You have not truly experienced Africa until you have sat ensconced in a pitch-black leopard blind and had a bull elephant fart 10 feet behind you. The experience is particularly intense when it is electronically enhanced. With my Walker’s Game Ears turned up high so my deaf ears could hear the leopard on the bait, it was a surprisingly loud, “life-altering” moment. A critter that size can generate a lot of propellant.
The bigger problem, though, was what it signified. Despite what tourists who photograph lions in the African parks might believe, elephants are extremely dangerous.
I quietly hoped the bushes we used to cover the blind were not some exotic delicacy for the elephant palate, because if the dome-shaped blind looked like a chocolate-covered cherry to this big tusker, it followed that we were the squishy red center.
My professional hunter (PH) may have exhibited some deficiencies in social skills, but he was one of the most knowledgeable naturalists I have encountered. We had covered the blind with branches from a water mahogany tree. “Trichila,” he said, quoting the Latin name from memory. He assured me he picked this tree specifically because elephants do not like to eat them. We were about to put that to the test.
We were hunting on the Sango Ranch, which is part of the Save Valley Conservancy in southeastern Zimbabwe. The place is a failed cattle ranch, abandoned years ago. We built the blind tight against one of the last standing and tensioned strands of an abandoned fence. True to African style, it wasn’t a simple barbed-wire fence, but was strung with half-inch-thick steel cables, not to keep the cattle in so much as to keep the elephants out. When the bull stubbed its toe on the low strand and the “ping” filled the blind we knew it had to be just a few feet away. The PH had already picked up his .458 and slipped off the safety. I looked at where my .375 H&H was parked, unseen in the dark and sitting in a fixed rest pointed at the leopard bait. I wondered if I could get it into action fast enough.
The following silence was eternal until, finally, we heard the bull stepping in the gravel of the dry wash to our right. It was walking away. That was when I discovered I could still breathe.
The Sango has huge populations and a wide diversity of game, the most I have seen outside of a fenced South African game ranch. I saw all the big five along with multitudes of giraffes, impala, warthogs, eland, zebras and kudu. I also saw lots of bushbuck, waterbuck and hundreds of baboons and monkeys. There were plenty of other animals, like mongooses, birds of all kinds and civet cats.
For more photos from the author's adventure, click here.
With all this game, the Sango Ranch is, for a leopard, like living in a mall food court. As a result, there are lots and lots of them. Twice we had leopards in our camp at night and at first light they were seen just across the dry Msaize River upon which we were camped.
Later in the hunt we watched one female leopard, with a damaged back leg, still out and about at mid-morning. By day three we had nine different leopards hitting our baits and four were big males. But we were not ready to sit yet.
Along the edge of the Save River we had found the Mac Daddy of leopards. Its tracks were huge. My PH spent years working for the game department in Rhodesia. After Robert Mugabe took over and the country became Zimbabwe, he became a PH and has worked at that ever since. In nearly 40 years of hunting leopards he said this was the biggest track he had ever seen. He has a system of measuring the back pad on the leopard’s foot with his thumbs. Anything larger than one and a half thumb-widths is a trophy. Two thumbs is a giant. This cat’s track was more than two and a half thumbs wide.
I figured I was bound for leopard-hunting immortality, until we talked with the chief game scout. He was in charge of anti-poaching efforts on the ranch and knew every square inch of the property.
“I know that leopard,” he told me with the musical lilt the Shona voice has when speaking English. “He lives on the big islands in the river. He comes out at night to breed, but he will not feed. He will not go to your baits. You will not shoot him.”
Despite our plans to prove otherwise, he was right. Twice we found the big tom’s tracks where it had walked right past our baits during the night. This was one cool cat. It knew the rules and how to stay alive. Each time we found its tracks we decided to wait another day before sitting on a bait, hoping it would take a liking to one of our offerings.
The great thing about leopard hunting is that you have most of the day to hunt other things. It takes several hours to run the bait circuit, but it is all spent in good game country. We started with zebras. For a while they won the battle and I worried we would end this hunt without even hanging bait. But it finally turned my way, and my first animal of the safari was a big zebra taken after an exciting stalk.
In the next several days I took another zebra and a couple of impala, all for bait. I also managed to shoot a nice bushbuck and a rare, elusive bushpig while waiting for the leopards to cooperate. I passed on hundreds of warthogs looking for a big-toothed male. I also passed on dozens of kudu until connecting late in the hunt.
The problem with leopards hitting baits is there is an expiration date. A big male will usually hit a bait for no more than three nights before taking a break. The biggest male actually eating on our baits had already dined for three nights in a row and I had to make a decision: Keep trying to entice that huge but uncooperative leopard to a bait, or hunt one of the other males working the baits. After waiting at least a day longer than I should have, I came to my senses. The safari was almost half over and I still had not sat on leopard bait. It was time to let go of my dreams for the monster cat and try for one of the other males. (It turned out to be the correct decision. We left the baits in place and continued to check them every day. By the end of my 12-day safari, the big cat was still ignoring our efforts. I guess that game scout was right.)