The Leopard's Canyon

By David Unger

AS SHADOWS GRADUALLY lengthened over the red sand, an easterly breeze brought the rancid smell of warthog remains that hung from a nearby olive tree. The thought came to me that in future years the scent of thatched grass or a waft of rancid meat would take me back to this leopard blind. Smell is like that. Powerfully stimulating, it can arouse memories long thought forgotten.

Through a small shooting hole I stared at the fresh quarter of zebra we had tied to the limb earlier that afternoon. The walls and sand floor of the blind were still warm from the afternoon sun, but their warmth would soon give way to the cool evening air of the South African winter. To my right, Dries Visser sat silently, forearms poised on his knees as he peered out a small opening and scanned the surroundings for any movement. In the corner, only an arm's length away, leaned an over/under Beretta 12 gauge.

After settling in, I slid the first arrow out of my quiver, pushed the nock onto the string of my recurve, and drew the 72-pound limbs from several positions to loosen my muscles and assure myself nothing would impede a shot.

All was pleasantly calm that evening. The southerly afternoon breeze had subsided and given way to a more favorable easterly current. The chatter of birds was calming and seemed to take the edge off my anxiety.

With only a trace of crimson remaining on the horizon I sat quietly and stared at the now dark outline of the zebra hindquarter hanging in the olive tree. As my mind played out various potential scenarios, the sound of footsteps from under the bait reminded me of my reason for being here.

FOR THE PAST WEEK we had nurtured this bait, making sure everything was just right. The bait, whether a warthog or quarter of zebra, was tied to a heavy limb of an olive tree where the leopard could stretch out and eat. Near the edge of a narrow canyon, the bait was in good position to pull cats out of the natural funnel. We could scarcely climb the steep canyon walls bristling with trees and bushes, but the leopards scaled them with ease. A dry creek bed wound along the narrow canyon floor, and there in the red sand is where we found the tracks of courting leopards as they traveled through the tangle of undergrowth and boulders.

We had built our blind just west of the olive tree the morning after the first hit on the bait. Covered with brush and grass, the blind would look like any other bush to the casual observer. A small opening, 6 inches wide and 10 inches high, would serve as the shooting hole. The roof was low for my 62-inch recurve, but from a kneeling position I had a nice downhill shot of around 20 yards to the bait. Between the blind and bait we piled a chest-high barrier of branches and bushes to obscure a leopard's view of the blind as it climbed out of the canyon.

The Visser's concession, in the Northern Province of South Africa near the Limpopo River and the Botswana border, encompasses nearly 20,000 acres of bowhunting only. Leopards are hunted an hour's drive south in the rugged Waterburg Mountains. Dry, rough, and reaching altitudes of 7,000 feet, the Waterburgs looked to me more like desert sheep country than leopard.

My plan was to concentrate on the leopard and to hunt plains game when, or if, I finished with the leopard hunt. This was a personal choice, as I had the option of hunting rather than helping with the baiting, which took most of the day. Still, I preferred this to letting others do all the "grunt" work for me. Not only did I gain knowledge of leopards and build good memories, but more importantly my investment of sweat gave the end goal even deeper meaning for me.

During our bait runs and search for leopard tracks I often sat in the back of the truck with my tracker Jacob. I enjoyed the view and fresh breeze from the truck's high, heavily padded bench seat. Despite Jacob's very limited English, and my even more limited use of his language, we enjoyed our labored conversations, and in the end we somehow managed to get our points across to one another.

During our travels we found a number of leopard traps. Frustrated ranchers and farmers were having cattle and literally herds of goats killed by the cats. Each trap consisted of a simple welded steel cage with a hinged trap door. A dead baboon was tied to the back of the cage, and one tug at the bait would slam the door shut. If traps weren't checked regularly, which seemed to be the norm, trapped cats faced a grim death.

Some professional hunters run leopards with hounds, but that practice is very hard on dogs. Thus, most outfitters prefer hunting the sly cats by baiting. Mostly sedentary during the day, leopards hunt during late evening and at night. Stealthy and painstakingly cautious, they will come to bait only at last light or in the dark when shots for the bowhunter are difficult. Where night hunting is legal, a red light controlled by a rheostat is often used as a light source. Placed near the bait, the light is slowly turned up when the cat comes in.

Shooting with artificial light posed some concerns for me, especially in picking an aiming spot on the animal. At home before the hunt, I set up a 100-watt red light bulb above an elevated 20-yard target and practiced faithfully every night. This was a piece of cake, hardly different from shooting in daylight.

However, arriving at the Visser's, I was surprised to learn we would be using a 6-volt trailer brake light. This was a drastically different from my backyard setup, and after one practice session with the dim light I was left with a level of confidence that had me questioning my intentions. Picking a spot and staying focused on it in the low light were very difficult. Nonetheless, I practiced each evening with the new light and gradually gained confidence.

