For Whom the Horn Blows? Hunting African Leopards with Hounds

leopard on a rock

It must be a strange feeling to hear a hunter’s horn in the African bush. So different, so distant from the picture we usually associate with the sound – forests of old Europe, a royal stag, a cavalcade of noblemen, joyful baying of the hounds held by huntsmen in bright matching uniforms. And indeed, that day in Zimbabwe the hunter’s horn signaled the dawn of a very special hunt: two weeks of a chase after a leopard with hounds.

It had been a tough hunt. It started in the most discouraging way a hunt can ever start – when you’re doing everything right, but all animals just seem to have vanished from the area. To hunt a leopard over hounds, you must first find a track. It means covering a large area: a leopard requires a minimum of 10-12 thousand hectares for an individual animal’s territory, and that if there’s lots of prey. Where game is scarce, an individual male’s territory may be as large as 100,000 hectares. Day after day the hunters cruised backcountry roads in a truck, looking hard to see footprints in the sand. But day after day went blank, and they returned to camp, wondering, perhaps, as hunters will, why were they doing it in the first place?

Why hunt a leopard over hounds?

For Gavin Lipjes, the PH in this story, the answer is clear. Hunting leopards over hounds is the alpha and omega of his career. He started hunting as a kid, on his father’s farm, culling various animals that were at a conflict with agriculture. He moved on to study wildlife conservation and worked as a game ranger in the private nature preserves adjacent to the famous Kruger National Park. Turning to hunting again, both as a conservation tool and as something he’d love to do as a lifetime career, he was apprenticed as a PH under the late Theunis Botha, the pioneer of hunting leopard over hounds.leopard skin

In his quest for knowledge, Gavin learned from the American cougar hunting with hounds, the old “tigrero” tradition of jaguar hunts in South America, and followed hounding to its European roots. It was in Europe that he learned that the ancient hunting horn is still a very useful tool, and that XII-century hunting books have not lost their value. He returned from Europe to start Panther Trackers, a hound hunting operation of his own, first in Namibia, then, after the country banned hunting leopards over hounds, he moved to Mozambique.

Natural, sporting, environmentally correct

Gavin is convinced that hunting leopard with hounds is the most natural, the most sporting, and the most environmentally correct way of taking the cats.

Natural because it builds on the ancient confrontation of felines and canines. Wild dogs chase leopards up trees just like hound dogs do. For leopards, dogs are annoying rather than dangerous. A big tom can handle any dog, but is reluctant to face a whole pack, because of a risk to get injured. An injury for a wild predator is often a death sentence. So the cat’s Plan A is to get to a safe place and outwait the obnoxious canines. Not that it doesn’t have Plans B and C.

Sporting because it’s an active pursuit. You don’t wait for the animal, cleverly deceived by human intelligence, to come to where you expect it. You go after the animal, and will have to pay in sweat, blood and sores as you cover mile after mile of hostile African terrain. And while dogs help to find the leopard and bring it to bay, there are wider options for you to screw things up than in waiting over bait.

Selective because you set your hounds on a track of a specific animal, and any good tracker can tell the sex and age category of a leopard from its spoor. If the animal that left the track isn’t up to your standard, the hounds stay in their cages. The chances to kill a “wrong” animal are minimal.

Alternative: Baiting

Baiting is the only practical alternative to hunting over hounds for predators, and in fact most leopards are hunted in this manner. Baiting is a stationary – some say “passive” – hunt, with much less activity required from a hunter. As for choice, it is often not unlike shopping in a Socialist economy: you take what there is or get lost, Comrade. Hunters have many ways to estimate size, sex and age of the animal that comes to the bait. The problem is, the cat that comes to your bait today may not be the same big old male that visited it the day before yesterday. If, after fourteen days of waiting over bait, a young leopard shows up, will you shoot it or go home empty-handed?

Leopards are not totally nocturnal, but they don’t usually come to a bait in broad daylight. If you consider using night vision sights and artificial light unethical – or the law bans them – then you’ve only got a few minutes of twilight to identify and harvest the animal. Mistakes are common and can be costly, both if you only wound the leopard, and if you fail to identify it correctly (see the story of James Reed’s leopard hunt).leopard trailcam

All conservational aspects of predator hunting depend on taking old males tat are nearing the end of their lives. A loss of such an individual is the least harmful for the population, and often even leads to an increase in numbers. Old males of big cats (and bears) are notorious for infanticide, and tend to claim an excessively large territory, which decreases the food available to females and lowers their offsprings’ survival chances.

Anyway, Gavin and his client tried baiting to lure the cats out of the bush, but bad luck continued to follow them. As they were hanging a bait, the hunter fell and was out of combat for a couple of precious hunting days – he strained his shoulder so hard that he couldn’t shoot.

