The Old Man and The Tree
(A First Timers Leopard Hunt in Mozambique)
Two years ago at an SCI chapter gala I became the proud owner of a certificate from the Wildlife Gallery for a life-sized leopard mount. That was the easy part. The problem then became finding a leopard.
After much research on the various techniques employed by leopard hunters, and the growing controversy about hunting with dogs, I decided to try an old-fashioned leopard hunt over bait in Mozambique. My research led me to believe that leopard were plentiful in the northern reaches of Mozambique, in the Niassa Reserve. Although these were long, thin forest cats, not the huge, cattle-killing 200 pound low veldt leopards, which were rumored to be very difficult to hunt.
I booked my hunt with Safrique, Ltd, through their offices in Dallas and early this September I was on my way. Apparently it is possible to arrive in Johannesburg early enough to catch the daily flight to Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, but that would require an early flight out of New York City. Given the choice between a night in New York City, and a night in Johannesburg, I opted for the City Lodge in Johannesburg. After a restful night overcoming my jetlag, it was on to Maputo, where I was met by a Safrique representative and delivered to the Southern Sun hotel, for another jetlag treatment. Finally, on my third day on the road, it was a flight on LAM, the Mozambique state airline, to Lichinga, in the far north regions of Mozambique, with a short stop in Nampula on the way. LAM provided modern equipment and professional service, with one little quirk: the in-flight snack between Nampula and Lichinga was a bag of Lays Mesquite Barbecue Potato Chips, and a juice box of Lychee juice! I looked around carefully to see if everyone was getting ready to laugh at me, but they were all enjoying their snacks, so when in Rome eat your potato chips.
Arriving in Lichinga in the early afternoon I was met by Paul Davies, my PH, and we soon settled in for the five-hour drive to the Safrique camp in the L1 Block in the Niassa Reserve. The first 50 kilometers was on the tar road and then on to a dirt road that quickly deteriorated into what we would call in Texas a two-track. During our drive I explained to Paul that the bad news was I had fallen and broken my back and had to endure three spinal surgeries to repair the damage. Consequently, I was old and broken up, and couldn't run up the hill like I used to. However, the good news was I usually hit what I aimed at, and, for a judge, I followed instructions pretty well! We arrived after dark so there was only time for dinner and then off to bed, as 5:00am would come very soon in the morning. The Safrique camp is set up on top of a small hill and enjoys a spectacular view of the area. Guests are provided with their own house, a stone walled structure with a thatched roof, with the traditional in-suite bathroom, including a hot shower.
The next morning, after sighting in both rifles, (I had leopard, sable and buffalo on my license, as well as some plains game, so I brought along two Blaser R93 rifles, in .300WSM and .375H&H). I chose the L1 Block for the abundance of Roosevelt Sable and leopards in the area, despite the fact that there were normally only a few buffalo around. After piling into the truck we were off looking for plains game or wart hogs that would serve as leopard bait. It took some time, as most of the wart hogs we spotted would not have kept a big cat on bait for more than a single night, but soon I had a decent sized hog in my sights and we were in the bait business! Next I was treated to a graduate course in leopard hunting technique from Paul Davies, a very successful cat hunter from Zimbabwe, by way of a long stint in the British army. I learned more than I ever wanted to know about bait tree selection, bait hanging, prevailing winds and blind locations. Paul was very intent about only hanging bait where he had seen large leopard spoor, or actually seen a large leopard, and we also followed the oft-quoted rule about leopard baits: The nearest one must be at least two hours from camp, and they must all be at least two hours apart!
Later that day we spotted a small group of Boehms zebra off in the distance, standing still in one of the large vleis (open areas, sometimes marshy) and we stopped the truck and started a stalk. When we got to within about three hundred yards it appeared that the zebra were on to us, staring intently in our direction. However, through the binoculars it became apparent that the zebra were staring at something off to our left. Swinging the binoculars to our left we spotted several lions creeping toward the zebra. Apparently we were pretty far down the zebra list of concerns. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, we decided to try a shot from our current location. I cleanly missed the first animal I had in my sights, or managed to kill a branch, but the shot broke up the stand-off, the zebra turned and ran away from us, and the lions did so as well!
A day or two later we were back in the bait checking business. The farthest bait was at the foot of Finger Mountain, a large outcropping that looked like an enormous version of a rude gesture. Each time we headed over to check that bait something happened that stopped us from getting there. This day it was a nice Lichtenstein Hartebeest and another wart hog. We now had five leopard baits hanging and my excitement was growing.
