by Peter Ruddle
Graceful, cunning, elusive and dangerous, Leopards stir a mixture of emotions. While most people find these felines awesome, there’s no denial that these capable predators, notorious for theft of smaller livestock such as goats and chicken, and occasionally diversifying their diet with human beings, may be not be too welcome by local communities. Whatever you may think about trophy hunting for Leopards, nowadays it is often the only alternative to total destruction by poison and snare. Thankfully, Leopard hunting today is strictly regulated by quotas, hunting rules, and trophy import restrictions. These issues were discussed in Part I of this blog. Now let’s turn to Leopard hunting.
If there’s one thing that is for sure with Leopard hunts, it is there are no guarantees that you are even going to even see a Leopard even though your PH may try every trick in the book to get a suitable animal on bait. Leopard hunting is like chess, a mind game where you are always trying to out manoeuvre your opponent, in this case “Mr Spots”. In most cases during a hunt you are hunting your quarry but in this case you are trying to bring a Leopard to your bait and this is what the challenge is all about.
Both male and female Leopards are highly territorial and a male Leopard will only be distracted from doing his regular boundary beat for two reasons, a female in season and a free meal. The latter is what the traditional hunting method of baiting is based on. Bait sites need to be well chosen. These chosen sites are often areas which form natural game trail funnels, near water, with some cover for the Leopard to approach the bait and a suitable tree in which to hang the bait.
Some countries allow pre-baiting and others do not. In most cases as the hunter the first thing you will do on arrival to start your hunt, will be to shoot some bait animals. These bait animals vary from area to area depending on the professional hunters bait species preference. Some areas prefer to use Zebra meat which has a high fat content and seems not to rot as fast as other baits. Baboons are also regularly used but in the majority of areas Impala being most plentiful, it is the bait of choice as it can easily be hauled into a tree, readily available and with skin on ensures the carcass does not rot too quickly although Leopards will eat pretty rancid meat.
Placing the bait for Leopard
Baits must be well secured so that the leopard cannot drag it away and it must be placed high enough in a tree to ensure that neither Lions or Hyenas if present in the area can reach the bait. It must be covered with small branches to ensure that vultures do not see the bait and are unable to reach the carcass to feed on the carcass.
The bait animal’s entrails (stomach, intestines and organs) are removed and used to drag scent trails from different directions along likely routes and the watering point used by a Leopard to the bait tree. Once the bait animal is secured the stomach content is scattered around the base of the tree, rubbed and thrown onto the tree trunk and branch where the bait is hanging in an effort to cover any human scent.
Baits should be visited on a daily basis to inspect for any signs of Leopard activity and to ensure that your trap remains set for action. This dragging exercise needs to be repeated every few days when necessary. Entrails and stomach contents from other hunted animals will be placed in a plastic container with a lid to ensure you always have drag baits available. You will be reminded that you are on a Leopard hunt every time you stop the vehicle as you get a whiff of this smelly “slop bucket” but it’s all part of the hunt, a bit like bear baiting.
It is vitally important to always ensure that there is always enough meat left, if you want the Leopard to pay another visit to the bait next evening. The logic behind this thinking is, if he eats his fill and the meat is finished there is no reason to return to the bait site. A mature “Tom” can weigh between 130 and 200 pounds (90 kg) and eat up to 20% of its body weight.
Building the blind
When the bait has been hit a decision will be made to build a blind and set up a trail camera. The blind may be entirely built from the natural foliage and grass available in the area or a pop-up blind may be used and well camouflaged with tree branches and grass. Inside the blind shooting sticks will be rigged up to ensure that the clients rifle lies on a dead rest pointing in the direction of where the Leopard is likely to stand while feeding on the bait. When the Leopard is comfortably feeding, all the client needs is to lean forward into a shooting position, aim and fire. Some professional hunters even camouflage the section of the rifle barrel sticking out of the blind.
Other high-tech equipment might be installed or used, such as night vision, motion sensors, strategically placed trail cameras, listening aids, flashlights and spotlights with red lenses and if hunting at night a small 12 volt red globe with a rheostat connected to a battery. This light is set up above the bait and the light intensity can be regulated from the blind. Predators are not weary of a red light and with a rheostat you can slowly increase the light intensity until bright enough to take a shot. More than one Leopard may feed on a bait so even with all this paraphernalia your PH still needs to make a judgement call on the size (age) and sex of the feeding cat.
