Editor’s Note: On Fridays we reach back into the archives and dust off a gem from a past issue. This week we follow a first-timer to Africa and watch as his leopard hunt becomes a bit more exciting than he anticipated. This story originally appeared in the September/October 2009 issue of Safari Magazine.
African sights and sounds can be disconcerting, especially on the first trip. One hears Swahili and Arabic, Shambala and Makonde. Naked children race through airports. Families cook chickens beside the terminals.
Crowds in colorful costumes. Magnificent hairdos. Ritually scarified faces and arms. Security and ticket-taking are hap-hazard. Even seasoned travelers can feel overwhelmed.
African “newbie” Jim George said everything was strange and yet, oddly similar to what he expected. With hunting partners, Michigan friends Jim Barcia and Bob Eastman, George landed in Dar es Salaam in 2007 to hunt Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve with Paulo Shanalingigua of Pori Trackers.
Jim took up hunting fairly late in life, searching for an outlet that his business, operating railroads, remarkably, did not consume. Observant, confident, and guided by his friends, he had become a fine shot with gun and bow. For this safari, he packed a 58-pound Mathews compound bow and Eastman Carbon Express arrows.
Jim set his Sights on a Cape buffalo and a leopard, ambitious goals for an African newbie. To take a buffalo and a big cat on one expedition, animals that are hunted quite differently – the buff by stalking the veldt, the leopard from a blind near bait – Jim would have to exercise the full range of his competitive energies and all of his fairly recently acquired hunting skill. A little luck would help as well.
Leopard hunting consists of finding fresh leopard tracks, shooting the bait, and finding a suitable tree in the leopard’s range. Blood and decay are generally irresistible to hunting felines.
After locating leopard tracks, Paulo’s scouts hung three baits. A leopard must feel safe, and yet the client must be within comfortable shooting range. And most hunters swear they never knew a leopard was in the area until they saw it chewing the bait.
Still, no less authority than Jim Corbett, 20th century specialist in man-eating leopards and tigers, said hunters have one advantage. It is especially significant to bowhunters who rarely shoot beyond 40 yards and are thus obsessive about wind patterns. Leopards, Corbett claimed, have no sense of smell.
Bob Eastman had sent lightweight pop-up blinds to use for leopard hunting. Inside an enclosed, camouflaged, and black-lined blind a hunter could move slowly and quietly without being seen. .
So after hanging baits, the hunters waited. For a newbie, eager to hunt and shoot, this was the hard part – or so Jim George thought. The railroad man harbored not a single doubt that he could place an arrow into a leopard’s vitals at any reasonable distance.
The first night, two baits were visited.
The first evening, Jim sighted on the hardball-size kill zone of a c
at’s chest. Through the blind’s narrow window, the shot was slightly upward at 20 yards, his mentor’s compromise distance. The arrow flew high.
Jim cursed. Every hunter occasionally misses. It is an undeniable fact. No lawyer wins every case; no doctor rescues every patient; no evangelist saves every soul.
Jim’s cat – or possibly another – returned the very next evening. Suddenly, a leopard was behind them. From the comer of his eye, Paulo saw a nose only inches from the blind. Raising one finger, he signaled the American. Hands tightened, sweat dripped, the hunters froze.
The leopard paused to bat the blind’s zipped entrance, then walked past, disappearing momentarily before leaping into the tree. Even there, silhouetted against a still-bright sky, it glared into the blind.
This evening, perhaps overcompensating for the previous day, Jim’s arrow missed low, flying beneath the limb. The third day, a leopard came to Jim’s bait just at dusk. Once in the tree, it too stared at the blind.
On video a leopard’s stare is chilling. Ears flatten, eyes narrow, nostrils flare and the guard hairs around its muzzle puff outward. The vertical pupils seem to penetrate beyond vision. But it is the mouth, the insolent grinning lips and yellow incisors that draw a man’s eye, for the teeth are ideally adapted to seize and rip.
Teeth fascinate and yet it is back claws that do the evil work of shredding and gutting. The claws and those delicate, powerful legs are disemboweling machines. No power on earth could save you once that happened.
