TWO CLEVER CATS

Poss pull quotes:

  1. Then on day eight of fourteen, our leopard hit the bait – action stations!
  1. I seem to have the ability to sense when big cats are close by, and on this night the feeling was very strong!
  1. But thatching twine had saved the day!

 

Zimbabwe: 2014 -2015

TWO CLEVER CATS

By John Sharp

As there are no lions on Malangani, and leopards only have hyenas to contend with there, they seldom drag their kills up trees – so I presumed I had hung the bait too high. Females will do anything to get food as they are often trying to raise young, but big males will seldom venture up high – something I had learned during my previous thirteen years in this area.

In 2014 I was hunting a leopard on Malangani in the Bubye Valley Conservancy with Manny Fajin from Florida. I had around seven baits out with no decent takers, when a big cat arrived at one of the baits, walked around the tree a few times, looked longingly at the free dinner, and then left.

A few months earlier another PH’s client had wounded a ‘big’ leopard with an arrow – this cat had been followed a long way, but was deemed to have survived and made good his escape. The thought did cross my mind that this might be the same one, so we quickly hung a bait in a good spot quite a distance ahead in the direction of his departing tracks. This bait we hung especially low, but just out of hyena reach. Sure enough, when we checked the next morning, the camera revealed that a big tom had hit the bait. We erected a pop-up blind and gave him another evening of feeding to get him more relaxed.

Manny’s time had run out, so we would get only one chance. We settled into the blind to wait. Right on cue I heard the sound of the approaching leopard. He clawed his way into the tree, and after looking warily around, began to feed. Manny readied himself for the shot. I turned on the light, and the cat exploded off the low branch and disappeared, crashing through the bush like a herd of spooked buffalo. Although we waited quite a while longer, I just knew that he would not return to feed. I was now convinced that this was the previously wounded tom, and Manny went home without a leopard.

And thus began my quest to outwit this “Educat”.

During 2015 I had a leopard / buffalo hunt scheduled with Bart Koontz and his son Conoly from San Antonio – this hunt was allocated the Malangani / Fimbiri areas. To assist me I had my ‘adopted son’ David Langerman. Bart and Conoly are two very special people, with some very sad darkness in their lives. Bart had woken one morning to find his elder son lifeless in bed – an autopsy had revealed an enlarged heart. This had broken up a once happy family.

We began our baiting process – Dave was baiting Fimbiri and I was targeting the “educat” on Malangani. Within a few days I had him feeding again in my special place, but he was now very erratic – par for the course. Bart and I sat a couple of nights with no luck, then just when I thought I had the cat figured, Bart dropped a bombshell: he was going to leave early. He was bonding so well with Conoly that he couldn’t bear being away from him at all – even hunting out of the same vehicle was not enough. A father and his remaining son reuniting after intense pain – I could only empathise. He left, paying for the entire safari, and travelled to Cape Town where he could be one-on-one with his son.  And so this educat lived on.

Brian Bell from Fort Worth was next, in 2016. I specifically booked him into Malangani over a moon phase, as I knew we would not be able to use a light of any kind on this cat.

The first morning of the hunt was rained out – in June! We eventually managed to get two zebra down for bait and stored the meat at Malangani HQ. We hung two baits that were both hit the first night. I decided not to hang the educat’s bait for the first five days as the moon was not yet bright enough, just in case he hit it too soon. This was a concern, as the days on a leopard hunt seem to fly by all too quickly. The tension was increased by the fact that we had a shooter on one of the other baits. Brian and I agreed that we had to go for the targeted cat, so after three days I removed the shooter’s dinner, hoping that I might be able to get him feeding again at a later date if necessary.

All this time we were watching the weather channel and cloud patterns, none of which were in our favor, especially at night. The blind had been up since day one on this site as, contrary to my normal MO, I had intended to sit on night two, given that I now knew this cat’s irregular feeding habits.

Everything was very green due to the late rains. I needed Brian to be able to see a good silhouette, especially with the continuing cloud cover, so I had my trackers clear a section of grass behind the bait and cover it with dry river sand so the cat would be silhouetted when he fed. We called it our red carpet, complete with microphone and dais, ready for our visiting dignitary. Then on day eight of fourteen, our leopard hit the bait – action stations!

We were settled in the blind by 5 p.m. that first night just in case he came in early. I knew he would not, but had to cover all of the bases. Just before 7 p.m. a female appeared and began to feed. We had seen her feeding with a small cub on previous trail cam pics, but no cub appeared this time. She really loved our ‘red carpet’ and rested there after each feed, stretching and rolling in the sand. We watched her pretty much throughout the night, but the tom did not show.  I called the vehicle in the morning after a 15-hour stint.

The next night was much the same, watching the female feed. I have a passion for sitting in blinds. I love listening to the day sounds recede, giving way to those of the night – the francolin’s final calls and the bulbuls who always seem to have the last say, and the Scops and Pearl Spotted Owls gently entering the scene as darkness fully descends.

Somehow I have to accept the grey grasshoppers – there is inevitably one of these noisy creatures situated too close to my listening device! My Bionic Ear microphone is extremely sensitive, and their constant chirping, not unlike the alarm clock call of the Crested Barbet, assails my senses to the point of distraction. They can sometimes go on until almost midnight. When the chirping finally subsides, my badly damaged ears seem to go into shock, tortuously echoing that incessant sound.

That night we spent 14 hours in the blind.

The third night was very different. Everything was quiet, and I felt that the leopard was near. I seem to have the ability to sense when big cats are close by, and on this night the feeling was very strong! The female did not show, which reinforced my instincts.  The grey grasshoppers were silent. Then a dassie (hyrax) gave an alarm call. A lone baboon took up the alert, and I was wired, my heart pumping with adrenaline, as I awaited the arrival of our cat.

