Hunting > African Game

A Lion Named Blondie (Page 2)

He was a stock raider, a cattle killer, and he was terrorizing the local tribe of herders near a camp in central Tanzania.

“That’s why we’ll build a blind at the same time we hang the bait,” Michel explained. “We won’t make a disturbance once we hang the bait.”

Picking a good baiting spot is one of the key skills of pussology. Basically, you pick a spot that’s 100 percent in favor of the cat, and puts you at a seemingly disadvantage. You give the lion plenty of nice, thick cover to approach the bait. You leave a little open area, just around the bait, and of course in your lane of fire from your blind, but otherwise you pick thick cover to make the lion feel comfortable. You make the bait hard to reach, just barely low enough to give him a chance to feed, but not get full.

Then you must pick your blind location with equal skill and care. Normally, a clump of bushes is hollowed out and a blind is constructed, a ground blind. But Michel knew that Blondie would circle the bait before coming in, after dark of course, and would scent any humans at ground level. Consequently, he picked a tamarind tree about 20 feet up to the first big fork.

Michel ordered the trackers to cut branches to make a floor and build a tree house, but he sent them three or four miles away in our Land Cruiser to cut the building supplies. “A lion can hear anaxe for a mile and a hammer for two,” Michel told me. “We won’t do any cutting near the bait.”
The Land Cruiser arrived loaded down with two-inch thick branches for the floor and six-inch thick logs for joists. A tree blind went together, finished with walls of freshly cut branches from our very same tamarind tree we had built the blind in. We were ready.

“We sleep here tonight,” Michel said.

I was not optimistic. After all, we hadn’t seen if Blondie would come to our freshly slaughtered dinner, his favorite, New York strip.

“Look, if he comes it will be after dark. We won’t be able to shoot. Our only hope is that he sticks around until dawn and we get him at first light. The only way to be in this blind at first light without making any noise is to sleep here,” he said matter of factly.

Roaring Good Time
We carried a foam mattress pad each, two wool blankets and our pillows into the tree blind along with a bag of sandwiches along with full and empty water bottles. I’ll give you three guesses on what the empty water bottles would be used for.

Michel admonished me that we had to sleep the sleep of the dead. “No snoring,” he cautioned. Our blind was a tad close for comfort, about 55 yards from the bait, but that’s where the tree was, so we didn’t have a choice. As it turned out, I hardly slept at all and Michel was the one who kept snoring, which I instantly remedied with a sharp elbow to the ribs.

The blind measured six feet wide by nearly seven feet long, so we were in close confines. Michel snipped a viewing hole for himself with his Leatherman scissors and made a shooting port for my barrel and riflescope on my section of the wall. I had no viewing hole other than my rifle port.
Darkness slipped its gray shawl over the crimson sunset’s glow as the sounds of the African twilight came to life. A hippo snorted through its tuba nose, grass frogs began to croak, sand grouse twittered as they landed for the night. With the last tendrils of light seeping away, Michel motioned and pointed at the bait tree. Two female lion were slinking beneath the dead steer. One of them rose up and grabbed the carcass with her claws and began to feed.

I watched the lionesses, fascinated. They were less than 60 yards away, and I could hear their teeth gnash as they tore into the soft shoulder of the bait. Michel stuffed a grass plug into his viewing port and signaled for me to lean my rifle against the wall. It was now too dark to shoot.
About 20 minutes later, I lay looking up as the stars began to come out when suddenly an unholy ruckus erupted from the bait tree. A loud growl and then a snarl, another growl and a mighty roar. There was the sound of heavy feet in the dirt, running away. Michel mouthed the word: “Blondie.”

The big male had arrived and chased his females away so he could feed. Lion are not gentlemen. They don’t hold the chair for a lady, they don’t offer her a jacket and they definitely don’t let her eat first. In a few minutes a cacophony of grunts and snarls came again as the females gingerly returned to obsequiously share a place beside the big male as he fed on the choice shoulder portion.

