I had “shot” the mongoose feeding on the dead warthog we had put out for leopard bait at least a hundred times. From my position in the blind, I would roll silently into the rifle and make sure it was rock-steady and didn’t have to be moved into position. I would close my eyes, then open them and make sure the cross hair hadn’t moved. I visualized the shot over and over; I wanted to be ready if a leopard appeared. Finally I took a break to rest my eyes.
As I rolled into the rifle again, something had changed. The mongoose was gone and silence had fallen on the scene. My professional hunter and dear friend, John, opened an eye from his nap and gave me a half-annoyed look. As he looked through the binocular, his eyes went wide.
I had been on several very successful hunting adventures with John Wambach and his outfit, Pro-Guiding Namibia. I wanted a leopard badly and especially wanted to run one with hounds. I grew up chasing raccoons and coyotes with hounds in my childhood in Iowa, and later ran mountain lions with hounds in my home state of Idaho. The tradition of hunting with hounds had been in my family for generations, and I have the utmost respect and love for hunting the big predators this way. Unfortunately, the first year we tried to put a leopard hunt together was 2010, the same year Namibia put a moratorium on hunting leopards with hounds. We had to make a new plan.
The next spring, John e-mailed me and said, “I have a leopard permit for you.”
We began planning the hunt, which would now have to be over bait and, per Namibian regulations, without the use of artificial light. I was already scheduled to be in Africa in November, so we planned the hunt accordingly.
John picked me up in Windhoek and we began discussing our game plan. There was a particular area he wanted to focus on where he had been after a certain big old tom leopard for years.
This leopard had a home territory in an area that included numerous rock kopjes and dry riverbeds. John knew this cat and knew getting him would be a challenge, but I’d had a great streak of luck on our previous hunts together, and he thought that might hold out for this big tom.
On the way to the hunting area, John told me stories of this old leopard. On two different hunts with two different hunters, he had spotted the tom lying in the rocks above the bait as they approached the bait site, and both times the hunters had missed the cat. Another hunter missed him completely when he was on the bait, and never got another chance. Often the leopard wouldn’t come to the bait at all during the long hours the hunters sat watching. But on one hunt, the big cat arrived during broad daylight and sat a few hundred yards off, out of range, seemingly taunting the hunters. I told John the old tom sounded like The Great Houdini with his history of escapes.
We began our game of chess with Houdini by shooting several warthogs for bait. Because there were few other predators in this area, the leopards rarely dragged their kills into trees, so we set the baits on the ground, anchoring each pig to a tree with heavy wire. We put out four baits in a large circle around the old tom’s territory and made drags to each bait site. At one location we positioned the bait in a dry riverbed away from the rocks, so Houdini couldn’t lie above the bait and watch it as he had done before. We let the baits sit a couple of days and anxiously went back to check.
All four of the baits had been hit and one was missing entirely, the work of a brown hyena. We put trail cameras on the other baits to see what we had. After two more days we went back to check again and found the first camera had been eaten by a brown hyena. The next had photos of a nice, but young, tom leopard, so we went to check the remaining camera. This one had been placed close to the rocks where Houdini had turned the tables three times on other hunters. The bait had been dragged up over a root and behind the tree. On the camera were numerous pictures of a huge tom – very likely our Houdini—in the company of a female. Checking the tracks, we found the leopards had come in from the west, walking down the dry riverbed.
We had two problems. One, the wind was going to be very difficult, and two, the cats were coming in around 5:30 in the morning, when it was still dark, according to the time stamp on the camera, Though the use of artificial light is illegal for leopard hunting in Namibia, we did have the full moon on our side, and the dry riverbed was covered in very light-colored sand. I was also using a Trijicon scope; its illuminated reticle would be an advantage in the low-light conditions.
Two days went by and we just couldn’t get the wind to give us a break. John decided to take a gamble and move the bait. The big cat might think another leopard had moved his dinner and, with any luck, he might come around more often to check on it. But it was also possible he would simply disappear and take my hopes of success with him.
The next morning I shot a big warthog. We then went to the bait and dragged it a few hundred yards farther up the riverbed toward where the big cat and his girlfriend had been making their approach. After finding a bend in the riverbed where the bait would no longer be downwind of a potential blind site, we secured the well-ripened warthog to the new location and added the hog I had just taken. We hung the trail camera and exited the area. Now there was another agonizing two days of waiting and hoping the big tom would find the bait and reclaim it.
On the second day we headed in to see if our gamble had paid off. As we approached the bait, we both smiled. It had been hit. The trail camera had been knocked askew and we had nothing but pictures of trees, however. John decided to set up a blind and hope for the best. There was a big, flat rock with a good view of the bait, situated where the wind should play in our favor. It was only 67 yards from the bait, so we would have to be really careful and quiet. We took part of a tent frame, made a low dome on top of the rock, and covered it in camo netting. We unrolled sleeping bags inside and threw in a couple pillows. We parked the truck a kilometer or so away to make the big cat think we had left the area, and quietly made our way back and into the blind. I propped some pillows and coats to make a good rest for the rifle and placed it in a position aimed at the bait so I could roll into the rifle and be on target with little or no movement. Now the wait was on.
