The Mawhe Cat

Poss Pull quotes:

  1. How could his cell phone work in the middle of nowhere?
  2. The leopard was very large and was probably the “Mahwe Cat
  3.  I have just lost a monster cat, and you ask me to be calm?”

Zimbabwe: 2013

The Mawhe Cat

By Paulo Botelho

December of 2013 …

It was a Saturday morning, my eleventh day in Zimbabwe, most of them spent walking and looking for a good elephant. I was certainly far from imagining an unexpected encounter with a ‘supercat’.

My passion for Africa had begun many years before.  A friend of mine, Luiz Cunha, owner of Palomar shopping, in Niterói, Brazil, had sold me a .300 Weatherby Magnum rifle that belonged to Alberto de Castilho, a famous Brazilian hunter. He also gave me Castilho’s book that told the tales and adventures of Castilho’s time in Africa in the mid-60s.

Although hunting and guns were already part of my DNA (my grandfather was a bird hunter, and I have always been a gun collector), I had never thought I would be hunting on African soil, especially because Brazilian laws regarding guns and hunting are very strict.

Any long gun with more than 1000 lbs/ft energy is considered a restricted gun, and only the army can issue permission for ownership. However, you must accept their terms, one of them being that the gun is not yours, you are only its guardian, and theoretically, they can ask for the gun back any time.

Needless to say, for this reason, the majority of the population does not have access to guns, and criminals are very thankful for that, as they can do whatever they want, because they know people are unarmed.

Hunting any of the national species is strictly forbidden, and there are very few animals in the wild, as local people in the vast lands, poach with snares, handmade shotguns, and old .22 rifles – there are not enough people to enforce law, and, therefore, poaching has no consequences.

However, wild hogs – introduced in Argentina and Uruguay and spread throughout Brazil – have had a disastrous effect on the plantations, so hunting them is permitted. A similar situation exists with water buffalo that were introduced a long time ago, and now are abundant in the northern states.

For these reasons, and after reading Castilho’s tales, I wanted to hunt in Africa, where hunting is permitted, and wildlife can flourish while being protected by hunters and also by the people that benefit from legal hunting.

My first safari, a plains-game hunt, had been with PH Wayne Grant of Nyala Valley, South Africa, and was most enjoyable.

Three years later, when I decided to hunt sable, Wayne said I could hunt with his young brother, Sean. Both are professionals, specializing in leopard hunting – Sean has taken more than 107, most of them cattle killers.

And now I was in one of the best elephant hunting grounds in Zimbabwe where farmers had realized that game farming was more profitable than cattle ranching, while the natural habitat of the animals, as well as poaching, is more controlled.

Local people who previously hunted and traded poached “bushmeat” are now given a bonus per legally hunted animal, and provided with protein. This has created a “protection” mentality, as they realize wildlife now has more value alive than poached.

And it was here, I had my unexpected encounter with the “Cat of Mahwe”.

The Mahwe region is a huge hunting area, where some cattle are bred, and leopards, hyenas, and cheetahs prey on the livestock.

The Mawhe cat had already killed 33 calves, which he fed on only at night, not returning to eat what was left the next day – unusual behavior for leopards, which normally hide their prey in a tree and return to eat it for a few nights. I had been there in 2012 to hunt leopard, but time had been short, and I was unlucky.

We were looking for a good elephant trail, when Sean had a cell phone message that another dead calf had been found. (At this point I was astonished. How could his cell phone work in the middle of nowhere? We have difficulty in Brazil to make it work in the middle of the city. Imagine, in the middle of the jungle!)

Sean asked if I wanted to take a look…

At the scene, Sean said that the leopard was very large and was probably the “Mahwe Cat”, since this was its area.

We examined the dead calf. The attack had been just before dawn, according to the farm workers. They said that the beast had jumped the fence, killed the calf, and jumped back with the calf in its mouth and taken it to some nearby bush to feed. Sean decided the leopard was likely to return, because in its previous attacks most of the calf was devoured, but this time the Mahwe cat had fed only on a thigh.

We set to work. Trackers used several bushes to build a concealed blind, from which we could see the leopard eating its prey, a little difficult, as the cat had dragged the calf into some dense foliage.

For the elephant hunt I had brought the .458 Lott barrel, with open sights, so I asked Sean to test my Sauer model 202, TD as I had not yet had the chance to check the scope of the .300 Winchester barrel. I used the bullet from my own reloads (ammo is very expensive in Brazil, and also almost impossible to acquire), and at the first shot I saw it fired about five inches above the center of the target.