What followed was incredible. I listened to an entire night of lion feeding behavior, observing only with my ears. Blondie would feed for a half hour, and then move off 20 yards or so, lie down and grunt while the females had an uninterrupted meal. There would be periods of no noise at all as the lion went to water and then returned.

Beginning about midnight, Blondie began to roar. A wild lion’s roar is not at all like the MGM lion. It’s more a series of ever-increasing grunts that, as they grow louder, culminate in what we think of as a roar. Often the grunting then tapers back down after reaching its crescendo. The purpose of roaring is woven into its territorial behavior and pride dynamics. For a solitary male, the call is to alert females and other males that he’s around. For a dominant pride male like Blondie, the call is a warning to solitary males to stay away. There’s also an element of braggadocio: “Here I am, and I’m king.”

First Light
I finally dozed off around 4 a.m., having spent most of the night either elbowing Michel to get him to stop snoring or listening to Blondie. I had heard Blondie roar from at least half a kilometer away at one point and was worried he’d moved off.

Then it was Michel’s turn to elbow me. Dawn’s first yellow rays had crept over the horizon and he was sitting up and staring out his viewing port through his Leica binoculars. He mouthed the words, “He’s there.”

I wriggled out from under my wool blanket and felt the bite of dawn’s chill. I was in my underwear and a T-shirt. I slid myself as quietly as possible to my rifle and, its muzzle already out the shooting port, lifted the stock to my shoulder.

I couldn’t see a thing. There were dark shadows against dark bushes. I glanced at Michel and shrugged my shoulders. I mouthed the words, “I don’t see him.”

Michel scooted closer to me, pulled me to him and cupped his hand over my left ear. The fact that I’m half-deaf from repeated gunfire has always been a terrible detriment when hunting. “Directly under the bait, seven yards to the right,” he whispered.

I got back on my rifle, a .416 Rigby custom made Winchester Model 70. I had the Schmidt & Bender 1-4x riflescope dialed all the way to 4x, but I still couldn’t see Blondie. I closed my eyes, held them a beat. As I reopened them I could just discern a black silhouette against a black background. Suddenly an ear flicked on the silhouette and with that I suddenly saw the unmistakable outline of a big, heavily maned lion. It was the first time I had laid eyes on Blondie. All I could see was his head and neck.

I don’t remember a conscious thought. My analytical mind took over and registered the target solution— a neck shot. I leveled the crosshairs, a thick #8 German duplex, on the center of Blondie’s neck and disconnected my thoughts from the purely autonomic action of slowly, gently, unhesitatingly activating the muscles of my trigger finger to compress.

Orange flame bloomed from the muzzle, a gigantic fireball. I’d never realized how bad the flash is from a .416 Rigby, having never shot one in low light before.

Michel hugged me, slammed my back with his palm and jumped to his feet. He looked out over the top of the blind, scanning the area with his binos. I was wriggling into my shorts. A thought suddenly occurred to me, a Groucho Marx joke: ”I shot a lion in my underwear. How he fit in my underwear I’ll never know.”

“I don’t see him,” Michel remarked somberly. 
Uh-oh. That’s a problem.

A neck shot is either instantly fatal or a clean miss or, the worst of all, a light flesh wound. I was stunned, but I replayed the tape in my mind of the sight picture when the shot went off. “It was good, I’m sure of it,” I said to Michel.

Juma Mandindi, the lead tracker, along with Vedestus and Abdullah the game scouts, had slept by our truck parked a mile away— just in case— and we heard the sound of the engine as they drove toward us. When they arrived, Michel retrieved his Benelli 12 ga. shotgun and thumbed 1 oz. slugs into the magazine, and a last one into the chamber. He handed the shotgun to Mandindi without saying a word. The two men had hunted for years together and nothing had to be said. The possibility of a wounded lion said it all.

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