Leopard In My Rear View Mirror
by Brad Smith
My PH had mentioned something about “the monster” when he picked me up at the airport in Windhoek, Namibia in late July. One of his previous hunters told me about the size of this leopard’s track and his nickname, “the monster,” but it did not sink in until I had seen numerous other large male leopards’ tracks as I stood over this one. Now I knew what they were talking about, or so, I thought.
Picture and comments by Roy Sparks from Sparks Hounds in South Africa - Brad Smith from Texas bagged this possible Namibia # 1 cattle killing leopard - 2008. Sparks Hounds tracked this notorious monster and closed the deal for lucky hunter Brad. A number of other hound teams had already failed to keep this big guy bayed solid. Sparks Big Game Hounds took his 9th life. Skull measurement 18 1/4 inches.
Preparing one’s self for a leopard hunt is interesting. I had chosen to hunt both leopard and cape buffalo on a two country jaunt, both on the same trip so my philosophy was simple. Get in the best mental and physical shape I could. The physical part is a challenge but there are scores of books and articles on how to do that. Ever tried to mentally get ready for a hunt where you might be the hunted? Not to mention the fact that your goal is to find the biggest meanest nastiest man/livestock killer you can find? What in the world would possess a rather normal human to step out of their comfort zone and potentially step in to harm’s way?
Picture and comments by Roy Sparks from Sparks Hounds in South Africa - Oscar (Roy's terrier) pictured with Roy Sparks to the right, Brad Smith to the left and Brad's monster leopard. Oscar was first to transverse the steep cliffs where this great monarch sought refuge after a dramatic chase in the Khomas Hochland in Namibia. His relentless worrying of this giant cat grew to much forcing it to shift position offering Brad his chance for a shot. Oscar has been at the forefront of many such battles, he is a truelly remarkable Jack Russell.
My first 10 days hunting was to be a baited leopard hunt. Namibia, at the time allowed the use of both baiting and dog hunting for “problem” leopards. Problem leopards are known livestock killers and whatever else they can get their hands on including people I suppose. A typical day of baiting involves checking previously baited sets, re-baiting if necessary, and checking out areas for new tracks. The idea is to set up a blind over a bait that has been hit by a large male and hunt there in the evening after such a hit. Namibia, the Khomas Hochland region specifically, has few large trees and no leopards that know what a tree is anyway, so the baits are set under brush in canyons and ravines that the leopards use as travel ways. While I was in Namibia, a rabies epidemic was decimating the local kudu population so meat was plentiful for the cats during my visit so the revised plan was to hunt with bait for the first six days, then call a hounds man in for days 7 through 10 if necessary. By day six, we had seen plenty of leopard sign, lots of large male tracks, but the baits weren’t working due to the kudu rabies issue, so the decision was made to call in the dogs for day seven. The area was loaded with leopards. The leopards unfortunately were full of kudu. More specifically though we were after only one, “the monster”. He was a known cattle killer. The rancher/farmer where “the monster” roamed hated this animal. By his count over 50 head of cattle during a three year period had been killed. This leopard was bait shy and despite over 2 and ½ months of attempted baiting this guy would only stroll by the sets and leave. He had apparently been the victim of a trap experience but survived it to remember what not to do in the future. And there were other attempts on his life so this was not going to be easy.
Brad Smith with his Monster #1 leopard in Namibia taken with dogs. It for sure ranks as one of the top 20 trophies taken in this time frame in the world! SCI ranked it #4 for all of African trophies for 2008 at their annual Reno convention.
The night before our hound hunt, as we finished a wonderful dinner outdoors, a leopard roared in a canyon not far away. Talk about a spine tingling bit of foreshadowing! Now this is the part where “mental preparation” comes in to play. The fact of the matter is, you can’t do it! You cannot get mentally prepared for this. Sitting in a blind late in the afternoon or evening is one thing. Chasing an animal with a pack of hounds is quite another. The main difference in the two hunting techniques is that with baiting, you are attempting to kill a totally unsuspecting animal. With the dogs, he is mad and looking for a way to even the score. The leopard wants to get at anything he can and the one thing I was told is that if he sees you, he will charge. Therefore, the plan is to have a sufficient number of skilled dogs to keep the leopard busy and distracted. Additionally, they along with their handlers must get the leopard in a position so you can make the shot without injury to a dog. Lives are at stake here. So with the roar of the leopard and knowing the potential circumstances that I faced in the morning a restless night’s sleep ensued. The fact of the matter is I did not sleep a wink!
