Musomberi Monster Brought To Bag (Zimbabwe)
Thanks to the hard work and unyielding determination of PH Shaun Buffee, I nailed a notorious leopard that had been nick-named the "Musomberi Monster" in Zimbabwe's Bubye (pronounced "Booby") Valley Conservancy two weeks ago.
The leopard taped 7 feet 6 inches with a 16 7/8 skull and weighed an estimated 180 to 190 pounds as judged by Shaun and another PH, Mark Barker. My hunting companions, brothers Dawson and Garrett Gamble, are both on weight lifting programs at their high school and know what 185 pounds feels like from bench pressing that weight (185 is the standard for college recruiting… how many reps can you do at 185?). They both said the cat was "at least" that heavy.
Shaun had heard about the monster cat from none other than renowned "leopard man" John Sharp who hunts out of the Bubye Conservancy as John Sharp Safaris. Shaun said John had written the cat off as "unhuntable" because it had eluded him so many times. Another PH on the Conservancy, Brent [surname unknown] told Shaun "don't waste your time" as the cat had proven too wary and wise too many times.
Shaun told me about this "super cat," as large bodied males with out-sized territories are known, and I agreed that it would be "go big or go home." We wouldn't settle for a lesser cat. The safari was to last 15 days.
Dawson and Garrett, accompanied by their dad Phil, my old friend, tagged along with me, alternating day by day between hunting with me and hunting with their dad (guided by PH Mark Barker). On the days each boy drew the short straw and had to hunt with me, they saw the glory and splendor that is leopard hunting… endless hours of driving to check baits with the ever increasing stench of the "gut bucket" growing more and more putrid with every passing day. Oh yes, the boys got a full dose of leopard hunting.
We hung zebra quarters for bait, shying away from the more usual (and considerably cheaper) impala. Shaun said that zebra, being much more fat-laden than impala, is the favorite dish of tree-borne leopard, in his experience. We soon had nine baits up, ranging over about 20 kilometers.
The problem with the Musomberi Monster, so named for the Musomberi River in the middle of his territory, was that he left the Conservancy to hunt goat and cattle outside its fence. The Bubye Conservancy, formally known as Lemco, is 850,000 acres behind fence, but it's deceptive to think of it as a "game ranch" because there are about 160 free-ranging lion (born in the wild, raised in the wild, never fed so much as a pork chop) along with Zimbabwe's last remaining black and white rhino. The Conservancy currently shoots four lion and year and seven or eight lionesess, all of which are hunted on foot by tracking. It is not "canned" lion hunting at all as 850,000 acres is larger than any pride's territory by a long shot. But I digress…
We had a hit on a bait and so Shaun set a trail camera which revealed two leopard were feeding, an immature male and a female. The male was most likely the female's cub. We ignored them of course. We had another hit that proved to be your common, everyday, garden variety male, somewhere in the 140 to 150 pound class, a shooter for a guy who wasn't too picky. But it wasn't the Musomberi Monster.
"We can keep feeding him and come back to him on the last day or two if you like," Shaun offered.
"Let's not waste the bait. These zebra are adding up fast," I countered. "It's the Big Boy or nothing."
Shaun smiled. That's the sort of hunt he likes— no compromising.
One of the Conservancy's game scouts reported seeing an outsized track about 15 kilometers from where we'd been baiting. Could it be? We drove to the area and quickly found the tracks, but they were two days old and too wind-blown to really judge anything other than it was indeed that of a large male.
"We'll hang some baits and see if anyone comes to dinner," Shaun said.
We did just that with Dawson's help in shooting another zebra for me. That made three and at $900 per striped stallion, the bait bill was starting to hurt.
We checked the baits daily and made fresh drags with guts that were by now becoming as ripe as maggot's vomit. Garrett and Dawson screwed up their noses as Becki, Shaun's veteran tracker, did the dirty work.
And then we got a hit! Having swept the base of the bait tree clean of brush and leaves, the cleared dirt revealed a perfect set of pug marks.
"Whew!" whistled Becki.
"Holy crap!" exclaimed Dawson.
"That's our boy," pronounced Shaun.
He measured the track: 10 centimeters wide by 10.5 centimeters long. It was an unusually fat track, almost round, which Shaun said indicated a heavy-set cat.
Now came the tricky part, and part that only the leopard could control— would be be a one-time feeder or would he return? Shaun said there are two kinds of leopard, those that feed once and never return and those that come back to a bait.
"If he's the kind that comes twice, he'll come a third, fourth, fifth time. There's no hurry," he said nonchalantly.
No hurry? I was about to bust a gut as I choked back an urge to start building a blind myself. Wait another night? Are you kidding?
"We'll set a trail camera and make sure this is the Musomberi Monster," Shaun said as cool as a cucumber. "A lot of PHs rush to build a blind at the first sign of a hit, but that may be what's kept this big boy from being shot. Maybe he won't come back tonight, maybe he will, but we'll find out what time he feeds and get a good look at him with the trail camera."
Return he did, the next night. The photos told the story. A civet cat came in shortly after dark and then scurried away suddenly. Next, a huge male settled on the branch and fed lazily for about an hour and a half, beginning at 21:30. Later that night, a female came in and fed.
"Uh-oh, we have to watch out for her," Shaun said. "If she comes in first, it will be hard to tell from the blind."
Yes, a blind. Shaun set about building a tree blind, not a ground blind. "I'm a total believer in tree blinds for leopard," the 26-year-old Zim native said. "Everyone builds a ground blind, probably because it's easier, but a tree blind is the way forward. It gets your scent off the ground and if the cat circles the bait before coming in, which I have a sneaking suspicion this cat will do, we're much safer to have our scent 20 feet in the air."