While we waited for some action on our baits, we continued to drive around the block, looking for a nice Roosevelt Sable. I must have seen over four hundred sable, most of which I was willing to shoot, but Paul kept telling me, we can do better! He was right. The next time we headed for Finger Mountain we came across a beautiful sable, with horns that curved way back, and started to spread outward, a sure sign, I was told, of a mature bull. I hit him high in the shoulder and dropped him where he stood. The 180 grain Nosler Accubond went through both shoulders and came to rest just under the skin on the far side. When we got to him he was enormous, 41 inches of horn! So Finger Mountain was off and it was back to camp and the skinning shed.
That afternoon we once again tried to get to Finger Mountain, but this time we were interrupted by a Boehms zebra stallion, which defiantly stood staring at us from a distance of 140 yards. When he wouldn't turn I took the shot and hit him dead center in the brisket. He ran about ten yards before piling up and the Nosler Accubond had done it again. The skinner recovered that bullet in his large intestine, six inches or so from exiting the other end. Once again the trip to Finger Mountain was off and we were back to the skinning shed. By the way, when we finally did check the bait at Finger Mountain it had been demolished!
We spent the next few days freshening up our other baits and making sure that the ants hadn't found the bait before the leopards did. Each night I lay in bed thinking about getting a leopard in my sights. Most nights it was fairly warm and I usually took the provided blanket off my bed and folded it neatly on the unused bed in my house. Each day while I was hunting, without fail, Paolo the waiter would remake my bed with the undesired blanket in place. When I asked Paul about getting him to stop I was told that it would do no good, as Paolo would invariably follow his routine, so it quickly became a challenge. The next night I neatly folded the offending blanket and locked it in my rifle case, telling the Paul what I had done at breakfast the next morning. That night there was another blanket on my bed, removed from the unused bed. I quickly folded it and locked it in the rifle case with the first blanket. By this time my battle with housekeeping was all we talked about at breakfast. That night there was no blanket on my bed, I had won! But, it wasn't without ramifications. Each bed had a large bath towel on it and I only needed one towel, but after a few days of sweating on the vinyl seats of the truck I took the second towel to the truck and sat on it in the passenger seat. All was well for a day or two, but when I brought it back into camp and threw it into the laundry, it disappeared. I guess Paolo decided that someone who stole blankets couldn't be trusted with a second towel! Its a good thing Paolo couldn't read English, or he would have quickly reported that I had stolen all of my underwear from somebody named Calvin Klein!
In the next few days we found that three of four checked baits had big cats feeding and it was time to choose one and build a blind. Paul builds his blinds close to the bait tree, unless the prevailing winds are problematic. Our first blind was only thirty-five yards from the bait tree! I watched fascinated while our trackers Mario, Mauricio and Clement built a blind out of bamboo poles and dried grass, tied together with dampened strips of tree bark. We got into the blind at 4:00pm and sat quietly, waiting for some action. The PH and our Apprentice PH each had a peep hole, and a second hole was cut for the PH flashlight. (Lights are legal in Mozambique, as crafty forest leopards generally won't feed in daylight.) I had a small hole cut for me, just big enough for my muzzle and scope, and a cloth was hung in front of my scope, so the leopard wouldn't detect any movement.
At about 7:30, in total darkness, we heard a leopard feeding in the tree. get ready Paul whispered quietly, and switched on his flashlight. My heart was racing, but suddenly Paul let out an expletive, telling me it was a small female leopard, inviting me to peek if I wanted. About the time I was peering around my scope at the female, the light went off and Paul whispered, be very still! It seems there was a large male leopard on the ground, between our blind and the bait tree, and the sudden flash of light had raised his curiosity. Now I always thought that leopards were stealthy creatures, moving silently through the bush. This leopard came stomping over to the blind like he was wearing size 12 combat boots! He stomped completely around the blind, emitting a raspy growl, and then stomped off into the darkness. I was more than a little nervous, separated from a big tom leopard by a few inches of dried grass, but my muzzle was sticking out of the blind, the safety was off and my finger was on the trigger. If he had gotten curious I kept telling myself that a round fired in close proximity would certainly chase him off! We waited an hour without any sound and then Paul told me we were going to walk out quietly, in the dark! I was uncertain I wanted to leave the apparent safety of our blind, but when in doubt, always obey the PH, so we walked back to the truck in the dark.
The next night we were at a second bait site, where the leopard had pulled an entire sable shoulder/leg and ribcage up onto the branch. This time the winds were not as predictable, so our blind was built 70 yards from the tree. Once again we got into the blind at 4:00pm, after sneaking in to make sure Mr. Spots wasn't napping under the bait tree. Like clockwork, at 7:30, there was noise in the tree. The flashlight came on and there was a big male leopard in the tree. He stared over at us for a few seconds and casually jumped down and disappeared. I report this second-hand as I was never able to find him in my scope. Our bait tree was standing by itself, and with no surrounding foliage to reflect the light, only the branch and cat were illuminated, and I never got my crosshairs on him. As we headed back that night I could feel the doubt of the trackers, although Paul was calm and supportive, telling me, Jeez, you gotta shoot, you can't take all night, what were you waiting for!!!
