It was the end of the season for me, September 15, 2014. I was in Tanzania trying to find a way to get back to the states ASAP. I had had a long but good season. 6 months of hunting in 5 different countries was about all I could take. The longest stint was in the wilderness of Tanzania for our dangerous game season. We had had 5 successful leopard hunts back to back, 100% success on big cats. I have always been good at hunting leopard but this season was a real test, finding that many cats takes time and a lot of planning. All of the leopards where above average in size and age, ranging from 6-9 years old. Some of these cats I had been after for more than 2 years. I hesitate to talk about weight of cats as this is highly exaggerated among clients and PH’s alike, I will just say these five leopards were better than most and 2 of them are cats of a lifetime.
So enter my current predicament. I had 11 days without clients before I was supposed to go to Mozambique for another hunt. I tried ever way I know to give these hunting days away. Every client, contact, agent and friend I had was too broke too busy or had some other problem that kept them from packing up and getting on the plane. I had finished my season in our Muhesi area with flying colors; I had a second camp to the West in another area that needed to be broke down and stored. The catfish camp, named for the muddy pond it was next to and the amount of catfish there, was my next destination. In fact when my guys found the camp site two poachers had set up shop there and had about 50 pounds of dried catfish on racks, stacked up and ready to move to the village to sell. The poachers abandoned the fish when my crew appeared only to show up hungry and sorry 2 days later…this resulted in a slight beating, some threats about what happens to poachers in game reserves and then slave labor that turned into employment for them during the construction phase of catfish camp. Turns out that fish in this area is an important thing and they had just caught too many to sit back and watch my hungry staff eat all their hard work. Anyway – I had a gap of time and a new area that needed some more exploring. I had a little extra money as a couple of the tips this year where very good so I bought a license with the intent on hunting a leopard. I have guided many clients to their leopard and even put a bullet into a wounded one trying to scratch us but never shot my own. This was probably the only chance I would have in a long time so I took advantage. Being a professional hunter for 13 years had basically eliminated my personal hunting time. I was tired, real tired but I couldn’t resist this opportunity.
My previous client had shot a leopard named ‘Fatty’ and in the last days he shot a sable so I immediately hung 4 baits. Meat management is a crucial part of leopard hunting so is feeding my crew. The men got one back leg and then I made 4 baits out of the remaining sable meat. As luck would have it we got delayed on our way back to camp when transporting our last client out of the area. Delayed by almost 48 hours and the smallest of the baits (the rib cage) was hammered by a big leopard. ‘Rib Bone’ the cat completely finished the meat by the time I got back to the area. No more meat no more leopard and only the trail camera pictures to prove he existed…I’ll get him next year. The other baits got consumed over time by two females and the last one rotted in the tree after being transferred to Rib Bone’s bait site.
The rest of the week was spent trying to collect more meat. Of course we had finished the quota on some animals for the year and those seemed to be the ones that kept trying to get shot. We did have a few Hartebeest left and I eventually found a good bull, bailed off the truck and told my driver to keep on rolling. They did and the hartebeest didn’t spook. I was able to close about 75 yards and make a good shot from a rest on a tree – killing the bull and providing us with 4 more baits. They were hung in all new locations. That day one of my drivers, Julius, spotted a leopard in the grass while hanging one of the baits. They watched it for a while and determined it was a good sized male so they went downwind and quickly hung a bait for him. I think the cat was big enough not to be intimidated and he was also a bit confused by the vehicle that smelled like supper. My vehicles always have a gut bucket full of blood and guts as well as a piece of meat if available for re-baiting. The guts and ‘soup’ as I call it is what makes the difference when trying to get a leopard on bait. You have to keep the scent level high in the first 5 days of baiting, after that the meat usually rots enough to be smelled on its own. Male cats are territorial and the trick is to catch him while he is patrolling his turf. I have hunted leopard in 4 different countries and have seen territories of all sizes – the largest is in Mozambique where some of the cats only came back around every 16 to 18 days. In Tanzania it takes about 5 to 7 days; more prey animals = smaller territories.
