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  • Writer's pictureKev Thomas Writes

The Chingoma Leopard

 

In the area of Chingoma Hill on the Mjingwe gameranch.

While it certainly isn’t my intention to become embroiled in a debate about hunting ethics, rather, let me explain why ranchland leopard in Zimbabwe are invariably hunted at night with the aid of artificial light. To do that, however, we first need to take a brief look at their ecology and history linked to livestock ranching in Zimbabwe. Leopard are primarily secretive nocturnal animals, only in areas comprising a large landmass, with no disturbance of any sort, will they become diurnal. Most of their hunting activity is confined to early morning or late afternoon, and like most predatory wild cats, they are opportunistic killers and soon realize just how easy it is to kill domestic livestock. From a historical perspective, before the rancher attached a value to his wildlife through commercial safari hunting, he was in conflict with not only leopard, but also with grazing species such as blue wildebeest, sable, and zebra. If buffalo were also present on cattle ranches, being vectors of Foot & Mouth (Hoof & Mouth) disease also placed them in conflict with the cattle rancher. During the fifties leopard were branded ‘vermin’ and later in a more enlightened period, ‘problem animals.’ The antelope species, and buffalo, competed with a rancher’s livestock for grazing, and leopard predated on his livestock.


Antelope numbers were kept in check using the rifle as the regulator, which was simple enough, but controlling cattle killing leopard was not that easy. Buffalo were also eradicated using the rifle. As an aside, during 1979, in Zimbabwe, I shot the few remaining buffalo on Triangle Estates South Lundi cattle project. Getting back to leopard, in those far off days too, ranchers did not target a specific cattle killing leopard, instead, they targeted the species. Trapping and poisoning were the preferred methods, and in some areas they were used with devastating effect. By the early nineteen eighties, and after an end to the Rhodesian Bush War, the newly independent Zimbabwe witnessed a huge demand for hunting safaris. Privately owned wildlife suddenly had greater value than ever before in the country’s turbulent history. Leopard were one of those species which was suddenly in high demand, and yet through decades of persecution on private ranchland, they had become totally nocturnal and secretive. Seldom if ever seen. The fact most ranchers were still cattle ranching meant daily management activity also helped to keep leopard hidden during daylight hours.


Art lucked out on the first afternoon and shot a zebra for leopard bait.

Professional Hunters used the only method then possible, baiting. They started shooting leopard over bait long before the advent of dog packs being used in Zimbabwe, (a subject just as controversial as using artificial light), but soon found most leopard would only feed under cover of darkness, well after all ranching activities had ceased. With the growth of the hunting safari industry many cattle ranchers turned completely to game ranching and on the bigger properties, by the late nineteen nineties it was not uncommon to shoot leopard on bait at last light. They had become habituated to once more living undisturbed.


The safari about which I write, would witness Art taking his leopard just after sunset with shooting light having already faded. Before this could happen, we had to find sign of leopard, preferably a big male. One afternoon, while driving back towards camp in the late afternoon, we were feeling content. Art had a good zebra in the salt, which gave us ample bait, and all that remained for us to hunt was a kudu and a leopard. Crossing a small dry streambed to the rear of camp, in the shadow of Chingoma hill, and not more than a kilometer out, I stopped the truck for a routine check of the streambed. Having alighted, we could not believe our eyes because right there in front of us was a huge leopard pug mark. Further checking ascertained the leopard in question had been commuting on a nightly basis from Chingoma, to a small waterhole, downstream of the crossing. His habitual comings and goings had worn a distinct path down the center of the streambed.


Art's kudu went a solid 60-inches and is a story in itself

Old and wily ranch leopard are said by frustrated PHs to have degrees in baits and baiting. For many a season a big leopard in this area had played cat and mouse with myself, Dion Collett, and his brother, Jonathan. The cat would circle the bait and then after ignoring it completely, wander off. Or it’d hit once, eat a huge amount, and never return. We had all tried to account for this leopard with various clients, although to no avail. I was not even sure it was the same leopard, but noticed how in its daily movement to and from water it had seemingly fallen into routine, and become complacent. Leopard have a regular beat, and this one was not meandering, he was just using the same route to and from water, the depth of the trail he had worn into the sand told us that.


