We got into the blind in mid-afternoon when the sun was still high. With the windows zipped shut it was stifling inside, but enough light filtered through so I could read while we waited. I was intentionally keeping myself dehydrated so I would not have to urinate during the long wait, but it was a fine line with the heat in the blind and never comfortable. I sipped a little bit of water now and then, trying hard to maintain discipline. All too soon the sun slipped past the horizon turning the blind dark and cold. In contrast to the stifling heat an hour earlier, I was shivering and debating the damage I would do with the movement needed to find and put on my jacket.
Then the decision was made for me as a monkey suddenly filled the night with outraged barks, growls, yells and yelps. High in a tree, it was screaming at a leopard, like an Internet bully who feels he can hurl insults while protected from retaliation by a screen name. Then the monkey suddenly stopped, making me wonder if it’d made a big mistake.
A few minutes later the sounds of mating cats filled the night. They were clearly in love and much time passed until silence resumed. Although less than 50 yards from us, they were concealed by thick brush, so even if the windows were open we could not see them. While they were mating, we could also hear the sounds of two other leopards, presumably males, on the perimeter and afraid to challenge the breeding male.
A few minutes after the breeding sounds stopped, we heard a leopard walking behind the blind. It stopped and lay down beside us, close enough that we could hear it breathing. We sat without even blinking; listening to the cat for nearly an hour before the night was filled with the sounds of bones crunching.
I tapped the PH's knee and got on my rifle. We had worked out a signal ahead of time. I don't hear well, so I didn't want a "shoot" or "don't shoot" situation. I told the PH that if I heard the word shoot in any form, I would. If he remained silent I would assume it was a "don't shoot."
But it wasn't necessary. When the spotlight hit the leopard I knew instantly it was a female. This was my first wild leopard sighting, and we get only one of those in any lifetime. It's hard to describe the presence of these big cats. Even this female seemed to give off an aura of power, untamed wildness and passion. In a lifetime of big-game hunting, few animals have ever had that effect on me.
We turned off the light and resumed our vigil. After she finished, the night grew silent again until, off in the distance, I could hear drums start. They grew louder as the celebrations began in the villages across the Save. They were more than a mile away, but the sound carried well in the night. I listened, my mind wandering.
My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of more feeding on the bait. I got ready, but it turned out to be a pair of honey badgers. The PH concluded that if they were feeding, the leopard was gone for the night, so we left.
We returned the next day to pull the blind, figuring that after four nights the leopard was finished. But it was clear the big male-a cat now dubbed the Mahochi Leopard after a nearby stream-had returned shortly after we left the blind.
The bait was finished, so I shot an impala, hoping the fresh meat would keep the cat's interest for one more night.
We were back in the sauna-like blind by mid-afternoon. The only action for hours, other than my sweat dripping, was when a flock of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of little sparrow-like arrow-marked babblers landed and fed in the brush that covered our blind. The sound they collectively made was incredible. It was a special treat to be completely engulfed by these birds; they didn't have a clue we were there. Then, as suddenly as they arrived, they were gone.
Hours of boredom followed until the drums and singing started again across the river. As we sat in the dark, mesmerized by the sound, I heard feeding on the bait. I got ready, but when the PH turned on the light, it shone not on the leopard, but into the trees above him. The flickering shadows spooked the big male and it instantly jumped out of the tree and melted into the dark. We speculated later that the birds had knocked the light askew by moving its support branches.
A few hours later I listened as a herd of elephants splashed in the river and trumpeted with glee. I hated them for their levity and wanted the world to be as bleak as I was feeling.
An hour later the gassy elephant showed up. Soon after it left I heard soft feeding sounds on the bait. It was either something small, or perhaps a leopard trying not to be noticed. I nudged the PH and got ready on the rifle.
Once again, I knew as soon as the light hit the cat. The tom turned his big head to look at us, and I had no doubt. I saw pure malevolence; there was no fear, only loathing in those piercing yellow eyes. As soon as the PH spoke, I pulled the trigger.
I was to do absolutely nothing after the shot except listen. The PH had told me that if the shot was good, we would hear some thrashing and then the death coughs. When they stopped, the cat would be dead. He talked again and again about how important it was to hear those coughs. Now, with my Game Ears turned up high, I could hear a very faint cough, but the PH heard nothing and would not believe me. He accused me of missing, but I knew the shot was good. When we arrived at the bait, the tree and ground were covered with blood. "This is worse," he said, "you've wounded him." He was beginning to talk me into doubting.
Following a wounded leopard is very high on the list of what most professional hunters least want to do in life. It's extremely dangerous and all too often results in disaster. Many hunters wait until morning and follow when the light is good. The problem is you can't see the hidden cat until you are very close-often not until it starts its charge, giving you about half a second to react and shoot. But by following at night, the hunter actually has the advantage, if he doesn't screw up. The wounded cat will lay waiting for an ambush, well covered and impossible to see-except for his eyes, which will reflect the flashlights. This is a huge advantage, as the cat thinks he is still hidden and will lie still, giving the hunter a chance to finish things.