“He’s here,” whispered professional hunter Rex Hoets. “He’s sitting at the base of the tree; a big male. Take him when you are ready.”
I slowly stood up from the canvas camp chair I had occupied for over two hours and quietly, carefully stepped forward to where my .30-06 was secured in the shooting port. I gripped the Dakota 76 and slipped the rifle off safe. Then I looked through the scope and saw the leopard.
Now in the mopane tree, he seemed huge as he ripped meat from the elephant leg we had wired to the trunk. Black and gold flashed as the cat bent low to reach the bait. His fangs were clearly illuminated by the setting sun as he tore another piece of meat from the bait. He moved up and back from the bait as he chewed and swallowed. Then he stopped and stared at the blind.
In June 2013, I traveled to Zimbabwe’s Zambezi Valley to hunt leopard and plains game in Chifuti Safari’s Chewore South concession. This hunt represented a number of “firsts” for me –first guided big game hunt, first safari and first hunt for dangerous game.
But why hunt leopard on a first safari, particularly in Chewore South where cats must be hunted in daylight? The odds of collecting a leopard do not approach the success rates for buffalo or plains game. For me, the decision was logical.
Like most hunters, I dreamed about hunting in Africa. My African safari, however, would have its limitations.
I was 22 when a training accident as a Marine Corps Officer Candidate resulted in a spinal cord injury leaving me paralyzed from the neck down for seven weeks. With a lot of prayers, a big dose of luck, and grueling months of rehabilitation, I walked out of a Veterans Administration hospital eight months later.
Now 59, my walking is slow and unsteady. I trip and fall on a regular basis, and then I get up and move on. I learned that using a walking stick improves my ability to cover uneven ground and enables me to walk faster. Even with a stick, however, marathon marches tracking bull elephant are clearly out of the picture. Cape buffalo? I don’t know, maybe.
Rex and his driver/tracker Vusa were waiting at Chewore South’s airstrip when I landed. We talked guns and leopard hunting on the ride to camp. Rex had not been informed that he had a disabled hunter for a client. I could almost see the wheels spinning in his brain as he began thinking how to adapt his tactics to my abilities. He approved of my choice of a .30-06 topped with a 2.5-10X Trijicon Accupoint with the 56mm objective lens. Leopard hunting in Chewore South must be done in daylight. Leopards often approach bait at sundown and all a hunter sees is a shadow; a silhouette against a slightly lighter background of sky. This creates two challenges — seeing the leopard and seeing the scope’s crosshairs. With a lighted reticle the second challenge is eliminated. Under these conditions the scope is more important than the rifle it is mounted on.
After picking up our Game Scout, Shamisa, we pulled into Chenje Camp where I was introduced to Gary and Sandy Schultz, the camp managers. The tented camp is set out along the Chenje River. It has a comfortable dining area and bar complete with a fire pit for watching “bush TV,” as mopane fires are referred to.
Sharing the camp with me for the first nine days were three hunters from Utah and their PHs; Mike Payne, Leon DuPlessis and Jeff Dollar. They were hunting buffalo and plains game.
It was cold the next morning when we checked the zero of the rifles and I met the rest of Rex’s team; first tracker Mandeavo; third tracker, Tuffy; and Apprentice PH Charles Decker.
The plan was to quickly hang as much bait as we could. Rex set a goal of twelve baits. Finding bait quickly could, however, prove difficult. Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife’s decision a few years earlier to stop issuing quota for lioness resulted in a surging lion population. The lions were hammering the plains game and buffalo, and it might take some time to find enough impala and other game needed for bait. Conveniently, there was plenty of meat in cold storage suitable for use as bait. We collected some elephant legs and half a kudu and headed out.
We started by looking for tracks and hanging baits in areas that had produced cats for Rex in the past. We hung six baits that first day. On successive days we combined checking baits with hanging new baits. By the close of the fourth day we had twelve baits up.
I tried naming the baits as a way of keeping track of them. There were the Slanted Tree, River Track, Buffalo Bend, Elephant Tree, Dinosaur Tracks, Grass Road and Lioness Clearing, among others.
Selecting bait trees is part science, part art. Leopards hunt by stealth and ambush; they spend their days in thick cover, avoiding detection that spoils their hunts and exposes them to danger. The bait tree must be sited in thick bush for the cat to feel confident enough to approach in daylight. The tree also needs to be lion proof.
Lions climb trees and will steal bait placed in a tree that they can reach. There must be a suitable branch to wire the bait to so that a feeding cat offers a broadside shot to the hunter in the blind. And, lastly, there must be a blind site, downwind of the bait, having a quiet approach out of sight of the bait tree.