The next morning came early fortunately. I was awakened at 4:00 AM, given some coffee and off we went to the land of the big track. We met the dog owner, Roy Sparks, and his crew at about 6:30AM, drove a short distance to the ranch, picked up the ranch owner and began our search for fresh spoor. In tow were 15 very good proven dogs, blue tick hounds, blood hounds, wire haired terriers, mutts, and even a Jack Russell terrier named Oscar. We searched every canyon and ravine where his track had been seen. We were running out of scent finding time, and at 10:15 moved into a highly remote area of the ranch, one that had not been visited by even the owner in years. The trackers checked the canyon and “bingo”, a fresh male and female track! Seven of the fifteen dogs were put on the spoor along with the handler, my PH, and several trackers. I stayed behind with Roy and the remaining 8 dogs to bring them in when the leopard was found. This was not long. Within 15 minutes the dogs had him and off we went. After an exhilarating fast paced hike over a ridge and into the canyon below, Roy and I arrived in time to have the “monster” double back through the trackers and other dogs. At bay, the job of not hitting a dog and getting the leopard began.
Fortunately, I did get this leopard without incident to human life. Unfortunately however, before I arrived, the leopard did to one of the hounds what they are so good at, swiping at the dog with his powerful paw. With one flip of his massive paw he ended the life of a younger inexperienced but up and coming hound. Lady, lasted a while but in the end we buried her in a dry stream bed in a beautiful setting. Sad as it was, the end had finally come to a true problem animal and thanks to Lady and her mates it happened very quickly. I cannot describe the emotions that flowed that morning. Elation over finally taking the “monster”, and the despair over the loss of a hunting partner.
Roy and his dogs have their act together. I cannot say enough great things about them. Namibia is going through issues today regarding regulating the number of leopards taken and how that will unfold. Today it seems confusing and I would recommend that if you have a leopard hunt planned that you do your homework and know what the laws are. Also, on the table right now is a debate over the use of dogs in leopard hunting. To use, or not use dogs is, in my opinion, personal preference. There are people opposed to the use of dogs, many of which have never done it. I can argue against baiting I suppose if I wanted to. I won’t take up space with this debate however.
All that I can or will say is this. I believe there was no way this hunt would have turned out the way that it did had it not been for Roy Sparks (Master Hounds man) and his pack of highly trained and skilled dogs. To him I owe a major debt of gratitude. I also have to say that, of Roy’s pack, Oscar ranks supreme. They say that pound for pound a leopard is the most dangerous animal on earth. Wrong. Put Oscar out there and the leopard has his hands full. Many have now come up short and Oscar keeps on notching his pistol. And would you believe it if I told you Oscar is a Jack Russell terrier?
In the end, we, and I say that because it was a team effort, we got “the monster”. A beautiful trophy that, at the time ranked #8 in SCI and was possibly the new #1 in Namibia. Officially he scores 18 & 4/16". In my mind the experience was first though. What an opportunity to see first hand, how such a magnificent creature lives and is hunted. My thanks to Roy Sparks, his dog team, (especially Oscar and Lady) and the dog handlers. Thanks also to Roy Holdridge at True Life Taxidermy in Granbury, Texas for a superb and fast job of mounting this guy. And to my lovely wife, Diane, for her patience with all of my hunting passions. And most importantly, I thank God for the opportunity, and making this hunt a safe one.
Picture and comments by Roy Sparks from Sparks Hounds in South Africa - This leopard was the unofficial #1 for Namibia at the time in 2008 - skull scoring 181/4". Sparks Hounds claimed a previous Namibian Record around 1998 - skull measuring 18".