both speculated in our minds what it might have been but dared not speak. Was it possible our leopard had winded us on the way to his kill? In the distance we heard the ringing of cowbells, which the cattle wear to deter predators from eating them. The sound of the bells slowly grew louder as the din continued until they eventually moved past us less than 200 yards away. It seemed an eternity for the sounds to pass and we wondered if our chances were ruined?
Soon after the sounds drifted away, we heard two human voices. Evidently it was a native couple on a walk to somewhere on a completely moonless night. I silently wondered if they knew of the spotted danger that lurked nearby. They were talking and laughing and passed within 100 yards of our hideout. At this point I thought, “What a bad break.” Has our well-executed plan been in vain and their presence tipped off our quarry? We continued our vigil, hoping for the best. Soon the peaceful quiet of the night returned and within 15 minutes Heath reached over and touched my arm. A minute or so later he nudged me toward the waiting .300 Winchester Magnum and I settled into a shooting position as he slowly whispered, “Do you see him?”
I couldn’t see anything through the scope. “No,” I whispered, and started into panic mode, shifting my head around and finally seeing a glint of light through the eyepiece. I could dimly see a spotted feline. What a wonderful sight. I whispered, “I see it”! The leopard was in my scope. As he sat upright, my crosshairs were positioned on the point of his shoulder. Just then Heath whispered, “shoot!” There was no hesitation, no savoring the moment, no thinking about squeezing the trigger. I just shot and my aim was true. I was shaking wildly at this point and Heath said, “Shoot him again!” I gladly racked in another shell and put an insurance shot into his prostrate body, but he was already dead. I just sat there, looking through the scope at his spotted body, thinking, “I did it. My quest for a trophy leopard has finally been fulfilled.”
I had made a good shot and a quick humane kill. Making that 100-yard walk from the blind to the cat was one of the most exhilarating things I’ve done in my life. I couldn’t have told you that it was a big leopard in my sights, but when we walked up to it, the size came sharply into perspective. That thing was huge!
I had not only fulfilled my dream of taking a mature leopard, but it was an absolutely beautiful monster leopard. In the glow of our headlamps, the spots were surreal. All I kept saying was, “This thing looks like a giant jaguar.” I knelt down and said a quick prayer of thankfulness and expressed my gratitude to the crew responsible for my success. There were lots of hugs and exuberant celebration and even a tear or two of happiness. My quest was over. I will remember that time and feeling the rest of my life!
We didn’t have a scale in camp, but I’m sure it was honestly more than 200 pounds. It is truly a spectacular specimen and a once-in-a-lifetime trophy. Heath had done it: three leopards in a row with skulls over 16 inches, with mine measuring just over 17 inches. His clients have taken many leopards over the years, but this was the largest. Thank you again Heath, Wayne, Judea and the rest of the crew and staff at ZimAfrica Safaris. My hat is off to you and as they say in Ndebele “Siyabonga.”– Scott Lennard