John whispered that I might as well take a nap as it was going to be a long night and this cat would never come in during the daylight. He rolled over and went to sleep. I was too nervous to sleep so I just kept sighting on the mongoose that would scurry onto the bait to steal a bite and then scurry off just as fast. I had mentally made the shot at that mongoose at least a hundred times. I was more than satisfied with my rest and I had confidence in the setup. Now if only Houdini would make an appearance.
The sun was just setting on the western horizon and the shadows were getting long. This is my favorite time of day, as everything takes on a golden glow and a peaceful feeling seems to settle over the wild. It’s a time of day that stirs excitement in every hunter’s soul, the golden hour when many dreams are fulfilled. I rolled into the rifle for the who-knows-how many-eth time, but this time there was no mongoose. Everything just seemed different – eerily quiet.
I had disturbed John’s nap, and he opened one eye and looked at me, then rolled over and took a look through his binocular. I saw his eyes widen and his body tense. Without moving the glasses, he slowly pointed at the bait. A big tom leopard was behind the bait tree with only his head looking through the forked trunk. I rolled into the rifle and waited. The cat walked out from behind the tree, and John whispered, “Shoot him.”
The big tom walked out in the open and sat down like a dog, facing the blind. I placed the illuminated dot where his neck met his chest and slowly squeezed the trigger of the .338. The Model 70 bucked and the cat hit the ground with barely a twitch. John stayed silent and didn’t take his binocular off the fallen cat. I prepared for another shot, but it wasn’t necessary. Satisfied the danger of claws and fangs was past, John rolled over and grinned broadly. Our gamble had paid off. We had Houdini! The big tom must have felt the need to guard his bait and keep the “intruder” from disturbing his food again, even to the point of coming in while it was still light. He had made his last escape . . . or so we thought.
After gathering our composure we crawled out of the blind and made our way over to the leopard. He was beautiful: brilliant orange with a dark stripe down his back. His head and shoulders were massive. John went to get the truck and I sat with my leopard, admiring him.
Upon John’s return we took pictures and loaded everything up to head for town. It was late by the time we made it, so John called his friend Josie, who has a bar and pizza parlor in Okahandja. Josie said we could put the big cat in his walk-in cooler for the night. Josie met us with cool drinks and shared in our excitement over the leopard. We stood under the full moon and toasted the magnificent beast.
Later, relaxing in my room and reminiscing about the hunt, I pulled out my computer and began going through the trail camera pictures, which John had shared with me. That’s when it hit me. I looked, and looked again, flipping back and forth through the pictures. The whole time, there had been two big toms, plus the female, hitting that same bait. There was one big, solitary tom, and the big tom that traveled with the female. We hadn’t realized it before because the two toms had been on the same bait within an hour of each other. But I could see the difference now. The solitary tom had a swayed back, a deeper belly, larger spots, and three necklace stripes.
The other big tom, the one with the female, was straight-backed, with smaller spots and four necklace stripes. I quickly pulled up the pictures of my leopard. I had shot the “smaller” tom—the one that had been with the female. I called John; he expressed disbelief. But when he checked the pictures for himself, he confirmed I was right.
“Your cat is huge, but this one is even bigger,” said John. “And he’s still out there!”
The Great Houdini had escaped again.
Taking a trophy as outstanding as this leopard is an experience I will treasure for the rest of my life. But with it came the stress and trepidation of having to leave something so precious in a faraway foreign country awaiting preparation and processing. Added to that was the uncertainty of the process of getting it out of Namibia and into the USA. The Fish & Wildlife Service has of late had a zero tolerance policy for any mistakes on paperwork, no matter how small, resulting in hundreds of trophies being seized as contraband and even destroyed. This has been especially true in numerous cases involving leopard trophies. Knowing this, I contacted John Jackson of Conservation Force. John sent me a Trophy Import Checklist. I sent this checklist to the outfitter, the taxidermist, and the export company. I then contacted the folks at Coppersmith (coppersmith.com) to handle the importing of my leopard. I had the country of export, Namibia, send me all the documents; I sent them to Michael Lewis at Coppersmith’s Chicago office, and after his approval I forwarded them on to the USFWS. They gave their approval. I did the same thing with my import permits. This might seem like overkill, but my trophy leopard came in with absolutely no issues, in contrast to a friend of mine who shot one the same week in Namibia and ended up having his leopard seized.
By James C. Reed.
The story originally appeared in Sports Afield, March/April 2014
James C. Reed chose to have his leopard mounted by a trusted studio near his home. For other taxidermy options see our blog story Your Trophy Is Your Memory
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