As told to Peter Flack by Ryan Cliffe
I was 27. Been a PH for exactly three years and an appy for five years before that. Why five years? Firstly, on $30.00 per month I could barely afford the costs of the exam and, secondly, I was determined to pass at my first attempt. I’d seen too many eager beaver appies try their luck after their third year and fail. Maybe I was over cautious. Who knows?
My client, Mike, had come on safari to Chapungu Safaris’s Charara North concession in Zimbabwe’s Zambezi Valley Escarpment towards the end of the season, in December, 2006, with his three sons, in their 30s’, Todd, Tyler and Tobin. He was quite a strange man with long, shoulder length, wispy, grey hair which he tied in a ponytail. I have a friend who says that beneath every ponytail, there is an arsehole, but that was not really true in Mike’s case, and he subsequently came on two further end of season hunts with me.
The area consisted of hilly brachystegia woodland for the most part and we used the old tsetse fly control camp because there was a borehole nearby.
At the top of Mike’s wish list was a leopard and so, from the get go, we set about finding baits to hang. Mike used a Blazer .375 H&H for this purpose but his pride and, not necessarily, joy, was a .505 Gibbs made by CZ. I say "not necessarily" because the rifle punished him severely from time to time and once hit him so hard in the head, it pushed the brim of his baseball cap into his glasses and nose with such force it broke the former and left the latter bleeding profusely. As such, I asked him to use his .375 on the leopard and, after some persuasion, he eventually agreed.
I like to build my leopard blinds 40 to 45 metres from the bait and so it is not a far shot. A .375, loaded with good quality softs, is plenty of medicine for this small cat.
At dusk on the evening in question the leopard, a medium sized tom weighing about 120 pounds, posed broadside above the bait and Mike’s rifle, which was supported front and back by two "V" shaped sturdy sticks, went off within seconds of me giving him the go ahead. The cat leapt straight out of the tree and I could tell by the fast fading sounds of the growling and grunting cat that it was wounded and putting distance between us at a goodly pace. Not good news.
Unlike some, I like to track wounded leopard at night, as opposed to during the day. At night I can pick up the cat’s yellowish eyes from a distance in situations where I would not see the cat at all during the day. Secondly, the bright lights I use blind the cat, usually hold it in place (because it cannot see what is behind the light) and allow me to walk down the beam held next to the barrel of my 10 gauge, side by side shotgun, loaded with heavy buckshot, until I am so close to the cat I can place a tightly grouped shot into his chest.
So it was that we followed the cat up Chidoma Hill, a very high hill covered in granite boulders interspersed with a lot of springs. This all took a lot of time as tracking was slow with only an occasional spoor and spot of blood to guide us in the torch beams. In addition, we had to take care that the leopard did not ambush us. The gradual pursuit felt like an eternity and, when the batteries of my powerful torches started to fail, we had no alternative but to return to camp.
After dropping off Mike and the trackers, I returned in my ancient Land Cruiser to the base of the hill and slept in the vehicle because I hoped that, if the cat died in the night, I would hear any hyenas on his carcass and be able to scare them off before they did too much damage. But I had a quiet night.
First thing next morning, I was back at camp rallying the troops and Mike’s three sons decided to come along and lend a helping hand. On my return to the hill, we followed the occasional track and blood spoor until it disappeared into a big cave in which we could stand upright.
Leading away from the main cave were gaps in the rocks and I was worried that the leopard may have been able to squeeze through one of them and escape. We carefully walked around and over the outcrop but found no sign that the leopard had managed to sneak away. Not a drop of blood. Not a sign. The tension was building, as we all knew the leopard must be near now!
Our only scare came when my appy, Warren, doing his best imitation of a SWAT team member on top of the boulders, poking his shotgun dramatically into every crevice, managed to drop his cocked and hopefully locked pistol down the rocks towards us at the bottom. As it clanged and banged its way down towards us, we ducked and dived expecting a shot and subsequent ricochet with every knock it took. Fortunately, the pistol did not fire on its way down and it was a very sheepish young man who eventually arrived in our midst, dusted off his firearm and, this time, secured it properly in its holster. Although everyone’s nerves were already on edge and no-one was impressed with what had just happened, not a word was spoken. We needed to focus, and move on.
