The alarm bark of a lone kudu cow drifted through the crisp, cold early morning darkness from somewhere high up the mountain valley. Her persistent barking made it clear something was moving through the bush causing her great distress. Peter leaned over while we sat quietly in the blind and whispered, “leopard.”
The kudu was signaling a warning to all her kind within hearing distance that a large predator was stalking through the dense Namibian bush. After a short time, the kudu’s alarm calls became less frantic and more distant as she moved toward the mountain. To our left we heard the low guttural, raspy cough of a large male leopard steadily increase in volume as he approached our bait tree. He was answered with another series of deep raspy coughs from a second male leopard heading towards our bait tree from the opposite direction. A third leopard, which we presumed to be a female, began to softly call in the thick acacia bush directly across the dry sandy creek opposite the bait tree.
In all the years of hunting leopards, my guide and long time friend, Peter Hinterholzer, had never heard such vocalization from multiple leopards all heading to one destination–our bait tree. The stage was set for a dramatic encounter with not just one, but three of Africa’s most elusive and cunning predators. All we could do now is sit quietly in the darkness and wait for the early morning light while being serenaded by a trio of leopards moving ever closer to our blind.
My quest for a leopard began in 2009 while on safari in the Erongo Mountains of Namibia with Peter Hinterholzer of Erongo Lodge. I have hunted several seasons with Peter and his father Karl, collecting huge mountain kudu, oryx and Hartmann mountain zebra. It was not until 2007 when I got my first glimpse of an Erongo Mountain leopard in broad daylight as he confidently and boldly walked to a waterhole. He was a magnificent specimen, cautious yet unafraid, and I knew at that moment my next safari would be for leopard, so I scheduled a return trip in 2009.
However, halfway through the 2009 safari season and prior to my arrival, the CITES quota was met and the season closed early. The closure extended into the 2010 safari season as well in order to use the year to put new leopard trophy hunting control mechanisms in place.
When leopard hunting reopened in 2011, I booked a hunt with Peter for the 2012 season. Peter uses trail cameras as well as tracks to determine which baits are actively frequented by large dominant males. One particular trail camera image of a huge leopard feeding at the bait caught our attention. He was a massive cat and a truly dominant male in his territory. After viewing his image, I knew he was the leopard I was after. This was an incredibly smart and cautious leopard and had a history with Peter for he had tried many times over the years to put hunters onto this leopard with no success.
This cat had managed to establish and defend his territory in the Erongo Mountains for many years and his tracks could often be seen prowling along the dry riverbed and near the livestock Kraals, which gave Peter reason for concern. Although I was unsuccessful in harvesting the leopard that season, I immediately rebooked for another try at him in 2013. Peter assured me that this cat would not abandon his territory and will most likely remain in the vicinity as long as he maintained his status as dominant male, so we would try for him again in 2013.
A combination of severe drought and an epidemic of kudu rabies contributed to another unsuccessful hunt for the big cat in 2013. Kudu carcasses were plentiful and could be found through out the bush where leopards, especially the big male, could feast at their leisure and never have to return to the same carcass to feed. The baits we set out were hardly ever touched and it proved extremely difficult to pattern leopard movement.
Peter and I both knew that targeting a specific leopard would be difficult, but we persisted and I again rebooked for a hunt in 2014. Meanwhile, the trail camera image of the big male leopard feeding on the bait lying across that acacia tree limb haunted my dreams and filled my thoughts throughout the year. The 2014 leopard hunt began with high hopes as trail camera images showed the leopard frequently feeding in his favorite tree numerous times prior to my arrival. However, the big leopard proved to be elusive and inconsistent with frequenting the bait after my arrival.
Early into the hunt, we were awoken one night to the screams and growls of two male leopards locked in a fierce battle for dominance and territory. The sounds of those two males fighting for supremacy echoed through the mountains and chilled us to our bones as we sat and listened in the cool night air. The fight lasted for quite some time and it finally ceased as dawn approached. After that incident, the baits were never touched and we feared the worse for our leopard. Perhaps he may have been injured in the fight with another big male or worse yet, killed.
I returned home without a leopard and disheartened to think that the big leopard may have been killed and that his image may never again be seen on the trail camera. Then late in 2014, Peter informed me he found the tracks of the big male in the dry sandy creek bed he had used as a trail for years and felt confident this was “the” leopard we were looking for. Trail camera photos confirmed our leopard was alive and well. Peter was concerned that the leopard had been prowling close to his father’s sheep kraals and that several sheep had been recently killed and partially eaten by a leopard. The tracks indicated that the big male might be the culprit.
July 2015 found me back in my beloved Erongo Mountains with Peter checking leopard baits for signs of activity. Prior to my arrival, the baits were being visited on a regular basis and the big male’s tracks could clearly be seen up and down his favorite dry sandy creek bed going to and from the bait tree.
This particular acacia tree we used for hanging bait was special. It is situated along the bank of a dry sandy creek bed and has a large horizontal limb, approximately six feet from the ground to serve as a perch for the leopard to leisurely feed on the bait, usually a zebra hindquarter lashed to the tree trunk.