To shoot a leopard

Most African nations set minimum caliber requirements when it comes to dangerous game hunting. In case of a leopard, it could be a bit overbore – Gavin says the cartridges of the .300 Win. Mag. class are perfectly adequate, where legal. If big bores are the rule, he recommends taking the lightest cartridge that’s allowed. On this relatively small feline you don’t need penetration as much as you need instant kill, usually provided by a light, fast, soft, rapidly expanding bullet. The good old .375 H&H with the .235 grain bullet is a great leopard medicine.

This is not Highland deer-stalking, where a gamekeeper carries the gun-case after the hunter until the last moment. You’re going to have your rifle in your arms as you approach the leopard, ready for immediate action as if you were bird-shooting, perhaps for hours. Obviously, you want your weapon to be light, handy and familiar. It’s best if your rifle comes with a quick-detachable scope mount and iron sights. With most shots taken at about 50 yards, tackdriving accuracy doesn’t come into it, but an option to remove the scope and use quick, light and fog-proof iron sights can be very useful.

Gavin’s client, however, found it a problem to apply this knowledge to practice. Time was running out and they still couldn’t find a leopard to hunt.  It was only two days before the client’s set departure date that they found a track. The trackers, whose role in this pursuit can’t be underestimated, identified it as a big, old male, and the magic moment arrived when the houndsman released the dogs and they went out in active pursuit.

To get a leopard

You may think that once the hounds are on the track, the leopard is as good as bagged. Wrong. First, you will have to catch up with the dogs, and that requires walking, more walking, and then some more walking. That means you’ve got to be fit. How do you know whether you’re fit enough? If you can walk up and down a hill with 20 degree gradient for half an hour, you’re ready. That tells you you’ve got to work on stamina, rather than speed.leopard track

Hunting a leopard over hounds is an enthusiastic pursuit. Emotions are overfilling everyone: the dogs, the leopard, the PH and team – and, Gavin says, the best tip he can give to a prospective leopard hunter is to be active and enthusiastic, too. Nothing can ruin your experience as much as passivity. Don’t be put off by your inexperience, all people in this trade knew nothing when they started. What’s not OK is not wanting to  learn. Our blog post about most dangerous hunts says you must follow your PH’s requests to a T. But it doesn’t mean you can’t show initiative. Get engaged, help look for tracks, show your interest. PHs are hunters too, and they like people who love to hunt. The client who just sit in the truck expecting the team to provide the leopard for them – that just doesn’t cut it with most teams.

Clothes and footwear are more important than guns and ammo

Your outfit must dry quickly. You’re bound to sweat a lot; besides, leopards love hunting around water and often hang around riverine habitat. You won’t pick your road when following the hounds, and may have to wade through streams and marshes as you go. Usually you start in the morning, when it’s cold, get to scorching heat in the afternoon, and back to cold again as night captures you in the bush miles from the camp. Think layers of insulation that can be removed in a second and stuffed into the backpack until further notice.

“Natural” and “organic” may be big words in the fashion industry, but most PHs prefer modern synthetic fibers. This goes all the way down to underwear: quite a lot of hunters get the most up-to-date shirts and trousers, and then slip on the comfy cotton underpants – wrong choice. As you sweat your way through the bush, they will accumulate moisture, and from there to bad sores is a matter of moments. Synthetic sports stuff works better.

But perhaps the most important piece of equipment for walking over hard terrain is your footwear. Traditional thick leather hunting boots aren’t the best choice, pick something light, with flexible sole made of a softer compound, that grabs rocks and other terrain well.

Following the call of the hounds

Dogs love leopard hunting. This is for people who believe that hunting predators over hounds is unethical because it subjects the dogs to unnecessary risk. As usual with “animal rights” issues, the bleeding hearts forget to ask the animals themselves. In this case, there’s hard evidence, however. Hounds begin their training from smaller felines, such as caracal. You would think that if they didn’t want the risk associated with leopard hunting, they would jump at every chance to abandon leopard tracks every time it crossed a caracal track, and followed the smaller feline. In fact, the opposite is true. A dog that had the taste of leopard hunting will not want to even look at the caracal track.

It goes without saying that once the hounds are in pursuit, you navigate by their voices. Excitement is mounting  as you can tell what’s going on from the baying of the hounds. They sound differently when they are giving chase, and when they have treed the cat. Sometimes the leopard will fight the dogs on the ground, and this gets very vocal, too. As leopards charge, their growls sound, as Gavin puts it, like a 4-stroke motorcycle running without an exhaust.

But on that day it took Gavin and his client a better part of the day before they could tell the leopard was finally treed – or, at least, the dogs had his motions arrested. At that point, you don’t rush to the spot headlong – you have to move quick, of course, if it’s far off, but as you come closer you move more carefully. As a matter of fact, you stalk.