Without wasting time and racing against darkness, we headed back to the skinning shed where we loaded up two zebra hindquarters and the drum of intestines, blood, and gut content, known in PH speak as trail mix. Back on site we hung one bait in the thick riverine bush on the edge of the streambed about one hundred meters downstream of the road/stream crossing. The second bait we hung in a tree close to the waterhole itself. We camouflaged both baits to keep the vultures off and using the gut pile and trail mix carried out a drag around the waterhole, and back to the bait, before dragging the streambed along the cat’s trail and dragging the road in both directions from the crossing. We then retired back to camp arriving after dark. While walking to our accommodations I asked Art if he felt lucky, ‘Why . . . hell yes,’ was his reply as he sauntered off.


Next morning while the baboon troops complained of the morning chill from their lofty perch on a nearby krantz, and from atop a granite dwala, we sat in the pre-dawn darkness and stoked the mopane logs still glowing in the fire pit from the evening before. Our first real day of safari was greeted with scalding coffee, buttered toast, and home baked cookies. Leaving camp, we set about checking our baits of the previous evening, an exercise that always fills hunters with a keen sense of anticipation. You never lose it. Leaving Art and the crew with the rig at the road/stream crossing I quietly went off to check the baits. The one adjacent to the streambed had been hit but the one near the waterhole was untouched, although there were fresh leopard tracks in the damp mud near the water. Returning to the first bait I noticed how not very much had been eaten and it seemed the leopard had fed early in the morning. Perhaps our arrival in the dawn gloom had chased it off. Or it had killed previously and was satiated.


Building a blind is best done as early in the day as is possible, allowing ample time for our human scent and other signs of disturbance to dissipate during the heat of the day. Siting the blind at seventy-five paces from the bait we soon had it up and camouflaged. Art would be shooting across the streambed so once the blind was complete I got him comfortably seated inside it and talked him through the likely scenario that would unfold. His rifle rest was secured and the shooting port readied. We then left the blind, dropped the second bait hanging at the waterhole and took it back to camp. I did not want our leopard trophy feeding on that bait whilst we sat over another one a few hundred paces away.


My Jack Russell terrier, Bounce, remains aloof while resting alongside Art's waterbuck

With time on our hands, we went in quest of kudu, seeing good numbers, glassing many, but finding nothing to our liking. Late morning found us back in camp for a welcome brunch, we then went back to the range and checked Art’s rifle in at seventy-five paces. It was right on. We all then took a nap before heading back to the blind at 15:30hrs where my hunting crew closed us in before moving away in the rig. Despite it being a hot afternoon, we did have shade in the blind because I had roofed it. Always a good thing if you are sitting below kopjes as a wary leopard watching over his territory from a high feature will soon detect movement in a roofless blind, particularly so if your presence has agitated certain bird species or monkeys and baboons. 


Daylight hours drag in a blind with time spent in the dark seemingly passing more quickly. Back in camp and prior to our departure for the blind, I told Art I never remained sitting in a blind after 21:00hrs. If the leopard had not come in by then, it is highly likely you may have compromised yourselves. Rather than sit late, we would go back to camp and return to the blind before first light. Last light in a blind is always the best time and on this occasion it was no different, we sat, each deep in our own thoughts whilst directing occasional glances towards the bait. A slender mongoose stopped by, gorging himself on fallen maggots and slivers of decomposing meat lying beneath the bait, some arrow-marked babblers kicked up a hysterical racket in the leafy canopy high above the bait, and behind us up towards a rock shelf on Chingoma, a rock hyrax gave vent to his feelings. An eerie truly African call. Perhaps he had seen the leopard and was vocalizing in warning to other hyrax.