With the fluid familiarity born of long practice, Shaun and Becki lashed the flooring together with strips of inner tubing and then hung a tarp for walls covered with branches cut from 300 yards away (with a saw, not an axe to minimize noise). By the time they were finished, it looked like part of the tree.
I had stipulated that I wouldn't use a spotlight even though it's legal inside the Conservancy. My criteria for fair chase hunting is that you can't inhibit, impair or otherwise impede an animal's natural ability to evade you. That means no shooting from a vehicle. That means no blinding spotlights. That means stalking as close as possible. It also means no shooting near a waterhole or any of the other normal practices of ethical hunting.
I know what you're thinking and I agree. I cringe at hunting game behind a fence, but with 850,000 acres, it's a mighty big chunk of habitat. And in the case of the Musomberi Monster whose tracks had been found coming and going through a warthog hole under the fence, it totally doesn't apply.
(As an aside, I've hunted Ssese Island sitatunga on the largest island of the Ssese archipelago, Bugala Island, and it's far smaller than 850,000 acres. The sitatunga are effectively "fenced" by water, yet no one could suggest that's a an artificial restriction on the game's movement. I'm sure you can think of other instances where game is restricted by natural barriers.)
But forgoing a spotlight, I still had to see to shoot the leopard. I decided to use technology to my advantage, but not in a manner that compromises the leopard's ability to escape. I would match his eyesight artificially since human eyes are not sensitive below the visible light spectrum (hence the term, "visible" light). I would use an AN/PVS-22 UNS (Universal Night Sight) which attaches to a base in front of a conventional riflescope, giving you the ability to use your day optic without changing zero or removing the scope. It's exactly the same technology used by our Special Forces and snipers in Afghanistan.
We climbed into the tree blind at 16:15. I was fully prepared to spend the night as I've become conditioned to failure when it comes to leopard. I've hunted chui in Tanzania with one of the best cat men on the continent, Michel Mantheakis. Zippo. I've hunted leopard twice in South Africa. Leopard two, Cameron zero. I'd also been conditioned to think of tree blinds as places of abject disappointment, having slept for 11 nights in a machan in futile attempt at bongo in the CAR this past February with Christophe Morio, a frequent contributor to AH. I was fully prepared to fail.
I read until the sun set, right at 18:00, and then snuggled under the blankets as it was cold there in Zimbabwe's lowveld in July. I consciously let myself drift to sleep even though it was only 18:30, but Shaun was having none of that. Every time he heard my breathing become slow and rhythmic, he dug his elbow into me. Damn his eyes, doesn't he know we're just going to sit here all night?
Right on cue, at precisely 21:30, the same time as the trail camera had been triggered the previous night, the cat came in. I'd given Shaun a PVS-14, a non-magnified NOD (night operating device) to watch through. He craned his neck and squinted into the monocular but he just couldn't discern if it was the female or the big male. He sign-languaged that he wanted to look through my U.S. Optics 1.5-6x scope set at 6x which was in turn looking through the UNS night vision optic.
I slowly rolled away from my rifle and Shaun wriggled behind the gun. No sooner did he get the focus right than he looked up and smiled, giving me our pre-agreed signal of a thumb's up. I settled behind the rifle, a Ruger .308 in the "Gunsite Scout Rifle" configuration (which comes with a forward rail section to mount a Scout scope, but that I used for the UNS device). I was shooting a Barnes 150 gr. TSX handload. Since I was "going tactical" with this rifle and night vision, plus te US Optics Mil-dot scope, I also had mounted a SureFire 7.62 FastAttach sound suppressor. Fortuitously, the Ruger came with a threaded barrel (for a flash suppressor) with the same thread pitch as a SureFire suppressor attachment. Peanut butter meets chocolate!
Ffff-t. The rifle made hardly a sound, but the leopard pitched off the branch and landed on the soft dirt with the tell-tale thud of a sack of cement. I knew what that dull sound meant. DRT as my cop buddies say about shooting victims— Dead Right There.
Shaun was not so cocksure. He listened intently to try and discern if the leopard was padding away. No sound. Not even a growl or a gasp.
"Let's go get the truck and give the leopard a few more minutes," Shaun said with the caution born of seeing too many dead ones get back up.
Becki and the game scout, Enos, were fast asleep in their truck when we got to them about a mile away. Of course there was no gunshot to hear, with the SureFire suppressor. We returned to the scene of the crime and together advanced on the bait tree whereupon Becki saw the spotted hump first and danced a jig of delight.
Amid the back-pounding and hand-shaking, Becki whistled again and again. It was a huge cat, apparently. I just look on with a mix of ignorance and disbelief.
"You don't know what you've got here, do you?" Shaun asked.
I allowed that this was my first hunt-killed leopard (I'd put down a small female that had been caught in a poacher's snare, but I'd never shot one dead on a hunt).
"This is the Musomberi Monster! It's a huge cat!" Shaun exclaimed.
As we took photos, it finally sank in as I saw the relative size of the cat's melon of a head next to mine. As the Gamble boys would later say that night when we woke them at camp, "Wow!"
Shaun and Musomberi Monster
Leopard in bear hug
Shaun Buffee is a super PH with maturity well beyond his years. He is patient and diligent and a perfectionist. He cut his teeth with Charlton McCullum in the Zambezi Valley but has quickly established himself as one of the "go to" PHs in the Conservancy. I wasted no time in booking for lion in 2014 on the condition Shaun will be my PH. I also cancelled leopard off my list for a Zambia safari with Richard Bell-Cross booked for next year. Nothing I'll ever shoot with equal the Musomberi Monster.