The stalk

Generally, the stalk begins once you’re about 100 yards from the place where the dogs have treed the animal. Don’t count on the tom being distracted by the hounds, stalk it as you would any other careful and wary animal. Leopards aren’t stupid, and the direct approach of a human will set them going like fire. At every step, try to pick the animal out in the branches or rocks, and get yourself into a position for your shot. Needless to say you approach from the downwind.kopje

However, when Gavin and his client approached the place, they discovered that the big tom was smart enough to hide in a big rocky hill, called gomo in the local dialect, and known in other African countries as kopje. The hunters could hear him growl, and Gavin says he could actually smell the leopard, and you bet the dogs could, too. But they couldn’t see him, and nothing could possibly force him out. They had to call a retreat.

A night run

The hunters circled all roads around the gomo, and by 9 p.m. found the exit track. The client could hunt only for a few hours next morning, so they decided to have a night run. Many people don’t feel too comfortable in an African bush at night, especially given a predator whose species have a long history of lunching on people, within walking distance. But the thrill of the chase expelled any hint of fear, and the team followed the hounds, lighting their way with headlamps.

Their hounds followed the track with enthusiasm, but the leopard felt himself at home in the dark. He played another ace in his deck – went on, fast and hard, continually jumping the tree as the hunters approached. The hunters had to face one more challenge that all hunters over hounds are well familiar with: keep walking for hours and hours, at top speed, over the roughest of terrains – and in the dark at that.

They were catching up with the leopard, however… except that the tom crossed the borders of the hunting concession, and the hunters couldn’t follow him. That was where the out-of-this-world moment came, perhaps, for the American hunter half-lost in the middle of the savannah, as Gavin blew his traditional European hunter’s horn, again and again. But that’s what Gavin uses, when he has to – like at that moment – to call off the hounds.

To train a good pack of hounds

Not every pack of hounds is capable of leaving a hot track of their quarry and return to their owner. Gavin trains the dogs hard to do this, applying ancient European traditions: in Europe, one must have hounds that follow commands, because hunting grounds are small and it’s easy to cross the borders of the land you don’t have the rights to hunt. In Africa the territories are usually wider, but there are other reasons why a hunter may want to call the hounds off. The training is positive reinforcement at its finest: Gavin blows the horn at every moment that hounds are having a good time – at feeding… or at the death of a leopard.

There are lots of trade secrets in training a good pack of leopard hounds, beginning with the choice of breed. All breeds have their strengths and weaknesses. For example, European hounds such as Gascon Bleu/Saintongeois or Saint Hubert are good at finding the trail, while American coonhounds are good at getting the cat to bay. Some masters of hounds make their pack a combination of various breeds, others developing their own breed.leopard hounds

Gavin says the best number of dogs in the pack is 8. Of them, 3 would be very experienced hounds, that have seen and learned most of the cats’ tricks. One important thing about them is that they never get distracted by any other animal. Another three would be “deputies” for the old ones, dogs that are already experienced into the pursuit, but have yet something to learn. They’ll be the ones to replace the old ones in case of emergency. Finally, a good pack needs a couple of young “apprentices”. They’re not only there to learn the ropes, but to throw in some youthful enthusiasm and energy. Interestingly, the 1000-y.o. French book Gavin loves to quote from also says the perfect number of hounds in a pack to be hunted on foot is eight.

But the old ways are combined with the new, and every hound in Gavin’s pack is equipped with a GPS tracker. The sound of the baying is deceptive, it can be reflected by rocks or other natural objects, and appear as if coming from a different place. But GPS shows you exactly where not a reliable indicator of where the leopard and the pack are, and a map helps you find the best direction of approach. Another point where GPS is useful, is looking for the pack – hounds are notoriously easy to lose, and GPS saves a lot of time of backroad cruising.

If you think of going…

What with the work and challenges involved in training good leopard hounds, there are few packs you can hunt with. In addition, not every country allow it. Running hounds after leopards has been banned in Namibia, and in South Africa, where the practice of hunting serval, caracal, and leopard with packs of hounds initiated, few hunting concessions are spacious enough, and there’s lots of negative political pressure. Today, perhaps the best country for this hunt is Mozambique.

If you’ve never been predator hunting over hounds, the experience will likely change your hunting worldview forever. Seriously, of ten stories about hunting mountain lion over hounds in the USA,  eight go “I didn’t think much about this hunt before I did it, but once I did I had to change my mind”. Whatever you can hear from animal rightists and even some hunters, this fight is not fixed. It is fair chase in every sense of every word and it’s the challenge that makes it so exciting.

“So, how was that?” – the PH asked the hunter after they realized that was it that night.

“Lots of excitement” – said the hunter with a smile.

The hunter you’ve just read about returned home with nothing but stories to tell. But what stories they were! And your story will likely have a different ending – hunters who hunt over hounds tend to enjoy a higher success rate, not to mention more action, than those who sit over bait. Find out your options for running hounds after a leopard and other predator hunting over hounds on

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