On the third night we were back at our first bait and I was determined to succeed this night. Despite the grief I took from everyone, I resolved to use a trick I had learned in Namibia. I took one of my spare bootlaces (Never travel without them!) and tied the eyepiece of my scope to a pole across the top of the blind. By adjusting the lace left and right, and up and down, my rifle was suspended and my crosshairs were locked in on the bait branch. This night we waited for the louder noises of a male leopard eating, and when the light came on, I was ready. Unfortunately, so was the leopard. He jumped out of the tree again and came stomping over to the blind to investigate. Like the previous time, he walked completely around the blind, sniffing at the base, inches from my feet, and then he disappeared into the night.
By this time Paul was getting irritated (at me and at the leopard, I suppose) and announced it was time for the Landcruiser Trick. As I watched in wonder Paul got on the radio and called the truck in, telling the trackers to park as close as possible and walk in with flashlights ablaze. After we talked to them for a few minutes the trackers walked back to the truck and drove away. Paul explained: leopards are smart, but they can't count! Sure enough, after about thirty minutes the leopard was back in the tree. This time when the light came on I was ready, watching the leopard in my crosshairs, waiting for the go-ahead from Paul after he made sure it was the male leopard. The leopard stood on the branch staring at us, no doubt wondering where the light had come from, since the humans had driven away. He stood facing us, with his hindquarters elevated, making a straight on brisket shot impossible. About that time I heard footsteps stomping around the blind again and turned to Paul to whisper: I think the big male is right near us! just as I heard him shout Shoot, Shoot! When I turned back to my scope the leopard was gone! Once again, Paul was calm and supportive, for about twenty minutes! We bumped a big hyena as we walked out to the truck, undoubtedly the source of the heavy footsteps. That night in camp I promised everyone that the next night a leopard was going to die. It had to be, the baits were being rapidly consumed, and if I weren't successful we would have to start over. The next day we were back to the second blind we had built, and I once again tied my rifle to the roof of the blind, to the barely disguised smirks of everyone. I sat there giving myself a pep talk, convincing myself that this was the night. Shortly after it got dark we heard something in the tree, but it seemed too quiet to be the big male leopard. Finally we turned the flashlight on at 7:00pm and there was a big male on the bait tree. Taking a deep breath I put the crosshairs on his shoulder and pulled the trigger. He half jumped, half fell from the tree, and we heard a noisy scuffle under the tree. Next he ran for about two seconds and then absolute silence.
After sitting for ten minutes or so, Paul and our Apprentice PH Adrian picked up the shotgun and decided to go and look for my leopard, telling me to wait in the blind. I understand now why everyone tells me this is when the PH earns his fees, and I was grateful not to be out there in the dark looking for a hopefully dead leopard. Fortunately my leopard was dead on the ground, twenty yards from the bait tree, lying in an open area. Next came a long photo session, everyone without a surgically altered spine had their picture taken holding the leopard across their shoulders. Then, it was a happy drive back to camp, with the entire crew singing the traditional victory song for a dead leopard. I don't know who was more relieved that I had finally managed to bag my leopard, the trackers, who seemed to take my previous failures personally, Paul, the PH, a consummate professional whose batting average with leopards would have been slightly diminished by my ineptitude, or me, knowing that I would finally get to utilize my certificate from the Wildlife Gallery! As an additional bonus the next morning I got to sleep in, and was served a proper breakfast of bacon and eggs, a far cry from my usual cornflakes and juice.
As the Niassa Reserve is strictly monitored, every kill must be well documented, including the longitude and latitude of the kill and the physical parameters of the prey taken. That examination revealed that the reason our leopard was so quiet in the tree was that he was 11 or 12 years old and had lost several of his fangs in various battles over the years. Although he still had the strength to drag the bait up onto the limb, he was apparently quietly gumming the meat when we first heard him in the tree. The floating bones in his shoulders were worn down to practically nothing and he was covered in scars, revealing a long and tumultuous life. If he hadn't fallen to my hunt I'm afraid he was in for a much less dignified end. I think it was very appropriate that the broken old man in the tree fell to the broken old man in the blind.
The last few days were spent looking for buffalo, although it became clear that the lions had chased the few local buffalo off somewhere. I did manage to take a large male spotted hyena (80 kilograms). I must admit that once the pressure of the leopard was off, my hunting style became a little more relaxed. The next thing I knew it was off to Lichinga to start the long trip home. (By the way, the snack on the way back was Lays Sour Cream & Onion chips with Mango juice, and, I did return the blankets!)
Andrew J. Dillon