The big one..that did not get away!
This monster appeared out of the very dense thicket alongside a deep ravine that led into the Kagera River in North Western Tanzania and sat beside the bait. His eyes bore into ours with complete confidence and utter disdain. This was his kingdom and he ruled it. He was afraid of nothing. I quietly said to Don, "Aim for the center of the collar around his neck, and let him have it"...
This hunt took place in the Ibanda Arena, a wonderful hunting area in North Western Tanzania, tucked up against Uganda and Rwanda. I was priviledged to be hunting with world reknown taxidermist Don Holt, out of Kerville, Texas. An amazing naturalist and a true hunter in every regard.
Don's main trophy priority was a good leopard. Masailand produces some enormous leopard, but if you look at the old Rowland Ward record books, the largest leopard have come out of the Kagera Region, of Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. It just has a great gene pool of huge leopard, so it was decided that this was where we were going attempt to collect a big one.
Years ago when we first started hunting this area, we saw the tracks of huge leopard and tried baiting them in the conventional way, up in a high tree branch. The leopard would come to the base of the tree and refuse to climb to get his free food. When this behaivour happens it is normally due to a number of reasons, the cats in the area being previously poisoned over a period of time. They assimilate the bait with danger and will not go near it. Or as is the case of the Ibanda cats, lion included, there is such a large supply of prey, hunger does not really drive them. Being in an area of scarce game, cats do become more a scavenger than a predator, so are less fussy when it comes to taking baits hung high.
This crowd in Ibanda will only feed on a bait when it is hung nose high, if they have to lift their heads to feed, they go off in a sulk and will not come back!!
Don and I were sitting on a hill one afternoon glassing the area for buffalo, when we saw a large Ankole bull cow being driven through our concession by a Rwandan chap, intent on crossing the Kagera River with it. As this was illegal, and we needed bait, I asked Don to have a crack at the cow. Why not, it was not on the trophy list, so no fee paid!!...Bugger, I should have charged him extra for that one!!!
Aiming his trusty .7mm at the offending animal at a considerable range, he squeezed off his shot. Down went the prized bull, and up jumped the herder like he had trodden on a snake, legs flailing in mid air, doing the "Air Run" and not covering any ground.....until of course his feet did touch the ground. He took off like greased lightening and kept up the sprint for a good three kilometers. Needless to say we had a good laugh at this chaps misfortune. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time, especially in a hunting concession...you had better be a bloody fast runner!!
I had decided to place the bait just above the confluence of where this very deep and thickly vegetated ravine ran into the Kagera River. It was a perfect set up, and I hung the entire animal with it's backside about six inches off the ground, and cut off the tail. By doing this it allows no access to "Safari Ants" to take over the carcass. Once these little buggers get stuck in, no matter how hungry the cat, he is not not interested in being bitten by them in the nose and will leave the bait.
Once I had placed the bait, we cleared an area under the tree so we could see tracks. I was confident that this bait would be taken by either a lion of leopard. It was such a thick area, should the cat be "Windy" I was sure he would show himself at the edge of the thicket and give Don a good chance at a shot. Don is an outstanding shot, so I was confident that even if the animal did dissapear into the deep ravine, I would find it dead. If not...then game on!...boxing lessons!!
Once I was satisfied with the set up we left and continued our hunting, with the intention of checking the bait the next day.
The next morning we headed out of camp, and Don collected a lovely Bushbuck, followed by a Serval Cat later on in the morning. Around mid day we approached the bait from a distance and I looked through my binoculars, half the cow had been consumed. I was confident that this was lion activity, so told Don we were in luck. We approached the bait in the vehicle, and parked at the base of the tree, with the engine still running.
Predators when baited do assimilate a vehicle with food, so keeping the engine running, drowns out alot of talking etc. The cat, though disturbed, will be close by. I have found that a cat, will never be more than about 75 yards away from his meat at any time...closer sometimes if you are baiting in or near a good thicket.
I hopped out the car and had a look under the tree. There was an enormous track there. My Kenyan tracker Diwani, immediately said " Bwana, hii ndio simba jike..that is a lioness" I disagreed. This was no lioness, this was a bloody enormous leopard, and contrary to Diwani's opinion we were going to have a look at this chap!
We immediately set about building a blind as fast as we could, because it was starting to get late. Once we finished, Don and I sat inside and the vehicle left. It did not take too long before there was activity in the ravine. I could hear the disturbance of vegetation by a large animal. Was this indeed a lioness?...I would have to eat abit of humble pie if it was that is for sure...not the first time with Diwani either, he was a legend in his time and I learned so much from him over the years we hunted together.
The disturbance came closer to us, then started behind the blind. I knew this was the cat, it was scoping us out. He knew we were there, he was not afraid. We could hear the purring, I then knew that we had a monster leopard behind us who did not give a damn about our presence there. That told me that this guy could pose a problem, so I readied my 10 bore double shotgun, loaded with a couple slugs to welcome him to my world, should he poke his nose through the blind. Don was ready to deliver the first shot into the animal should it come to that, I was the insurance policy. The leopard sniffed around briefly then ghosted back into the ravine. I quietly said to Don, we had a cat with an IQ here and that the chances were we would have a hard time with this guy. None the less it is always wise to just sit tight, and see what happens. While you have shooting light, you have a chance.
Not long after that, I heard another disturbance in the direction of the bait. Slowly I looked through the gap in my peep hole and saw this massive animal just looking at the blind, with not a care in the world. He knew we were there, but he was king...king for a moment. It took a second glance to actually see his rosettes, because they were so large, he looked like a maneless male lion in the late afternoon light. I wanted to be sure. Don, quietly whispered.."This is the biggest F#@*&%+ leopard I have ever seen". I seconded that. He was sitting down facing us.
For an unexperienced hunter, this is not the shot to take. When you have a leopard this size, sitting in front of you, knowing you are there, I throw caution to the wind, and have at it. I knew Don could make the shot, I was confident of that, but if the cat was wounded, then this was a good one to get scragged by if it came to that! I asked Don to aim for the center of the collar and squeeze one off.
The shot reverberated and echoed down the Kagera River, and the huge cat collapsed where it was, a beautifully placed shot through the chest, exiting out the back of the neck. A text book shot. One has to be careful when you see a cat collapse like that, it could just be stunned by a shot close to the spine. When this happens, I run up to the animal as fast as I can to cover it from close quarters and shoot him before he recovers and takes off. I knew as I stood over this magnificent animal he was stone dead. I had never seen a leopard of this size, he was enormous. As Don looked down on his prize, he said to me, "John, this is the world record, I have never in my life seen a cat like this"
Well the long and the short of it was that it was, and I think may still be the world record. It was a memorable hunt, in a great area, that over the years has produced some exceptional leopard trophies,as well as lion. I highly recommend it, if you are serious about big leopard. It is expensive though, but well worth it.
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