We returned to the cave. It was then, under an overhanging rock at the back, that I noticed a hole, a warthog burrow, which led underground. On closer observation, there were paw marks in the loose soil, going down the entrance of the hole as well as two tiny spots of blood. There was no doubt now. The leopard was down there!
What to do? Mike, his sons, my appy and the trackers all looked at me. No one volunteered to go down the hole and look for the leopard.
After giving it some thought, I sent one of the trackers down the hill to the truck to get my maglight and swapped my hunting clothes for one of the other tracker’s overalls. I wrapped a thick, woollen scarf around my neck and unholstered my Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum loaded with six soft-nosed Federal cartridges. The maglight duly arrived and I was ready.
The dust was unsettling while I was worming my way down the burrow outstretched on my belly. The dry leaves on the floor of the burrow rustled and seemed to make a tremendous noise. I felt nervous but confident. What else could be in there? A porcupine, a mamba, bats, or, just me and a wounded leopard? I’d never before been down a burrow before and my mind was racing. I figured, to get at me, the leopard would have to come directly from the front and up the same burrow I was heading down. Long before he reached me, he would face a hail of six .44 Magnum bullets.
I am slightly built, 5 feet 10 ½ inches tall and weigh about 140 pounds. I could just fit in the narrow confines of the burrow leading to the warthogs’ den. The 30 degree downward angle of the tunnel was about six feet long. This helped my progress but it leveled out up ahead for about four feet and then turned to the right. A few feet further, moths fluttered about stirred up by the dust. The unventilated air became stale and musty. As I edged forward, my head bumped against the roof of the tunnel and I felt a thin trickle of earth down the back of my neck.
It was when I reached the end of the burrow that the odds, which until then had been in my favour, changed. I could see I had now reaching the den, which opened up to the left and right of the burrow. I hesitated. I could hear my heart beating. I was still in the confines of the tight tunnel and the leopard had to be ahead in the more spacious den. What if the cat was waiting to pounce?
I wiggled a little further forward, torch held in my left hand like a dagger pointing over and a line with the barrel of my revolver. I wiggled a bit more, shone the torch to the left and lit up the wall of the den. Nothing.
I swung to the right. My torch was less than two feet from the right front paw of the leopard, which gazed impassively at me, the light reflecting back a brilliant and terrifying yellow. My adrenaline launched and the gun fired itself again and again and again in rapid succession until the repeated clacking of the hammer on the empty chambers eventually brought me back to my senses. I was enveloped by thick, choking dust and gun powder smoke. My ears hurt from the explosive sounds of the shots within the confines of the den. Dazed and a little confused by the cacophony, I forced myself backwards and up the burrow as fast as I could go.
As I popped out of the burrow, I fell onto my back, coughing, gasping for air and with my heart hammering in my chest. I found myself surrounded by anxious faces gazing down at me. Mike spoke first. Not, "Are you OK?" Not, "Did you kill it?" But "Is it a big one?" I could have punched him!
Then Warren piped up and said, "Well, I’ll go down and fetch it for you."
"Not on your life," was my immediate response. "I killed it. I will go back down and fetch it!" I responded with emphasis on the word, "back". No-one was going to fetch "my" leopard but me.
What I ultimately found was that one of the shots had passed through the right front paw of the cat and all of them were nestled in one tight group in the middle of the leopard’s chest.
Everyone took a turn to pose with the leopard and, if you can believe it, I did not take a single photo with my own camera.
I’ve since heard of two other professional hunters who have done the same thing. At the time I didn’t think too much about it. Someone had to fetch the cat and I was the PH so I did it. Married now and with three lovely daughters, I am not so sure I would do it again. Today, I think I would set up a trail camera and a quick and simple trap gun to take care of the problem. Although, I suppose, someone will still need to go down there, and find out if he’s still alive!