For a client who was only going to shoot about three animals Art also shot a nice sable.

Suddenly it was dark. Visibility zero. Nocturnal sounds replaced those of the daylight hours. Scurrying noises in the grass around the blind, the far-off cry of a jackal, the deep ‘vooo-hoo, vooo-hoo’ of a spotted eagle owl. Time passed. At 19:10hrs a pair of Egyptian geese at the waterhole began to vocalize loudly, a rapid honking ka-ka-ka-ka followed by a hoarse drawn out haaaaaa. Leaning across towards Art I whispered the leopard could well be at the waterhole. Over the years I baited near water, I observed how leopard invariably slaked their thirst before feeding on the bait. At 19:30hrs the bait wire gave a distinctive ‘twang’ obviously the result of a strong downward force being applied to the bait. Immediately afterwards we could hear the leopard commence feeding, he sounded like Hagar the Horrible eating a chicken leg.


Art was sitting dead quiet, as was I. We had been through the silent communication process and he knew the drill but I wanted the cat to settle, so we waited. With bated breath. Time passed slowly. Tension growing. Finally, I tapped Art on the shoulder, he leaned forward, pulling the rifle into his shoulder as I quietly stood up, placing the light with its red lens into the port previously cut for it in the camouflage. After waiting a few seconds, I switched it on. A huge leopard was staring at us from behind the bait tree, he was standing on his hind legs after having attempted to pull the suspended bait round behind the tree. He had done a pretty good job because all we could see was his head peering around the left side of the zebra haunch. Art wisely refrained from shooting at such an iffy target. The cat then dropped onto all fours and slunk off into the thick brush to our left where it was lost to our view. I killed the light and we sat waiting. The leopard did not come back. There are a few tricks of the trade one can try in that kind of situation in the hopes the cat will return. Instead, I chose to call the rig forward and vacate the blind. Art was both optimistic and excited on the drive back to camp.


Art shot an excellent klipspringer.

Next day, his resolve weakened with regards to taking three trophies only, and he shot an excellent klipspringer and impala. Safari fever is catching. By 15:30hrs we were back in the blind. It was an exact repeat of the previous evening. First, the Egyptian geese vocalized and at 19:30hrs the leopard arrived back at the bait. On this occasion I had set up a listening device (professional hunters tend to start going deaf prematurely). When it turned up the leopard’s breathing was low but audible. His movement on the dry leaf litter beneath the bait drowning out other nocturnal sounds. He was ultra-cautious. Obviously bait educated. When he stopped to linger and listen, all went quiet. It was not his first visit to the bait and he seemed to know the score. Hunger then overrode his caution and suddenly moving boldly up to the bait he began to feed. After waiting the obligatory few minutes that always feel like hours, and before standing up to use the infrared light, I quietly gave Art a tap on the shoulder. Just as soon as I hit the switch, Art got his shot off, the sound reverberated through the surrounding kopjes and granite dwalas, leaving the inside of the blind clouded with an invisible shower of grass dust.


As for the leopard, he came charging straight down the path of the red beam, roaring and growling in a mix of sheer pain, anger, and alarm, before turning a mere meter in the front of the blind and bounding away to our right, roaring loudly. Suddenly, these intense few seconds of vocal leopard rage ceased. Abruptly. Within minutes the noise of the truck could be heard, crashing, and banging along the bush track, towards the blind. After it had arrived, and prior to moving down to the bait with my one tracker, Lucky Ndlovu, a thorough sweep of the entire surrounds with the spotlight beam had not revealed any illuminated eyes. Leaving Art at the rig, I moved down to the bait with the tracker, taking with us my Jack Russell terrier Bounce. Arriving at the bait tree we cast around finding a fair amount of blood, and adhering to a grass stalk, what looked like a sliver of belly fat.


