Leopard: Easy Shot, but Nerves of Steel
Leopards are magnificent animals and one of the most sought after African trophies, because of the difficulties of the hunt and for their beautiful skins. Over a background of gold that fluctuates to tawny or cream, are velvety black doughnuts that become solid spots on the head, throat and tail.
The leopard is a member of the genus Panthera and is the smallest of the big cats, about the size of the North American cougar. The South American jaguar closely resembles the Leopard, with the skin also covered by rosettes, but the Jaguar is a larger and much sturdier cat.
Leopards are currently found in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia are have adapted to a variety of habitats. Their size is largely dependent on the food available in their territory, which is well delimited and ferociously defended from others.
Males live solitary lives, except during the matting season. Females are accompanied by their offspring up to their fourth month. A mature male will have between 120 to 190 pounds and females about half of that. Incidentally, in a hunting book there is a picture of a large male weighting 244.5 pounds!
Animals are what millennia of evolution has made of them, neither good nor bad. Nevertheless, it is an old habit to attribute human feelings and qualities to them. It can be said that these felines have all the positive and negative characteristics of the other cats. Neither the lion with his impressive majesty, nor the tiger with his cruel power, nor all other cats have together the magnificent lines, the beauty of allure, the richness of fur and the grace of motion of leopards. None of the others can match his neatness with an impeccable clean skin with neither dirt nor parasites. Leopards are supposed to be the most athletic as well as the most intelligent of cats. No other cat is as cruel, cunning, bloodthirsty and brave as the leopard. The most secretive and elusive of the large carnivores, the leopard is also the shrewdest.
Namibia has good populations of leopard, is a country known for safety, friendly people, and is free of the acute social problems that afflict most of Africa. I selected Namibia as the place to hunt for this remarkable member of Africa's big five.
There are basically three ways to hunt the Leopard. The most common is attracting the feline to bait and shooting from a hidden blind.
Since Leopards are excellent tree climbers and will seek safety in a tree, they can be tracked by special dogs and shot at short range and in relative safety after being treed. In sandy and tree-less terrain like the Kalahari Desert, with no trees to climb, Leopards can be tracked on foot following a good spoor on the soft ground and shot when they get tired of being followed and stop to face their pursuers. This type of hunt demands good endurance from the hunter and is more dangerous and less popular than the others.
My leopard hunt was conducted from a blind. When hunting from a blind, very often hunters reduce the hunt to the shot and do not participate in the preliminary steps taken days before their arrival at the hunting camp. They arrive and the blind has already been prepared. Their hunt will be finished in one night. In reality, the preparation of the blind is crucial.
First things first and the process begins by looking for good leopard’s spoor and figuring out the animal's range. This is where the knowledge and experience of the P.H. is critical. Next comes baiting in the territories where signs of large males were found. Zebra, Impala and Warthog are appreciated meat by leopard and commonly used for bait. One of these animals must be collected to serve as the bait.
Some P.H. advise dragging the intestines and other abdominal organs from a distance of a couple of hundred yards towards the base of the bait tree and even smearing the trunk and branches to conceal some of the human odor. The bait should be hung out of reach of hyenas and in such a way that the leopard will be broadside to the blind.
Blinds are generally constructed at distances between 50 and 120 yards and downwind from the bait. They should be high enough to hide two sitting people and the chairs must be both as comfortable and quiet as possible. It is a good practice to cover them with a blanket, which helps tremendously in suppressing noise made by body movement. Blinds are generally made of branches and local grass and are further disguised by camouflage netting. The hunter must have a clear view of the target and this is not always easy due to low light conditions, intervening branches and confusing shadows.
A well-prepared blind includes a solid rest for the hunter’s rifle, creating an environment for an easy shot that is almost as steady as a bench rest. The shot per se is usually a “piece of cake.” Indeed, any average hunter should be able to place a bullet in a 6 inch target under such conditions.
Next thing is the journey to the blind. Contrary to common belief, leopards are very watchful during the day, usually observing their domain from some adequate place not far from their lair. From there they can see and hear much of what happens in a large stretch of his territory. The hunter and the PH must approach the blind with the utmost caution. Whenever possible wait until the track to the blind falls in shadow as the sun goes down in the afternoon. A leopard will take notice of anything unusual that he can see or hear, including the reflection of the sun on a rifle barrel, stock, wrist watch, glasses and even shirt bottoms.
The hunter in a stand must be prepared to wait for several hours, motionless and in complete silence. This is one of the difficulties in this type of hunt. Leopards have among finest hearing of all African animals and good eyesight, particularly for motion. Any strange sound or unnatural movement will spook him for good. This imposes constraints on the clothes the hunter should wear. Avoid noisy fabrics that make noise. Natural fibers are best in this regard, particularly wear wool and fleece garments. Communication should only be done by gesture or agreed signals. A bottle of water can be a great help to quell a tickling throat and a small towel to dampen a cough should be close at hand.
Temperature conditions often change while waiting in the blind. Wearing layers is fine, but garments must be added or removed without using zippers, Velcro, or anything else that creates noise. Buttons are good, or a temporary expedient is to sew on some ribbons that can be tied or untied silently.
Do not assume that the Leopard will go directly to the bait. He will patrol around it until he is convinced that it is safe to climb the tree. Even after reaching the branch with the meal he will remain very suspicious and only when reassured that all is well will he start feeding. Wait for that relaxed moment!
The last problem that must be overcome, or at least controlled, to conclude a successful leopard hunt can be summed up with the American expression: “buck fever.” When sitting in the blind trying to make no suspicious sound whatsoever, with the senses heightened by the tension and concentrated to grasp any slight movement or sound, it is natural for the adrenalin level to rise.
All on a sudden, there he is in front of your eyes! That magnificent body moving noiselessly, fierce yellow eyes shining in the low light, with the resplendent fur coat showing the play of powerful muscles and the setting is ripe for the onset of “buck fever.” To avoid that, one must prepare his mind during previous days, anticipating this occasion and creating the mental conditions to choke down the rising anxiety and, very calmly, squeeze the trigger. It's an easy shot, if you have steady hands and nerves of steel!
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