The next day I think we made a mistake on this cat. Julius said the bait was hit but it was a small cat that didn’t eat much so we left the bait how it was. The big cat polished it off the next night. Now one of two things happened – it was a female and then a male showed up or the track was misread. I have had several big cats only feed a few bites when they first find a bait. I think this is due to the fact that they are big for a reason and that reason is that they hunt well; also they are confident in their territory and they are in no rush. Typically you can tell it’s a male by the way it feeds. Either way this cat was gone never to return. That makes two escapees, I’ll get him next year as well, but for now we couldn’t find much else to shoot and time was marching on. I was more than 6 days in and down to 3 baits as the others had been finished by more females.
“Jesus Christ is born today” that’s the direct translation from Julius over the satellite phone when we called him for the morning bait update. That is a normal Swahili way of introducing good news. He said that the bait next to the mountain had been hit and in his mind the spoor of this animal reminded him of the back tire of a tractor. He said we should come quickly.
Old Tractor had fed a decent amount the night before. We had an unconfirmed female on a separate bait – the same bait that the 2 days before the female turned into a big male that ate everything and skipped out without paying the tab. I was not ready for this to happen again, so I was reluctant to sit at Tractors bait even though the spoor was big. The staff and Crispin convinced me to give this one a try and I trusted them (Crispin is a Tanzanian Professional Hunter that works for me and was on this hunt with me). You have to trust your staff in this business and my guys in Tanzania are true professionals many of them with 30+ years of experience in the bush, hell that’s about as long as I have been alive. I know my job well and I know the animals better than most; I also know when to listen to my staff. As much as I wanted to get back on the one that got away this track was bigger and the surrounding area was great leopard habitat. We build the blind moved some more meat to the tree and quietly settled in by 4:30pm. By 6pm there was a low vibrating growl coming from a male cat next to the blind. Had to be Tractor. He even sounded old. This was the third leopard that I had been close enough to touch this year – sounds unbelievable but it’s true. He slept a lot and growled a lot but never made a move towards the bait. About dark during one of his rumbling sessions I heard Ms. Tractor on the other side of the blind, almost rubbing against it. There were 2 of them and they had no interest in food – and not really much concern for us. We never saw either one and eventually the Toyota Cruiser came to the blind to pick us up at the arranged time, I wasn’t going to shoot in the dark. I have killed enough cats and killing wasn’t the goal. Even thought the government fees I had to pay cut deep for a PH, my interest was in hunting a cat not just dispatching him…be careful what you wish for cause the hunt was officially on!
The next morning we woke at 3:30 and headed to the same blind. Same as the night before - lots of growling and rolling around with no mind to us. The wind was good and Tractor seemed to be using our bait for his own bait and it was working for him. They had been mating and found our spot next to the deep forest at the foot of a mountain with a hunk of hartebeest - the perfect place for a honeymoon retreat. We left the blind at 8 o’clock as it was evident that they were not going to climb the bait tree. Reluctantly we pulled out, putting our hopes on the afternoon hunt. The afternoon didn’t pan out either. This went on for another whole day with a morning and afternoon sits. The last afternoon was a total blank. I thought they had left. I had never had cats immediately around bait like that refusing to take a bite or even inspect it.
The following wakeup call at 3:30 was unwelcome. I woke an hour before in a cold sweat with a fever. I was on my 176 consecutive hunting day, worn out, sick, sunburned and thought I was coming down with malaria. I had about given up on this cat anyway as well as my hopes of getting a leopard. I sat down at our table in the mess and administered a self blood test for malaria. It came back with only one line – one line is good on these type of tests. One line means NO. No baby, no malaria, or no whatever you’re testing for. With that my mind was a little better of but I still felt like shit. So I started a course of Cipro and told the boys to start the truck. If the cat fed in the night we would sit, if he hadn’t fed I was out of there. Probably back to camp to load my gear and head out for good – my international flight was less than 2 days away. This was definitely the last straw. We were down to the last day, the last bait, my last hope, and I was on my last leg.
