Flashback Friday – Last Minute Leopard


Editor’s Note: On Fridays we reach back into the extensive Safari archives and dust off a gem from one of our past issues. This week, we travel to Zimbabwe and a long and challenging hunt for leopard. This story originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 1988 issue of Safari Magazine.

The late afternoon sun was warming our handmade “hide” and Ray Toor, professional hunter, the old hand with leopards, was saying, “When a leopard comes for you, he doesn’t let you know.” He cut off a piece of biltong with his pocket knife. “He comes without warning, he comes without sound, and he comes fast.”

I have hunted with Ray before, in 1980 and 1983. He usually doesn’t talk much, unless it’s about the bush and its inhabitants. We are speaking softly, quietly, in whispers, waiting for the leopard, although we don’t expect the big cat until sundown.

Ray’s knowledge about the bush is encyclopedic, and what he was saying about wounded leopards wasn’t elevating my confidence in the slightest. I reach out and touch my .375 H&H Magnum – almost as if to draw assurance that all will go well, that the shot will be clean and true.

I’ve got 300-grain Sierras loaded in front of a heavy charge of 4350 powder, a load I’ve used on a variety of African game from impala to Cape buffalo. It’s a satisfactory performer and that helps my confidence. It also helps when Ray says he’s killed leopard with his ancient Walther “twotwo” Hornet.

“You’ve got to hit them right.” he says. W.D.M. “Karamojo” Bell took 1,000 elephants in his time. most of them with his little 7×57. He hit them right. But then, that was Bell and this is Toor telling me about his “two-two” Hornet and hitting them right. And that’s all right, too. Me, I belong to the Robert Ruark school. I use enough gun.

On paper, the leopard is easy to kill.

Compared to the other members of the Big Five, it is a thin-skinned, small-boned critter. An average male adult human is significantly heavier than an average adult male leopard – for whatever that’s worth. It is difficult to imagine the incredible strength that flexes under that magnificent gold and black coat. And its speed at close quarters is positively uncanny – it’s best not to think of its speed, not if you want to continue hunting leopards. You might suddenly decide to become an addicted frisbee player.

There are numerous cases on record that describe how a wounded leopard charged, slashing several people in the hunting party and then disappearing in the bush before a shot could be fired.

But I’m getting ahead of my story … For several days now, we’ve bounced along looking for the spoor of a respectable-sized leopard. Tracks we’ve found in abundance, but none that made Ray sit up with interest.

The misled and misguided folk who contend that the leopard is on the road to join the dinosaur and the dodo bird should visit the land of the leopard and discover, if they’re willing to see, that it is doing quite nicely, thank you. In some areas it is so prolific it is considered vermin, at least as far as the farmers are concerned.

On the seventh day, we had come on the spoor of a leopard that caught Ray’s interest. He studied it for a moment, walked a few paces along the track, then held a brief consultation with his trackers, Elias and Gottfried. “Yes, this one will do nicely,” he said. “Let’s get him.”

I then collected an impala ram, and we dragged it across the leopard tracks for a quarter mile to a suitable mopane tree and propped the ram about seven feet off the ground in a crotch straddling the limb so it wouldn’t slip off. If the leopard followed our script, it would find the bait and drag it a short distance, eat a bit before covering it to return the following day. This could be sometime around sunset (depending upon how hungry it was) or anytime during the night and right up to sunrise. For us, it would be a matter of waiting silent and unseen, hoping it would come when there was enough shooting light.

Safari shopping

We had a strike the next day. The leopard, precisely following the script, had dragged the bait about 150 yards, eaten a part of the hams, then covered it with just a few strings of long grass and a sprinkling of leaves.

Dense growth had forced us to erect the blind, or “hide,” as Ray called it, 30 paces from the bait. Constructed of long slender bamboo rods sewn tightly on burlap, the walls were suspended from a frame made of iron pipe. The entire thing was 7×7 feet and had two look-through holes on one side. While Ray and I busied ourselves putting it up, Elias and Gottfried cut mopane branches, which they banked against the sides in an attempt to make our blind appear as if it belonged in the tall grass and
had always been there.

With the bait in place, Ray suspended a microphone from a hanging branch about four feet above the impala. The cord was strung along the brush back to the blind where the wire was connected to an earphone receiver. The mike was so sensitive you could hear the flies buzzing over the bait. Ah, modern technology It was Ray’s early warning system.