When building the blind you need to take into consideration two important factors, the first being the night time wind direction and the second the most likely approach that the Leopard will take to the bait tree. The blind is normally built about 50 – 70 yards (45 – 65 metres) downwind of bait. Obviously if you are hunting with a bow you will need to be even closer to the bait tree.
In the blind
The hunt normally starts around four in the afternoon when you enter the blind and wait for the sun to set. If the animal does not return during the time you remain in the blind you will be able to retrieve the photos or video footage from the trail camera. In this way you can start to pattern the Leopards behaviour and feeding patterns. It will also give you visuals to be able to sex and age the bait visiting Leopard(s) to some extent. Other than being able to see the scrotum in the trail camera photos, mature Toms are generally solitary animals and have a noticeably big head, thick neck with a small dewlap.
If you can hunt at night you could remain in the blind throughout the night in the hope that the Leopard returns to the bait. However, with the aid of trail camera data hunters no longer spend as much time sitting in blinds as was the case in previous years, hoping for that lucky break.
In areas which do not permit night hunting means that hunters need to walk in and out to their blind, in the dark and return early the next morning in the dark. This can lead to some adrenaline pumping moments bumping into inquisitive Lions or feeding Elephants making their way past the blind. If you hear approaching feeding Elephants while sitting in the blind you need to vacate the site otherwise your life could be in danger.
Leopards have keen eyesight and good hearing so you need to be incredibly quiet whilst in the blind and move very carefully so as not to make a noise. Snoring in the blind is not recommended and does not attract Leopards to the bait. What does attract them are the calls of prey animals. Leopards react to predator callers, normally at the most inopportune moments when you are trying to call in a Suni or Red Duiker and are totally undergunned, neither prepared nor licensed to shoot the animal. However, the use of predator callers, both manual and battery operated, is banned in many countries.
Often Leopards approaching the bait may give a rasping log-sawing call and in some instances you may hear animals in the vicinity making alarm calls as they catch sight of an approaching Leopard. Often they just appear as if from nowhere and you may hear their claws scratching the bark of the tree as they climb to the bait if hunting at night. Next you may hear the branches used to cover the bait falling to the ground and your heart beat will begin to race. The best is to give the Leopard some feeding time. This not only allows the animal to settle but also gives the hunter time to control their “buck fever” breathing. Sitting there in the dark, all your senses are on hyper-alert. It seems like you can hear a mouse move at forty yards.
When shooting in low light or at night it may be difficult to locate the heart/lung area looking at all those spotted rosettes in the fading or dim light. You may also be shooting uphill and need to compensate with some slight adjustments. In real time you need to make the best judgment call before squeezing the trigger.
Read more: The Spotted Houdini by James Reed
Hunting Leopards with Hounds
Leopard hunting with hounds can be very successful. These hunts may start in two different ways. Baits can be used to attract Leopards in from the area for a free meal and the fresh tracks followed in the morning. The other setup is to drag a bush down the road and tracks in the late afternoon to wipe out old tracks making it easier to identify fresh tracks in the morning.
The team will rise real early in the morning and then spend time checking out the roads and tracks, even sandy riverbeds for a large fresh suitable spoor. A good size Leopard track measures about the same length as a regular cigarette.
The dogs are then released on the tracks and the handler is able to pick up from the dogs barking and howling if they are making any progress or gaining ground on the Leopard. Well trained dogs are able to pick out fresh scent from old scent and follow the correct animal. The process is time consuming and the hunt requires a degree of fitness as the hunting party needs to jog/walk to keep up with the dogs so as to be nearby when the Leopard is eventually bayed. The idea is that the dogs hopefully bay the Leopard in a tree giving the hunting party time to catch up to the dogs. The hounds are fitted with GPS collars which helps the hunters to locate the dogs.
The advantage of this type of hunting is that a treed cat can be carefully scrutinised for sex and age prior to shooting or spared if undersize or the wrong sex. The disadvantage is that if the cat is bayed in a cave or in rocky terrain this can become a very dangerous situation for both man and dog as Leopards often become very aggressive when cornered and will attack from close range. If you are a fit adrenaline junkie this is your type of hunt.
In Mozambique hounds are used to hunt Leopards at night using similar methods. Of course this can be extremely dangerous and needs proper planning. Headlamps, flashlights and spotlights are obviously an essential part of this hunt. This may sound crazy but in areas where tsetse flies occur the dogs are susceptible to nagana, a disease that can be fatal to the dogs bitten by these flies. This is why the dogs are kept locked away in fly proof facilities during the day and only run at night when the flies are not active.