Bounce had a good lineage and had been given to me one of South Africa’s leading breeders of hunting hounds. Leopard hunting with the use of hounds was still in its infancy in Zimbabwe at the time about which I write, but it was already proving successful in Botswana and Zimbabwe. Jack Russell terriers had for a long time been an integral part of Lynx hunting hound packs in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province. Both of Bounce’s parents ran with a leopard pack and despite his youth Bounce had been measuring up well. He was not an attack dog and once an animal was wounded and lost to sight, his job was purely to seek up and find. Bounce had never experienced leopard, and as his nose gently sniffed at the blood speckled grass we could see he was not happy. His short stubby tail remained firmly locked down, his one hind leg quivering each time he stopped to re-examine a scent. Moving along slowly in the beam of light he constantly peered back over his shoulder at me as if to say, ‘Do I really have to be doing this at my young age?’ 


As per normal when following a wounded leopard, I was carrying a Remington 870 pump action 3” magnum with a Maglite attached to the pump. It operated off a pressure switch on the pump. After we had ventured about forty meters along the trail, Murphy’s Law came into play with a vengeance. The Maglite bulb burned out. Being in the pitch dark in thick brush with a wounded and angry leopard is not good for morale, so we gingerly retraced our steps back to the blind. Bounce thoroughly concurred with the decision and endorsed the move by raising his tail and wagging it once or twice during the retreat. Plan ‘B’ then came into action, meaning one tracker carrying the vehicle battery from the blind on his shoulder whilst Lucky worked the spotlight sans red lens.


No sooner had we started moving away from the blind than the big spotlight burned out, we could not believe it. Thoroughly annoyed by this turn of events, and not wanting a wounded animal to suffer unduly, whilst also being concerned about hyena destroying the pelt if it was dead, we headed back to camp for more spotlights. Fortunately, Dion Collett and his client were back in camp. We had experienced and shared similar scenarios before. After hastily organizing another lamp, we loaded Dion’s Australian Kelpie, Dingo, then headed back to the scene. Placing Dingo and Bounce up front, Lucky Ndlovu worked the spotlight. Dion and I remained either side of him, line abreast. As we slowly moved along the spoor Lucky worked the light beam from left to right through a 180-degree arc. With our shotguns firmly in our shoulders, Dion and I followed the beam.


The dogs were nervous, moving with quivering stops and starts. Until, suddenly, they stopped, noses indicating to their front, investigating scent molecules, brains deciphering and computing scents lost on us. In the light beam, we could see a large amount of blood on bent over grass, grass leaning forwards and away from us as if pushed over by a heavy mass. Despite the light beam probing the deep shadow we could see nothing, until all of a sudden the dogs began to back off, still peering intently to their front, the hair on their backs raised, shoulder to shoulder, four pairs of shaking legs. From end of nose to tucked in tail Bounce was about as stretched out as a dog could be. Lucky followed the direction of the dogs noses with the beam, as he did so the leopard rose up mere meters to our front. Rage filled eyes reflecting the cone of light, but having gained our attention we immediately shut it down. Art had shot a magnificent big and old male leopard. His bullet had broken the cat’s right front leg, passed under the chest, actually creasing it during passage before removing part of the muscle on the rear side of the front left leg. We were lucky we found the cat in the dark and were able to dazzle it with the spotlight. Had it been daylight it may well have played out differently, and not necessarily to our advantage.


Art with his monster Chingoma leopard.

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2 Comments


Pedro Santeliz
Pedro Santeliz
Dec 05, 2023
Greetings Kevin! Good story, in Venezuela jaguars used to be hunted in a similar way. At present, hunting is prohibited.
Was the rifle used by the hunter a Weatherby?
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Kev Thomas Writes
Kev Thomas Writes
Dec 05, 2023
Replying to

Hi Pedro - Thanks for the kind words about my post. The hunter used a .300 Winchester Magnum for the leopard, in fact it was the only calibre he brought on safari, and he used it for all of the trophies he shot. He was using factory loaded ammunition but I can no longer remember the brand or bullet weight.

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