On the way in I noticed the track in the road. It was Tractor’s. I didn’t stop the vehicle. We kept moving toward the blind in the dark. When you move in and out of these situations it is best to use the vehicle. Some ph’s talk about walking bare foot into the blind and sneaking in on a cat…that is complete crap. It may work once in a while by luck but it is dangerous to put a client in that situation and it is the best way I know of to educate a cat and chase him away. So we prefer to use the truck in and out of the blinds if at all possible, always in the dark and without talking or screwing around. I was the first off the vehicle - I really didn’t want to sit in the blind again. Even though I was the shooter for the first time in years I was simply worn slick and ill. His tracks where all around and I shined my light 40 yards to the tree; the meat had been flipped up on the branch. Sick or not we were in business. I pointed to the blind and the boys immediately starting unloading the guns and my pack. We got set up in less than 2 minutes and sound of my diesel truck faded away in the darkness. The growling picked up about 30 minutes afterwards. Both of the cats were moving around but the distance between them had opened up. They were about 30 -50 yards apart and seemed to be done with the mating and just spending time around each other and the free meal above them. The fact that they had fed was also a great indication that the ritual was over as cats typically will not feed for the 2-3 days they are mating.
It was 7 AM when he woke up all the way. I spotted him moving toward the tree. I just caught the curled tip of his tail as he moved in. This was the first sighting of a cat in 4 days at this so called ‘active bait’. He was huge – he rounded the back of the bait tree and starred right though our blind – we didn’t move, blink, or even breathe. He looked to be the size of a female lion and the massive head resembled a jaguar more than your typical leopard. He climbed the tree and put his hooks into the meat, as he moved so did I. Crispin and I had the following conversation:
Me: "you got him"
Me: "He is HUGE"
Me: "I'm shooting"
The gun went off and the cat died on the way to the ground. The shot was right on and my equipment was precise – it would be embarrassing if it wasn’t. Shots on leopard are frequently missed and there is no reason for it. The blind should be 50 to 70 meters away and the practical shooting bench constructed inside should leave no margin for error. Broadside shots are the only ones taken on a confirmed mature male. You owe that to an animal like a leopard and anything short of this is a shame. Using the right bullet is also key. I have found that a 260 grain Nosler Accubond out of a .375 traveling at 2,900 fps is instant death.
It was silent then the guttural growl and rushing steps of the female as she ran toward the downed male. Head held high tail franticly swishing around she was moving in tangents away from the dead Tractor trying to find whatever had knock him out of the tree. She quickly focused on the blind and came towards us cursing and looking for something to attack. I ditched my .375 and grabbed my double - we both stood up and trained our rifles on the cat as she closed in. Luckily she turned back at about 20 paces but continued to roam about growling and combing the area, she approached several times and I really thought that we would be forced to shoot or suffer a fist fight with her in the blind. She was pissed – I have never seen an unwounded leopard act this way. She was looking for a fight and was all over the place. This went on for 10 minutes and didn’t stop as the vehicle pulled in. I alerted them via radio of the situation and they parked 15 yards to the side of us. They could also see the cat patrolling the area. She came for the vehicle once and then thought better and hid behind the bait tree in the long grass. I had Crispin fire for effect into the bait tree. We couldn’t see her but didn’t take any chances – it was a big female and she can easily give you 100 stitches a second if you don’t make the perfect shot on a charge. I left the blind first while Crispin covered me to the truck then I covered him. Once on the vehicle we fired another shot into the bait tree and drove forward to get within a few feet of Tractor. I was off the vehicle again in a covering position while my driver Mbasha and my trackers Sadiki and Bonge struggled to lift the cat into the back. They got him in, Crispin and I got on, and we headed out.
Tractor was the biggest cat of the season and one of the biggest I have ever seen. The saying big looks BIG couldn’t be more true. He was a massive animal; the kind of cat that you get a little scared when you first look at him. It was a privilege to hunt him. Even after 13 years of hunting in Africa I still have a few things yet to see. We had a great season with 6 leopards taken by 6 happy hunters. I expect my cat will be the only leopard I will ever shoot myself but even as I type this out in my hunting vehicle on the long road back to Arusha I find myself wanting to turn back to the bush. I have a few new places in mind for baiting and more than a few old cats that I’d like to have another look at.