This is every professional hunter’s nightmare. When a cat lands on the ground with a thud and not feet first, it is always a good sign and you know it has been shot well. Following a wounded cat especially at night is ill advised and to be avoided at all costs but not always possible. If there are Hyenas in the area you may come across a badly chewed up Leopard if the follow-up is left until daylight.
The lawful minimum calibre with which to hunt a Leopard is a .375. However the jury is out on what weapon to use for a follow-up on a wounded Leopard. Some prefer a heavy calibre, some a double rifle, and others a shotgun with buckshot.
Extreme care must be taken during the follow-up. Leopards are the master of stealth and camouflage, seemingly attack from nowhere and will charge without any warning, unlike Lions that normally let you know they are coming.
Wounded Leopards can lie in wait in knee high grass and will charge at lightning speed from a short distance of a few yards/metres. These attacks are extremely frightening as they tend to attack the upper torso and head. Not many professional hunters wear protective clothing in such instances but it might be well worth it to protect your scalp, face and stomach areas. One professional hunter says you can bargain on a hundred stitches per second during such an attack.
If possible, follow-ups should be left to the professionals and even a professional hunter should ask for backup if available. Clients may be used as backup if keeping their ground behind the professional hunter but if they cannot keep a cool head during these close encounters it is better they wait at the hunting vehicle. In one such incident with a wounded Lion follow-up many years ago, the client accidentally killed two trackers and his professional hunter in his panic to shoot a charging Lion.
Leopard Hunting Tips
- Try to avoid building your blind on an Elephant path as you will need to abandon your position in the darkness before being surrounded by a herd of Elephants. In some areas of Zimbabwe especially, these breeding herds can be extremely aggressive.
- Leopards are extremely smart in some night hunting areas and will not approach the bait site while they know hunters are sitting in the blind. This type of behaviour is likely to be caught on camera when you see the photos of the cat feeding on the bait soon after you left the blind. You may try to trick this animal by calling the backup vehicle over the radio to come and collect you from the blind. Make lots of noise and pretend that you are leaving the blind. In the meantime you remain behind and send the vehicle away. All the while you continue to wait patiently for the cautious cat to come feed thinking that the inhabitants that were in the blind have gone home for a late dinner.
- If you do not have all the high-tech equipment available to detect the arrival of a cat at the bait on a dark night, you can use a length of fishing line attached to the bait animal and down to the blind which will start tugging just like a fish biting on your baited hook. This will also help rouse you if you happen to doze off.
- Be prepared for some mosquito action during the night so go prepared dressed in long sleeved shirts and long pants.
- Make sure you have been to the toilet long before you arrive at the baiting site. Once in the blind and you need to urinate use a bottle or container as you do not want to leave your human scent on the ground.
- Be careful when using any form of light technology as this can cause temporary blindness while your eyes adjust from the dark to some form of lighting, especially when using illuminating rifle scopes.
- Hound hunting can be made easier as cats leave a stronger scent when the grass is wet from overnight condensation, so choose a hunting time period when there is likely to be dew on the grass.
Some clients may want to taste what a Leopard’s meat tastes like. As a general rule of thumb this meat is not eaten. However, the Leopard fat makes for a very powerful traditional medicine much sought after by the skinners who trade this with tribal traditional healers.
The quality of a Leopard trophy is determined by the size of the skull. However a good trophy needs to be a male Leopard over the age of seven years old which is extremely difficult to judge in the field as there are no easily identifiable markings to indicate an animal’s age when in the field. A Leopard’s age can only be determined by the growth rings of a Leopard’s tooth but this requirement can only be scientifically measured by the extraction of a tooth from a dead Leopard.
Some countries, like South Africa require numerous measurements and photos to be taken in an effort to build up a database in this regard. Amongst those measurements is the recording of the animal’s length from the tip of its nose to the end of its tail. You will often hear people refer to the length (size) of the animal to determine how big the animal was. However this is not considered reliable information for the same reasons we hear about similar fisherman’s tales.
Many refer to the weight of a Leopard to the reference of its size. A really big cat can weigh over 90kg (200lbs) but the size and weight is determined by genetics, availability of food and habitat. It is a known fact that desert Leopards are smaller than savannah Leopards due to the harsher conditions under which they survive, live and hunt.
At the end of the day what counts most is you have a successful hunt and shoot a mature Tom.