With this, he can hear the leopard at the bait. It is an edge. More importantly, we don’t risk being seen by the cat when we look out through the opening in the blind.

Ray mutters about the blind being too close to the bait. He doesn’t like it this close because there’s too great a chance for the leopard to spot us. But we have no choice. Our setup will have to do.

Finished, we drive back to camp, have lunch, stuff our pockets with dried fruit and biltong, and make our way again to the hide. The ground is dusty as we worm around the thorn bushes and mopane. It is late June and winter here in the Zimbabwian low veld, but the bush has not yet turned brown. Unseasonable rains have kept the foliage green, the grass tall.

Not knowing when the leopard will feed, we are prepared for an all-night stand. Because the moon is full, Ray guesses that it may be dawn when the cat comes, if it comes at all. On the other hand, he says, it could be hungry enough to come at sunset.

“Leopards are unpredictable,” he says. “We’ve just got to be here ahead of him and wait.”

A chilly breeze comes up as the sun drops out of sight. Leopards have excellent eyesight and even better hearing, so we must be utterly without sound. My .375 rests in the ready position in a crude tripod made of short, wrist-thick sticks. The purpose of this make-shift tripod is not to substitute for a shooting bench, but to keep movement to an absolute minimum. When the time comes, the rifle will be pointing at the bait and I should be able to get on target with practically no movement.

Ray is sitting back, relaxed, listening to his earphone. I am munching on a dried peach. Darkness comes without the leopard showing up. About 2 a.m., a small crunching sound in Ray’s earphone snaps him up. After listening intently for a moment, he relaxes. “It’s a small critter,” he whispers, “probably a civet cat.” The black-spotted civet stays until dawn, but the leopard does not come. I doze, half-in, half-out of sleep. As the morning light arrives, we sit up, blinking hopefully at the bait.

Nothing.

The sun is over the treetops when we gather our gear and drive back to camp, munching biltong along the way.

We practice this exercise and put out other baits for the next few days, but have no luck. Before I know it, my time to return home is uncomfortably close.

Two days before my flight departs for the States, we come across the tracks of a large leopard and another bait goes up. Our hopes are at half-mast until we visit it the next morning and learn that the impala is gone. The big cat had come, claimed its meal, and dragged it about 100 yards and stashed the bait under a nubby thorn tree.

It would have been better if the cat had hauled the impala up a tree. This would have given us a better view of the bait, and more shooting light. We debate whether we should move the kill to a nearby tree, but we finally decide not to risk alerting the leopard. The brush and terrain allow us to erect the blind 60 paces away, so Gottfried cuts a swath in the long grass to provide an unobstructed view. The bait is tied in the tree so the leopard can’t drag it out of the line, and Ray parks the Land Cruiser about a half mile away. The trackers have brought their blankets and will stay in the hunting car.

It is 3:30 p.m., and we are in the blind, ready, waiting and watching silently. As each moment passes, my hopes are fading.

The sun slips behind the tall acacias.

The African dusk is settling around us. There is a sound in the earphone and Ray nudges me. 1 squint through the scope and see a civet cat busily eating on the bait. Ray shrugs and leans back again. It’s going to be a long night.

After a few moments, Ray pokes me again and again I squint down the cleared lane into the gathering dusk. I can see only the civet.

“Shoot! Shoot!” Ray whispers urgently. I can’t understand why he wants me to shoot this civet. but I know Ray must have had a reason. I touch the trigger. At the shot, the bushes at the bait rattle and the civet is gone.

“You got himl” Ray says.

“Got what, a damn civet cat~” “Civet, hell. You got the leopard!”

We are approaching slowly, with Ray holding his 12 gauge loaded with No.4 buck. I am clutching my .375. There is no leopard, not even a civet. We now need a flashlight to examine the bait, but we can see two quarter-size splashes of blood and three small pieces of flesh about the size of a dime. There is nothing else.

“You got him all right.’· “You mean the civet?”

‘That was no civet, that was a leopard and a big one.”

“No way I I shot a civet!”

“Leopard.” Ray says softly, but firmly. By now the African night is all around us. If I had indeed shot a leopard, rattling around in the bushes in the dark is decidedly not a healthy thing for us to be doing. I was certain of what I had shot. Ray was equally sure what he had seen. In the face of his experience, I do not argue.