I adjusted the scope, a Swarovski Z6i 1×6-24mm, and fired the rifle again.

This time the shot went one inch above the center of the target.

Sean thought it was good and did not want me to shoot again, not wanting to disturb the area.

We did not get back to headquarters for lunch, because it was 3:00 p.m. already, and we had to be in the blind at 5:30 p.m.

The gun was ready, pointed and tied in the calf’s direction when we finally entered the blind to sit in uncomfortable, improvised chairs – after all, this hunt had not been planned.

As the sun began to set, I watched various birds flying around the blind, landing on the branches of the bush, and watching us.  As night fell, my heart rate accelerated, but nothing happened…

Until around 8:00 pm… when, in a heartbeat, “something” materialized in my scope! That was him, Sean gestured.

In silence we could hear the rasping breathing of the cat, an unforgettable sound. (Sean later explained that the breathing of these cats is really heavy, and always sounds nervous.)

I was already putting pressure on the trigger, and I had the impression that my heart was beating like never before, when Sean touched my arm.

I took my finger off the trigger, my eye off the scope, and looked at Sean. He motioned with his finger, as if he were squeezing a trigger. He was signaling me to shoot if the leopard was visible in my scope. (There was no light, no moon, but I could see it!).

The Mahwe cat was there! Fearless! He was looking directly at the blind, as if he could smell our scent, and knew who we were and what we wanted.

I took a deep breath, partly to not fall into the common mistake of pulling the trigger in an uncontrolled manner, mostly because of the adrenalin that was circulating throughout my bloodstream. I put the gun on my shoulder again, and looked through the scope.

Where was the Mahwe cat?

Not in front of me. How could it be gone in just a blink of an eye? A deep and overwhelming sense of discouragement came over me. It was a moment of déjà vu. I remembered that in September of 2012, for nine days of my life, I had wakened at 4:00 in the morning and gone to sleep after 9:00 p.m., spending the time between looking for prints and animal carcasses that had been killed by leopards.

And now, with everything at my disposal this time, the hunt was lost.

“Just be calm,” Sean whispered.

“Calm? I have just lost a monster cat, and you ask me to be calm?” I whispered back.

“Quiet!” Sean indicated that the cat would be back. “Old and sneaky leopards often walk away for a short while and then return.” I doubted. I thought Sean just wanted to comfort me.

But around 8:30 my luck changed.

The cat returned and seemed to not be bothered by our presence, and began to eat the calf’s leg.

My heart was beating uncontrollably again, and now my fear was no longer of the presence of the cat, but fear of hesitating, to miss the shot or, even worse, to hurt but not kill the beast.

It was now completely dark, and Sean waved that he was about to light the lantern. This meant that I would have a few seconds to see the cat. In that short interval I would have to aim at a lethal point, and squeeze the trigger.

Prepared. Flashlight. Bang!

I was still deaf, but had instinctively worked the bolt and loaded another .300 Win bullet into the chamber. What a shot!

I stayed looking through the scope with Sean’s light on, and I saw the cat lying almost motionless. Sean immediately took his gun and left the blind, shouting, “Paulo, is the safety on? Please do not shoot me!”

I untied the Sauer, grabbed my flashlight and went to check as well.

It was a monster… after all, it was Mahwe cat! And he was lying there, motionless at my feet.

Soon came the workers who lived in a house that was not far away. One by one they looked at the dead Mahwe cat, astonished by its size. They were relieved, and gratefully shook my hands.

We carried the cat and put it in the rear of the Toyota.

Still intoxicated by the emotion and adrenalin, we went back to the camp, and were welcomed by all the Shangani River Safari staff, a ritual where everyone greeted me and sang.

Two trackers helped me put the cat in my arms, and we took pictures … more pictures … and even more pictures! I guess adrenalin was still in my blood, as I stayed with the cat on my shoulders for some minutes.

The skin of my leopard was very beautiful. He was not fat, and Sean said he was lean because he should be mating. The fight marks on his nose showed that he had fought a short time ago, confirming Sean’s thoughts that this was the cat that had killed a younger leopard they had found some weeks earlier.

All I can say is that this day showed how me how alive I was – the adrenalin, the heart pounding… Uncontrollable! I went back a little in time, and remembered the stories of Alberto Castillo, Wayne Grant, John Kingsley-Heath, Hemingway, Boddington, Tony de Almeida, Jorge Alves de Lima, and many other hunters.

After a while, becoming “myself” again, I thought that although I can be considered an “urban being”, my most primitive instincts, mixed with the struggle to survive, remain latent in my biological programming, although millions of years have passed…

Maktub!

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