WE COULD CLEARLY hear something pacing on the dry ground, but after what seemed a lengthy deliberation under the tree followed by silence had us questioning whether it was a hyena. Then the sound of claws grabbing onto the tree as he pulled himself up for an easy meal confirmed it was a leopard. When the big cat reached the bait he gave the area a thorough look and, content with the surroundings, lay across the branch and began tearing into the meat. His front leg was too far back for a shot, so I readied my bow to draw as soon as he stood.

The leopard shifted positions and brought his front leg forward to pull at the bait. I picked a spot on the shadowy form, which I could just make out in the red light, and drew my bow. The cat instantly lifted his head and looked in our direction. I bore down on a spot and let the string slip from my fingers at the now very alert cat. As the arrow hit with a loud smack, the cat disappeared.

Although I honestly couldn't say for sure where my arrow h

ad hit or how far it had penetrated, I had the impression the arrow had hit the shoulder. Dries, on the other hand, felt the arrow had hit high, possibly in the spine. Everything had happened so fast, and in such dim light, we could only speculate.

The normal practice would be to trail any arrow-shot leopard the following morning. However, this area had many hyenas and jackals that would love to chew a dead leopard to shreds. Besides, we thought the cat might be lying dead under the tree. For those reasons, we elected to take a quick look. If the cat wasn't there, we would return in the morning.

After a short wait, Dries began feeling around in his pockets and then, with a little more urgency, searching the ground in the blind. With a wide-eyed look he whispered, "The trackers took my other jacket back to the truck Â'“ the one that had the buckshot shells in the pocket." Dries radioed the truck where the trackers were waiting and let them know the situation. Knowing how deadly a wounded leopard can be, the two men understandably wanted no part of this, and it was all we could do to talk them into meeting us halfway with the big rifle and shotgun shells.

Jacob generously pushed the big rifle into my hands and, working the action, I slid one of the cigar-sized rounds into the chamber and flipped on the safety, readying myself for what, in my mind, was an imminent charge. In the dead silence I strained to hear anything over the pounding pulse in my head.

Toting the over/under, Dries was 10 feet to my right. I held a death grip on the .416 Rigby, using its barrel to slowly push a path through the high grass illuminated by my headlamp. In dialect I couldn't understand, but in tones anyone could decipher, the trackers made clear they were not enjoying this. Knowing a wounded leopard lay in wait out there in the dark was exciting enough, but making things more interesting was the barrier of brush around the bait, which impeded our view below the tree. Building this barrier seemed like a smart move when we'd made it, but now it seemed pretty dumb. Still, never one to let common sense get in the way of action, I began pushing branches aside to make an opening.

Following Dries through, I flipped off the safety on the shouldered rifle and directed my headlamp this way and that around the tree, trying to pick up any movement.

ALL THE CONCERN was for naught as our lights disclosed the very still and beautifully spotted body of the male leopard. Giddy sighs of relief from the trackers were followed by handshakes, back slaps, and big smiles. Closer examination revealed a spinal shot, which caused an instantaneous death. The arrow had broken off leaving the Woodsman broadhead lodged firmly in the center of the vertebrae, which had completely severed the spinal cord. The broadhead and vertebrae now sit on my bookshelf as a souvenir Â'“ and as reminder that it's sometimes better to be lucky than good.

I looked Dries straight in the eye and said as seriously as possible, "I meant to do that, you know." His suspicious grin told me he wasn't buying it.

After pictures and much stroking of the cat's handsome coat, I lifted the cat onto my shoulders for the long walk out. The warm mass of muscle and soft fur felt like crushed velvet against my skin, and the load was more of a delight than a burden as I carried him up the ridge. I could not have been more pleased.

When we reached the Land Cruiser, I carefully laid my cat in the back while Dries handed out cold drinks from the icebox. Jacob casually called notice to the horde of ticks now evacuating the leopard's slowly cooling body. As it dawned on me, I felt a twinge of panic and quickly began pulling off my shirts. With some help I brushed the burrowing parasites off my back and picked a few from my scalp that were already attempting to burrow in for a free meal.

"You can move pretty fast when you want to," Dries commented as the three of them had a good laugh at my expense.

With cold drinks in hand we sat on the tailgate of the Toyota and enjoyed the brilliant display of stars while each of us relived the events of the evening from our own perspective. The moon's light now exposed the valley floor, and looking down from the ridge we could see the winding shadow that hid the leopard's canyon.

Author's Notes:

My hunt took place in July. Like most hunts in Africa the best months are June through September. I used my 72-pound, 62-inch Bow River takedown recurve. I would suggest a 58-inch or shorter bow for hunting in a confined blind. For information on Bow River custom bows, made by Rick Lepp, visit their website at www.bowriverarchery.com. My arrows were 2219 Easton Gamegetters tipped with Wensel Woodsman broadheads.

Leopard permits are limited in number and carry a hefty price tag. I booked my leopard/plains game hunt with Dries Visser Safaris through Gene Wensel. Gene is a great resource for handling all the small details of an African hunt and will walk you through every step. Contact: genewensel@iowatelecom.net.

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