Just before 3 a.m. I heard him approaching the bait tree, and saw him pass it and lie down exactly where the female had lain on our ‘red carpet’. He suddenly disappeared from view and then reappeared on the opposite side, again where the female had lain. The moon brightened and dimmed as the clouds slid eerily across the night sky. Suddenly, the cat was at the base of the bait tree.

I punched Brian who had begun to snore. He started, then readied himself on the rifle. He was using my Ruger M77 .300 Win. Mag. fitted with a Leopold, Vari-X lll with an illuminated reticule, and as I activated the illumination, he was on full alert. I saw the tom appear on the low branch, silhouetted dimly against the carpet of sand, feeding in a sitting position.

“Shoot!” I told Brian. The explosion shattered the night, and the cat left, melting into the darkness.

I called in the vehicle, and managed to convince Brian to wait in the Cruiser.  My trackers and I began to search with our flashlights. I always try to locate the leopards at night to recover the trophy intact. We searched for about 45 minutes, trying to follow tracks as there was very little blood visible, and then I called it off – it would soon be morning when we could follow more easily. We made a fire in the riverbed and warmed up as we waited for dawn.

Cloud cover obscured the dawn, but when we had sufficient light we resumed the search. It was now much easier, and after a short while the tracker Isaac jumped in the air and began to sing: “Ingwe yena file, Ingwe yena file!” (the leopard is dead! The leopard is dead!) as he spotted the lifeless body of the cat.

There was much jubilation all round – we had succeeded in taking a very wily tom after 39 hours in the blind. We took the customary pictures for Brian and for Parks, except for an open-mouth shot showing the teeth – rigor mortis had already set in, locking the cat’s jaws in a vicelike grip. He weighed 170 lbs on an empty stomach, but his skull size unfortunately did not match that of his body. But still, a special trophy.

When the cat was skinned we inspected the body for any signs of a previous wound, but found nothing. I estimated his age at around eight years so I guess he was just a clever, old cat. If that wounded one is still alive he must be out there somewhere.

Another time, perhaps…

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Later the same year I was hunting with Robert Clark of Alabama, and encountered yet another clever cat – this time on Ripple Creek.

We had struggled to come to grips with zebra for bait, so only managed to get the bait line going by day three. One bait was hit immediately, but on checking the tracks and the stealth cam pics we decided to let him go. He was alternating at the bait with a female, but was in my opinion not old enough – he would need a few more years to grow and develop that thick neck which is the sign of a mature male.

On day seven a good-sized tom hit another of our baits. His tracks were large and he had the neck. We set up the blind and allowed him to feed a second night without disturbance. The resident game scout and other staff had told us that another PH had tried twice to get this tom but failed – they apparently were led to believe that the cat would not hold for a light.

So here we were again – another clever cat. As is my wont, we were hunting again during the moon phase, so no problem. I was just a little concerned as he had eaten a lot on both nights, up to four feeds a night.

On the third night we entered the blind at around 5 p.m. It was Robert’s first leopard hunt, and I had briefed him as best I could. His rifle, also equipped with an illuminated reticule, was in my homemade jig, right in front of him, pointing pretty much where the cat should be standing to feed. All he would need to do was lean forward, grip the rifle, and center the crosshairs exactly where he wanted them to be.

Again I had my nemesis – the grey grasshopper – screeching incessantly in my headphones. Suddenly, just before 9 p.m. the screeching stopped and I heard the cat approaching.

As I made out the leopard’s head below the bait tree, I motioned Robert to get on his rifle. The tom climbed into the tree and moved onto the bait branch, stopping just before his dinner. He was clearly visible in the direct moonlight – an awesome sight.

“Shoot,” I whispered to Robert.

The cat took a mouthful from the zebra leg… but still no shot! Suddenly Robert moved his arm from his rifle to scratch his head, and the cat turned around and left. A great opportunity lost. We waited until midnight, but he did not return, so I called in the vehicle.

The next day we saw that the leopard had returned for another feed early in the morning, so all was not lost. We sat again that night, but as he had not appeared by 2 a.m. we left again empty-handed.

The following night we tried again. This attempt started out with the sounds of genets, my grasshopper buddy, and a black rhino nearby, snapping off twigs in his jaws and rhythmically chewing. Otherwise all seemed quiet. At around 3 a.m. the moon disappeared. Robert said that he could no longer see well enough to shoot, so I called for the vehicle.

I had no sooner done so when I heard the leopard approaching! I signaled Robert to the ready position and then tried to radio the vehicle to stop. I had erected a dim red light high in the bait tree for a possible emergency, and told Robert that he was going to have to do this very quickly.

I pressed the remote switch and the leopard glowed in the darkness. No shot! The cat turned, moved to the base of the branch and then crouched, ready to jump. Robert fired in the very instant of the jump and we heard the tom moving off, not very quickly, in the undergrowth – a very good sign. But in that same instant, the headlights of the truck appeared behind the bait!

But thatching twine had saved the day! I had borrowed a 1 km roll, and Isaac had been guarding it between his feet on the back of the vehicle. However, on this night, when they dropped us off at the blind, he had moved into the front seat alongside my driver, Gift. Unbeknown to all of them, as they drove away from the blind, the roll unraveled!

Now, as they approached after my call, Isaac had noticed the twine trail in the headlights, and they had stopped to pick up and drag the one end back towards the blind. Thus occupied, they had not heard my second call to stop, so their arrival had simply been delayed. This incident turned out to be Robert’s lucky charm. Had the roll not unraveled, the vehicle would most certainly have chased the leopard away before he could have taken his shot.

While Robert waited in the vehicle, the rest of us followed through the thick, dark undergrowth, adrenaline surging, and nerves as taut as watch springs.

We found our leopard a mere 50m away.

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