It is high enough to prevent hyenas from reaching the bait, yet low enough for the leopard to leap onto the limb in a single bound. The sandy creek bed was surrounded by thick acacia thorn bush along its banks and served as a natural travel corridor for the leopard, allowing the big cat to quietly and stealthily approach the bait tree undetected. It took Peter a number of years to locate such an ideal bait tree and it has produced many leopard trophies over time.
The blind was placed 63 meters uphill from the tree. Natural vegetation and thorn bush are used to help blend the blind into the surrounding landscape. A shooting lane was cleared to the horizontal limb and when we organized the shooting rest and chairs, all was set. The footpath leading to the blind was meticulously raked and cleared of debris to minimize any sounds we made while approaching the blind and fresh bait was lashed onto the tree two days prior to my arrival. Now all we had to do is wait for the leopard to return.
Six days into the hunt, no baits had been touched, so I spent my days hunting kudu, oryx and zebra. It was a little discouraging to think that halfway through my hunt, leopards had been a no-show. After checking the bait on the morning of the seventh day, we were rewarded with good news. The bait where we thought the big male leopard frequented had been hit, and the trail camera confirmed it was indeed a huge male. He had visited the bait during the hours of 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m., so we decided to enter our blind during the early morning darkness on the eighth day and wait for legal shooting light and our leopard.
This brings me to the beginning of my story.
The male’s raspy calls drew closer and we knew that a territorial battle for dominance and mating rights might be occurring for the female who was now very near the bait tree. As the first rays of early morning sunlight broke like golden hues over the mountains, a shadow with spots appeared under the bait tree. The leopard seemed very nervous and unsure as he approached the tree. In a single bound, he was on the limb heading for the bait, but before I could settle the crosshairs of my scope on his shoulder, he was gone. Just like that, in one fluid motion he disappeared.
Peter was not too surprised at that behavior and cautioned me to be ready when he gives the signal to shoot. After what seemed like forever, but was actually only four or five minutes, I looked up to see the tree limb covered with moving spots as the huge male leopard lay across the limb, feeding leisurely on the zebra hindquarter, oblivious to our presence. We never heard him approach, or saw him come to the tree, he just suddenly was there on the limb.
The huge male appeared very relaxed as he fed on the zebra meat and showed no sign of being in a hurry. This was a magnificent cat and undeniably the dominant leopard. I am told all animals have a sixth sense that alerts them to danger and I have witnessed that at times. For some unexplained reason, the leopard stopped feeding momentarily and focused his attention toward our blind.
As I stared into his glowing amber eyes I understood what other hunters meant when they warned about gazing into the mesmerizing eyes of a leopard, it feels like he is looking into your very soul. It was difficult to regain my composure, but I eventually managed to control my breathing and settle the crosshairs of my scope high on the cat’s shoulder as he returned to feed. When Peter gave me the signal to shoot, my trusty .300 Remington Ultra Mag roared, sending a 200-grain Nosler Partition through the big cat’s muscular shoulders. The leopard shuddered for a moment, clinging to the tree limb, and then fell lifeless into the dry creek bed below.
Because the creek bank dropped off suddenly, it obscured our view of the fallen leopard. Peter was very anxious to rush to the bait tree and, although I was confident that the lethal high shoulder shot found it’s mark, I cautioned him to wait just a little while we listened for any signs of movement. I reminded him this was a very large leopard and that we should proceed with extreme caution. The words of Karl Hinterholzer kept echoing in my mind, “Leopards are not only dangerous… they are deadly.”
So Peter and I sat quietly for a few moments listening to the sounds of the African bush awake to a new dawn. The leopard was mostly hidden by the creek bank and we could not see the cat until we were directly upon him. When we first saw him, we couldn’t believe our eyes. He was huge, bigger than either one of us expected. This truly was THE leopard we had been waiting for all these years. My four-year quest had come to an end.
A flood of emotions swept over me from elation to sadness and I could tell Peter was shaking from his emotions as well. We both tried to pick up the leopard but he was way too heavy for either of us to carry uphill to the Land Rover, so it was decided that Peter would return to camp for help while I stayed back with the trophy. I was not about to leave such a magnificent animal lying in the bush unattended, especially since I knew there were hyenas and two other leopards prowling about.
As I sat on the creek bank next to this great cat waiting for Peter to return with help, I offered my sincerest gratitude to God for allowing me the privilege to be here in this place, at this time of my life and to harvest one of his most beautiful creatures and I promised that I would honor Him by preparing a taxidermy mount that would show people God’s glorious creations.
When Peter returned with help, we were able to load the cat onto the Land Rover and then sort out the tracks in the sandy soil. The tracks told the story of one young male leopard challenging the old male for the right of dominance for his territory. The young male was the first leopard I saw acting nervous on the tree limb near the bait. He made a wise and hasty retreat when the old dominant male showed up with his female in tow. It was then that the old male leaped onto the limb to feed, allowing me the opportunity I had been waiting for more than four years.
The camp staff greeted us with handshakes and congratulations as they admired the leopard stretched out across the truck bed. The locals always appreciate when a huge male leopard is harvested as they sleep a little easier at night.
Many professional hunters will agree that the leopard is the most difficult and cunning of the Big Five to successfully hunt. My own experience will testify to that. Both Peter and I realized how special this leopard, the quest, and the experience was to each of us. I could not imagine any one else I would rather share this adventure with. We will certainly remember this hunt for the rest of our lives.–Robert Halbritter