Leopards in the Baobab – Tracking the Cat in Zimbabwe

zimbabweleopardhuntforever051314Upon arriving at Johannesburg Tambo International Airport the first week of May on South African Airlines, I was met by Bruce, the representative for Gracy Travel and the Afton Guest House. Both the Afton Guest House and Gracy Travel cater to hunters, and the service and information they provide is excellent.

Bruce is a lifesaver. With his help, I was in and out of the South African Airport Police office in a flash with my firearm import permit. He not only helped procure my gun permit, but also saved me much stress when “Brand X” airlines messed up my flight reservations to Mozambique on a previous trip. After the permit, Bruce walked me over to the waiting van and driver who took me to the Afton House where I would overnight.

That night at the Afton, they prepared a delicious BBQ steak dinner. I relaxed with a drink, met several hunting couples, had some good conversation, and then it was off to a deep sleep in one of their comfortable rooms. The next morning after a full breakfast, their driver took me back to Tambo where Bruce was again waiting for me. He would supervise the firearm check-in for my flight to Bulawayo where Terry Fenn of Chinanga Safaris would meet me.

zimbabweleopardvistahuntforever051314I met Terry a couple of years before at a gathering a member from our local Safari Club chapter had at his house. Several other members had hunted with Terry for buffalo and leopard, had great success, and recommended him highly.

In Bulawayo, it was easy to collect my equipment and spot the visa window. Both Gracy and Chinanga supply paperwork to import your firearm to Zimbabwe. Simply have it filled out in triplicate before you arrive and you’ll be outside and on your way in no time.

Once outside, Terry grabbed my equipment and loaded the truck where he had drink and sandwich waiting for me for the four-hour drive to the Lomara Ranch in the southeast Save. I read somewhere that Zimbabwe had more leopards then anywhere else in Africa, so I was hoping to take number three of my Big Five. I previously took Cape buffalo in Mozambique and a bull elephant in Botswana. For this hunt I was going for leopard, using a new Remington 700 in .375 H & H Magnum with a Trijicon Red Post scope.

We arrived after dark at Lomara where I met Andries the outfitter, and the staff. We ate a late dinner, and then formed our game plan over a couple of sundowners.

The next morning we woke at 5:00 am to start the usual schedule of first checking the zero on the rifle, then driving the area to look for zimbabweleopardspoorhuntforever051314spoor and checking a couple of impala baits that had been set up. We spotted tracks of several small male leopards, a few females, and some lion tracks.

Terry noted that the lions were so relaxed after feeding on the bait that they just laid down on the road and slept. Continuing the drive we saw zebra, wildebeest, buffalo, giraffe and a tremendous number of impala.

 

After lunch, we built a blind by one of the baits that was hit and where there was a good size leopard track. It seemed like the perfect place as there were several trails leading to the bait, a small stream nearby, some tall grass and trees, and a small hill across from the bait with several trees and boulders for us to have as cover.

There, we placed a pop-up blind, cut branches for more camouflage, built a gun rest and placed chairs inside the blind. The arrangement offered a 40-yard shot from a 30-foot elevated shooting platform. Most of the day was taken erecting the blind, and then we drove on to check the last of the baits before heading back to camp for an early dinner. We would come back to the blind just before dark.

We started the long wait at 5:00 pm in a very hot blind, and were grateful when it cooled down. We watched a bushbuck walk by and heard impala snort, but no leopard. So we headed back to camp.

The next morning, we drove to check the other baits and, when we arrived at the blind, found that the bait was indeed hit. Checking the zimbabweleopardbaobabhuntforever051314trail camera, we found that the leopard did come in very late, wary of the moonlight. The plan for the rest of the day was to finish checking the area for spoor. After that, we’d head back to camp and return later to the blind and stay late.

We entered the blind and as we waited I started to think we might have missed our opportunity the previous night.

Terry poked me. I heard the leaves rustle and looked through my Tirjicon scope, but by the time I got on the rifle, the leopard had crawled under the branches that covered the impala bait.

The leopard stopped, backed out, looked around and then climbed back under the branches, not leaving me a shot. The cat became suspicious. He hesitated a second and I fired.

