Night Of The Leopard

Safari shopping

After days of trying to outsmart the cagey old leopard, he finally hit the bait. Raphael said, “SHOOT!” and I gently squeezed the trigger on my .416. Fire belched from the muzzle and in the blink of an eye, the leopard was gone.

Mel Gulbransan, a friend from Canada, joined me on his first African safari, hunting with Hilary Daffi Safaris from Tanzania. Our hunting destination was the Muhesi Game Reserve, which is known for having lots of leopards, big Cape buffalo, good populations of sable, roan and several other species.

The trees and vegetation in most of the reserve is quite thick. It had rained hard before we arrived, resulting in the vegetation rapidly greening up. With abundant food and water, the animals did not have to move very much, so it was somewhat more challenging to find them.

For plains game I took my H-S Precision rifle chambered in .300 Win. Mag. equipped with a Leupold VX-6 3-18x variable scope. My loads were topped with Barnes 180-grain TTSX bullets. For dangerous game, I took my CZ 550 Safari chambered in .416 Rigby, topped with a Trijicon 3-9x variable scope shooting Barnes 400-grain TSX soft points.

Raphael glassing for game.
Raphael glassing for game.

Mel hunted with Hilary’s nephew, Andrew, and my PH was Raphael, who I have hunted with several times. Both PHs are seasoned professionals who really know their business.

I have taken several big Cape buffalo while hunting with Hilary, including a huge old “Dugga Boy” I shot last year that had massive bosses and horns that were 44 inches wide and I was hoping for an opportunity to take an even bigger bull this year.

Mel started his safari off with a “Big Bang,” taking a very nice roan and sable during the first two days. With good baits hanging, Mel concentrated on getting the trophy of his dreams, a leopard, as well as kudu and buffalo, which were also high on his wish list.

Raphael and I spent the first few days tracking buffalo. We saw several nice bulls, but not the once in a lifetime “Dugga Boy” we were looking for. I saw big kudu almost every day, but couldn’t find a sable or roan. On the other hand, Mel saw numerous roan and sable, but no buffalo or kudu. That went on for several days and was getting to be a bit frustrating. Each night at camp, we compared our experiences of the day and jokingly talked about shooting each other’s game or riding with each other’s PH for a while.

The author and Raphael with his big buffalo.
The author and Raphael with his big buffalo.

One day when we decided to look for a sable, Raphael noticed a black spot in some really thick bushes. He said, “Oh, Gary! Huge buffalo!” and over the next couple of really intense hours we had the biggest buffalo I have ever seen on the ground with huge bosses and horns that were 45 inches wide. This old “Dugga Boy” had been a serious warrior with large scars all over his body, indicating many battles for survival over the years. He had obviously fought off many lion attacks and had been a true survivor.

With a big buffalo “in the salt,” it was time to concentrate on finding a roan.

In 12 safaris to Africa I have never had the opportunity to take a mature bull roan. One way or the other, they have always been able to elude me. One morning we left camp before daylight and headed for an area where Andrew and Mel had seen roan and sable nearly every day. Just after witnessing a beautiful sunrise, one of the trackers spotted roan tracks and fresh spoor crossing the road. While the bakke (Land Cruiser) was coming to an abrupt halt, I was busy grabbing my rifle and binoculars. Even though there were multiple tracks going in different directions, the trackers soon deciphered which ones belonged to a big bull and we were on our way through the bush.

I never cease being amazed at the ability African trackers have. The soil was very much hardpan and there was thick bush grass lying in all directions. Tracking a heavy animal like a buffalo is one thing because they weigh enough to leave tracks even in hardpan soil, but tracking an antelope is much more difficult in these conditions. We were on the roan’s tracks for nearly an hour when suddenly Raphael grabbed my arm and said, “Don’t move.”

The author poses with his sable.
The author poses with his sable.

Several hundred yards ahead, a cow roan was looking at us. Everyone froze in their tracks for several minutes before the big female finally put her head down and started eating again. At that point, the vegetation was quite open with very few trees, sparse bushman’s grass and a couple of termite mounds. Raphael whispered for everyone to stay put then motioned to one of the trackers and me to kneel down and follow him closely in single file. We planned to use the first termite mound to block our view from the feeding roan that was about four hundred yards away.

Once we caught our breath and the cow started to feed again, we moved to the right a few feet where we were reasonably well concealed behind the next termite mound about 150 to 200 yards away.

Going was really slow at that point as we stayed in a crouched position behind Raphael trying to minimize the roan’s ability to see us. We would take a couple steps, glass and repeat the process. Once we were at the termite mound, Raphael belly crawled to the side of the little hill where he had a good vantage point. The little mound was only about four feet tall, so I stretched out on the ground trying to get the cramps out of my legs and back. Pretty soon our tracker motioned for me to belly crawl over to Raphael and then with his hands made a gesture to be really careful and be ready.