Again Jim brought the bow to vertical and released his arrow. Again he missed. This leopard angled to the side and stared intently at the blind. It snarled. It was troubled, but was not afraid. Polyester blinds and fiberglass arrows are not part of its ancestral memories.
Jim took a deep breath and reached toward the quiver for another arrow. Jim hesitated. There was movement on the ground near the bait. Sunset would not be long in coming, and lions would be grocery shopping. Unless it flees, the leopard could become their dinner.
But the movement was another leopard, a huge animal that sprang upward effortlessly. Paulo felt a thrill of amazement. Here was a world class feline – certainly the territory’s alpha male. Now, two leopards maneuvered around the impala carcass.
Night fell. They had to sneak out of the blind without alarming the cats. Paulo keyed the hand-held radio, which crackled. Paulo’s trackers piled into the Land Cruiser. It rumbled toward the blind and the leopards vanished.
Paulo suggested taking a few days off. “Break the spell,” he said (“of bad luck,” he left unsaid).
They went hippo hunting, which is surprisingly akin to stalking buffalo. Again and again, hippos splashed away. Jim’s shot had to be good. The hippo must fall on a sandbar or in shallow water because sinking into a deep river pool meant dangerous work for Paulo’s men. Deep water hides crocodiles and other hippos.
You can hunt hippo in the same manner as crocodiles. Using available cover, one carefully stalks them. The grunting, splashing mammals are keenly aware of activity around their swimming holes. At night they feed in nearby meadows and, with luck, can sometimes be ambushed as they return to water at first light.
Ultimately, Jim shot an enormous bull, and six members of Paulo’s crew worked half a day to haul it out of the river. George gave the carcass to Jim Barcia for lion bait. Lions prefer the taste of road kill to the risk of fresh buffalo, and when it comes to hippo, the king of beasts is hooked.
When, on the tenth day, they returned to leopard hunting, Jim took Paulo’s .375 H&H and, just before nightfall, nailed his leopard. It was never quite that easy on this hunt, however.
Jim hit but had not recovered a leopard. Dead is one thing – wounded, quite another.
No blood was pooled near the bait, and very little was sprinkled along the narrow streambed approach. Only yards wide, the bottom was sandy. With brush overgrowing the sides and cascading down onto the streambed itself, the few drops of blood showed as tiny dark spots.
Men strung out for a dozen yards racker ahead of guide, assistant racker / driver, client, and government game scout – searching carefully, but disturbing evidence of any leopard’s passage.
Paulo halted the human parade. turn back, he murmured, back along he ravine. Everyone turned around. the game scout – originally in the rear, now in the lead – stopped and whispered for Paulo to squeeze forward past the others. His voice is unusually soft. The government man knelt and pointed at the sand.
Instead of looking down with Paulo, however, he looked up into the brush and thumbed the safety of his bolt-action rifle. He has found blood, one shining droplet, and fresh in the impression of a boot.
The gully is a trap. The leopard is not dead. Now the big cat, angry and in pain, is stalking the hunters. It could be anywhere, but it is certainly close. It knew exactly where they were, and how many. It heard them shuffle, talk, breathe. It heard hearts beat and blood pulsing through valves.
Paulo lifted the muzzle of his shotgun and eased the safety off. It is no longer a casual morning. This cat has made the connection. Now it is the seeker.
This feline could be in front or behind – or inches away on either side. Even now, it was watching them – five men in a narrow, twisting gully choked with brush.
Paulo checked the 00 shell in his 12- gauge. What was he thinking, allowing these men to follow him here? His responsibility was to lead them out.
A slight rustling came from the left and the leopard balanced to begin its rush.
Paulo threw the shotgun to his shoulder and fired. The cat leapt.
Buckshot smashed squarely onto its head and chest. It tumbled end over end, down through the brush and lay perfectly still.
Jim George’s first African hunt is over, at last. No longer a newbie, he was ready to go to the airport – to any airport. His exotic adventure was complete.
During Jim George’s hunt with Pori Trackers in Tanzania he and his hunting partners bagged a leopard, a hippo, Cape buffalo, warthog, wildebeest and other plains game. “I wanted to do something just for me,” Jim said. “I work very hard and it was time. –Rick Sapp