One evening during sundowners Mike Payne reported a large male track in an area known as Buffalo Bend. We set out on the long twisting track to Buffalo Bend the next morning. It took ninety minutes of driving to reach the place where Mike had seen the track. Rex hung half a kudu rib cage in a wishbone shaped tree in a small clearing.
The next day we had two leopards feeding: a female at Dinosaur Tracks and a big male at Buffalo Bend. The Buffalo Bend bait was near the end of the access road. We would have to drive in and exit the vehicle and get into the blind while Vusa drove the Land Cruiser to the end, turned around, and drove past us on his way out. We’d repeat the process if we were unsuccessful. Rex thought it was too much activity if the cat had been “educated” by other hunters. Nevertheless, we constructed a blind about sixty yards from the bait and cleared a shooting lane. We drove a few kilometers away and ate lunch.
At 3:30 p.m. we were back in the Buffalo Bend blind and the bush came alive soon after we settled in. Birds fluttered about, landing on the blind, and squirrels scratched and ran about. A troop of baboons moved into the area shortly after 5. By 6:20 it was too dark to see so Rex radioed Vusa to pick us up. On the drive back to Chenje, Rex explained that the leopard would not come to the bait in daylight with baboons present.
The next day we discovered that a cow elephant had ripped an elephant leg down from one of our bait trees. The bait was a good twelve feet off the ground. The spoor showed that she stood on her hind legs to reach the leg and pull it down. Vusa wired the leg a few feet higher and we drove on.
Rex suddenly stopped the Land Cruiser as he spotted an impala ram and several females slowly feeding through brush two hundred yards away. He set up the shooting sticks about thirty feet away from me. I left my stick in the truck as I hurried to him. Big mistake! My foot caught a rock and down I went. By the time I was vertical again the impala were gone.
We discovered a male leopard feeding on the Slanted Tree bait — a better set-up because we could do a “drive by” and hop out of the truck and sneak into the blind with minimal disturbance. We quickly erected a blind, drove off for lunch and returned by 3 pm.
Rex prefers to setup his blinds for the hunter to shoot standing and sit out of sight when waiting. Flies buzzed as we baked and sweated in the sun. By 5 p.m. the sun was low in the sky and the temperature plummeted. We quietly pulled on jackets and resumed waiting. From where I sat I could see the amber post glowing in the Trijicon scope. As day turned to night I heard a familiar sound — baboons! Barking and grunting, they climbed into the trees around us and settled in for the night. Frustrated, we crept out of the blind by the light of a full moon.
We were back in the blind at 5 a.m. with snoring and grunting baboons above us; hoping that the cat might come to the bait after the baboons went to sleep. Dawn arrived with no leopard.
Later that morning a big kudu bull chased a cow and two calves across the road in front of the truck. We quickly bailed out and I got on the sticks. The bull stopped at 160 yards to sniff the cow and I picked him up in the scope.
“He’s going to move out,” Rex warned. “You need to take him!”
Two limbs crossed over the bull’s shoulder — no shot. As I tried to steady the rifle on his shoulder he swapped ends and started walking behind a large bush. I got on him again and fired as his head disappeared behind the bush. I rushed the shot and pulled it over his back.
I had missed my first shot on safari and I brooded over the shot. If I couldn’t hit a kudu, how was I going to perform with a leopard — the animal most likely to hurt someone if wounded?
On night six, a big male leopard hit the Grass Road bait. He fed again when we left him to sit at the Slanted Tree on night seven. We were in the blind on day eight at 3 p.m.
Shortly after 4 I heard a crackling, then swoosh and a low rumble. I looked at Rex. “Elephants!” he mouthed. He grabbed his CZ .416 Rigby and stepped to the back of the blind.
The cracking was getting loader; the elephants were heading our way. If they caught our scent they would sound the alarm. When it seemed that they would smell us any second they turned right and marched behind the blind.
The leopard arrived at 5:48 p.m.
The big cat was staring right into my soul as I looked through the scope at him. His greenish-gold eyes glowed in the early evening light. Just when I was certain that he had seen or heard some movement in the blind, he turned and ripped another chunk of meat from the elephant leg.
I tightened the butt of the rifle in my shoulder and tried to time the cat’s feeding movements. He reached forward, tore off some meat, and straightened up as he swallowed — dipping forward and rolling back. I started my trigger squeeze as he swallowed and saw him dip as the sear broke.
“Great shot, Bill! He fell right out of the tree!” Rex said as he pounded my shoulder. I was filled with a mix of exhilaration, relief and sadness. It was dark by the time we found the cat dead under the tree. The 180-grain Swift A-frame had drilled both lungs and hit the spine.
The next six days were consumed hunting plains game as I began planning how and when I would be back to hunt with Rex and his team.–William C. Hollis III