I made it to Raphael OK, but could not see the roan. I glassed the area with my binoculars, but just could not see anything except the cautious female that was acting nervous. As hard as I looked, I just could not see the bull that I assumed was near the cow until Raphael pushed my binoculars in a different direction. Frantically scanning back and forth I finally saw horns protruding above some bushes. The big bull was lying down behind a dead fall perfectly camouflaged and was quartering away from us about 240 yards away. The cow was off to the right a little ways from the bull and about 150 yards away, staring in our direction and acting more skittish by the minute. To make things worse, the wind was also swirling around us. This was not a perfect situation by any means.

The big bull was still unaware of our presence, but I had no shot opportunity where I was. The only chance I had was to move to my left out in the open, stand up, and then either shoot off hand, which I am not very good at, or use shooting sticks at a distance that is farther than I prefer when having to make a quick shot.

Raphael and I both thought the cow was ready to take off, which would undoubtedly spook the bull, so when she finally turned her head I slowly stood up while Raphael set up the sticks. Unfortunately, the sticks were a little tall, so when I placed my rifle in the “V” of the sticks, I had to stand on my tiptoes to get my crosshairs on the bull. As anticipated, the big roan immediately jumped up, I managed a quick shot just as he bolted, then shot again at the running antelope just before he disappeared into the bushes. My first shot felt reasonably good, but everything happened so quickly that I just wasn’t sure. We frantically took off after the big roan, found his trail and located him piled up in the bushes about 100 yards away. My shot was a bit forward, hitting him in the neck and severing the jugular.

Author's roan
Author’s roan

I had been a trying to harvest a mature bull roan for a long time, and finally had a nice trophy. Talk about a happy hunter and crew, we all had huge smiles, giving each other high fives and just savored the moment. Even though I have taken some very difficult and fantastic trophies over the years, this one made my safari seem “complete.” It is a feeling that is hard to explain unless you have had that experience.

Mel was successful in taking most of the animals on his wish list, including a nice leopard. With about seven days left of our safari, I suggested to Hilary that we should consider taking Mel to his Masailand concession since there were different species of animals available and it was pretty much on our way back to Arusha. I hunted in Masailand with Hilary the year before and it was one of the most fun hunts I have ever been on.

I shot everything I had come for on this trip except a leopard, but since I already have three it wasn’t a big deal for me to shoot another one. I felt that way right up until a huge leopard Raphael had been hunting for more than a year hit one of the baits. Raphael had a huge smile and a sparkle in his eye then said, “We have to get this cat.”

During the trip, I had talked so much about Masailand that Mel was all excited about hunting the area. Now I was in an awkward position. If we stuck to our plan of moving to the other concession, I would only have a couple days to try for the big leopard.

Mel and crew with his white bearded gnu.
Mel and crew with his white bearded gnu.

We put up trail cameras trying to pattern the big leopard’s movements, but there was absolutely no regularity to when he came back to the bait. We spent hours in a ground blind and then leaving only to have the wise old cat show up soon after we left. Thinking that the leopard might be getting our scent, we built a tree blind that we sat in for hours upon hours with the same result. We would leave, and then find out the cat showed up 30 minutes later. Each day we told Mel that we would leave for Masailand the next day, and then the cat would hit the bait again. We were finally down to having only two full hunting days left of our safari, so we told Mel that one way or the other, we would leave at 3:30 a.m. the next morning for Masailand.

At that point, I was totally frustrated and distraught. The cagey leopard had out smarted us the entire time. Hour after hour, we sat motionless in the blind, not daring to make a sound. We had about fifteen minutes left before we absolutely had to leave. The sun had set and nightfall was rapidly approaching, making it almost too dark to see when it happened. The big leopard silently moved through the brush to the base of the tree where our bait hung. He cautiously looked around for several minutes, took one or two steps, looked around again, took another step or two then finally jumped into the tree. I could barely see the cat as he cautiously moved closer to the bait. He smelled the bait, took a bite, looked around again then took another couple of bites. I quietly slid my .416 into position and focused my scope on the cat’s shoulder. He stood up, Raphael said, “Shoot,” and I slowly squeezed the trigger. Just as I shot, the leopard crouched and started to turn, most likely getting ready to jump from the tree. My bullet went right over his back. I couldn’t believe it.

Mel and his leopard
Mel and his leopard

I wasn’t sure that I even wanted to write this story. I was so frustrated with myself over what I had just done that I will forever rethink what I did wrong and remember the day that I missed the largest leopard I have ever seen. That is hunting, it happens to all of us at one time or the other.
Other than me missing the leopard, this was another fantastic safari and is why I just have to keep going back to the “Dark Continent.”–Gary Christensen

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