“We’ll let it go,” Ray says and I breathe easier. “We’ll be here at first light to pick up his spoor.

The drive back to camp is a melancholy one. Bowing to Ray’s superior knowledge, I am rapidly becoming convinced that I must have shot at a leopard. From the meager sign around the bait. it appeared that I had only nicked him. At camp. neither of us eat. Instead. we each drink a bottle of Castle beer and hit the sack. There is no sleep for me because I am replaying that scene over and over. Could it be that Ray is wrong? Was it a civet or was it a leopard? How did it all happen?Questions plague me throughout the night. At 4:30, I dress and go out. Ray is coffeeing up. Waiting.

The cold pre-dawn air crackles our faces as we make our way back to the blind, the headlights bobbing bush-to-bush. Ray confesses that he couldn’t sleep either. So he, too. has doubts.

“I think I’ve reconstructed what happened,” he shouts into the wind. “I saw a leopard. He was a big one. In the dim light you saw only that small part of him which was visible to you about the bait. It was a classic case of wrong assumptions – I assumed you saw the leopard, you assumed that the small part you saw was the civet.”

“If you’re right, it means we have a wounded leopard to deal with.”

Ray’s response is terse. “Right you are.”

The eastern sky has turned the color of champagne. At the bait, our trackers spread out looking for spoor. Ray has brought his two dogs, Toto, the black lab, and Tequila, a yellow lab pup of seven months. The dogs are roaming about 10 or so yards ahead of Gottfried and Elias, who have just now found the spoor. All doubts have vanished. It was a leopard. A large one.

It’s funny what you think when you are going into a suffocating tangle of brush after a wounded leopard. Sure, I’m thinking about that leopard, but there are also other thoughts, crazy, unrelated flashes of thought, bits and pieces of thought, fragments of thoughts shooting through my mind like an exploding grenade. I’m moving slowly, ever so slowly, everything in me tense. My eyes and ears have become radar dishes sweeping back and forth, even my skin seems to be picking up sounds and movement. I’ve been transformed into a hunting machine. I can feel my roots in some 2,000-years-ago past. Civilization is a dim memory. My rifle, my .375 H&H magnum, feels more like a club than a high powered rifle and I’m wondering how it would do as a club if the cat comes fast and close, too fast for me to point, too close to put the muzzle against that streaking gold and black body. Will I be able to ward off something that’s hell-bent on making me into raw hamburger?

We have gone about 200 yards when Gottfried finds a small patch of blood in the sand. The leopard had rested. This is the first encouraging sign. Another 100 yards. The cat had rested again. We press on slowly, all tense, all eyes looking for the black and gold that blends so well in the grass. Ray has his shotgun with the 18-inch barrel, Elias is carrying Ray’s “two-two” Hornet. The dogs are ranging ahead. Suddenly, as one, both dogs return to Ray. Both of Us see the movement ahead. Ray signals the trackers back and we move side-by-side, even more slowly now, until Ray abruptly stops and signals to his right. Seven yards away under a small thorn tree, a leopard is laboring to get up. Its back is to us, but it is clear that this is a very sick cat.

Rays signals for Elias and me to swap rifles. As the leopard rises and turns toward us, head high, mouth open, snarling, almost in slow motion I put the little “twotwo” slug behind its ear and it collapses. We approach cautiously, but it is dead.

The tension snaps. There is jumping, yelling, back-pounding, congratulations, hand-shaking. Even the dogs bark. Gottfried, in particular, is exuberant. “Why are they so happy?” I ask. “Nyama ingwe,” Gottfried says. “He likes leopard meat,” Ray translates, laughing. Nothing goes to waste in Africa.

I have taken a fine leopard, one that will make the SCI Record Book of Trophy Animals by a whisker. The .375 bullet had entered the chest in front of the right shoulder and had gone out behind the left shoulder. The .300-grain slug had missed the heart and had broken no major bones on its way through, but the cat had bled internally and was near death when we reached it.

There is the picture-taking ritual, both at the site of the kill and back at camp, and then I am packing hurriedly for the long drive to the Bulawayo airport. I remind Ray that last-minute kills of Big Five animals are getting to be a habit with us.

“Don’t you remember? When I got my Cape buffalo? That too, was at the last minute of the last hour.”

Ray grins. “Sure,” he says, “I plan it that way so that I always leave them laughing – wanting to come back for more’”—T.N. Alexakos

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