My mind went wild. Did I miss–or worse–did I wound him? Terry thought the leopard jumped to the ground, but it was too dark to see anything. After sitting there a few minutes, we decided to play the video back to see if the camera was able to record anything. All we could see was the moment of the muzzle flash, but as we were checking the video, we heard a couple of growls, and then silence. Had the leopard expired, or was he wounded and waiting for us to come down the hill?

It was decision time. We radioed the truck and told them to come in with lights on to illuminate the area and then climbed out of the blind and started down the hill with guns ready. As we approached the bottom of the hill, Terry panned the area and caught the cat’s eye 20 yards away. The leopard was not moving. Terry put his rifle zimbabweleopardbuffhuntforever051314against a tree, and drew his sidearm. We stepped closer—Terry ready with his .357 Magnum and me with my .375 H & H. Just then the truck came into view and the headlights lit up the area to reveal the body of the cat. I closed the distance to the animal, tapped his eye to check for life, but he had expired.

Excitement came over the whole crew–the trackers, the skinners, Terry, and myself. We were beside ourselves and my composure left me as I examined the leopard. It was a large cat with a big chest, big neck and big head. What a thrill! It was even greater than when I took my Cape buffalo or my bull elephant.

Terry set up a couple of side trips for the remainder of my stay, including a day of bass fishing at Mteri Dam, which is a private lake owned by Hippo Valley. I caught the biggest fish of the day, 3 ½ pounds. After the day’s fishing we ran into some old friends from his elephant control days and hashed over memories with a few beers.

I was also able to spend a day at the private game preserve, Malilangwe. There, we had tea at the general manager’s home, and then drove the area viewing game. We spotted elephant, giraffes, impala, zebra, and had an up-close experience at 20 yards with rhino.

 

The next day I headed back to Bulawayo to overnight. Terry had me booked in the Bulawayo Club, another private club that was founded in 1895 by the British during a time of exploration and adventure. The establishment offered rooms, bar and restaurant, but it was much more then that. It was history, and it showed in every room. The entrance and main room were complete with game trophies hanging overhead on the walls and above the fireplace. The long bar room, with its glossy wood and brass, had pictures of all the board of directors from the opening of the club.

The second floor consisted of the main dinning room where I felt thrown back in time. I had a drink at the adjoining bar before stepping in to sit down, and the food was perfect. On the second floor I also found the billiard room, boardroom, meeting rooms and card room. My suite was on the third floor. It was Victorian, but simple.

Access to the balconies was available on both the second and third floors. Breakfast was served at the first floor atrium. History was everywhere—and not just the pictures of the directors but also pictures of hunters, soldiers, the land, animals, and more. The Bulawayo Club really is a place to stay before or after the hunt.

This story would not be complete without a bit of Terry’s history. Born and raised in Zimbabwe, Terry has more than 40 years of hunting experience in southern Africa. His dad had him shooting by the age of six, and he went on his first elephant hunt with his dad at the age of eleven.

Terry was a game ranger for National Parks and Wildlife Management in the 1970s, then moved on to running small-scale safari operations and management of cattle and game in both Zimbabwe (Nuanetsi Ranch) and in South Africa. He furthered his experience in cattle and game ranching at Lemco Ranch (Pvt) Ltd in 1986.

In 1990, Terry joined Rusty Labuschagne and Safari Trackers on Angus Ranch, Save Conservancy, where he ran the game ranch and safari operation. When he started there, they were dealing primarily in cattle with a lesser interest in game sales [safaris], but it wasn’t long before a plan started evolving to turn the whole area into one big game ranching consortium.

All the adjacent landowners got together and agreed to take out all the internal fences and to re-enforce the perimeter fence, essentially creating an 850,000-acre game area. That was done at the same time all the cattle were sold and game re-introduced. During this transition, the area was “taken over” by the Zimbabwean Hunters Association and Terry started full time hunting. He acquired his full professional hunting license in 1993, leaving Angus Ranch at the end of 1996.

Since 1996, Terry has been fully occupied in the safari industry. He established his company, Chinanga Safaris, and works with most of the safari operators in Zimbabwe as well as some in Tanzania, South Africa and Botswana.– Jeff Davis

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