Out of Africa: A Hunter’s Journal

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the fourth report received by Mark Hamilton since he departed Minot June 14 for an African safari. Hamilton was accompanying another hunter who was seeking dangerous game, including Cape buffalo and leopard, with sable and crocodile to follow. Soon Hamilton will be turning from observer to hunter in South Africa as he attempts to harvest a male lion. If all goes well, details of his lion hunt will be printed on these pages in the coming weeks.

In last week’s installment of “A Hunter’s Journal,” we discussed the challenges and difficulties we encountered while hunting Africa’s most dangerous game – Cape buffalo. We were at Day 4 of a 15-day hunt and, after several attempts, still unsuccessful. We had plenty of time left, but we were also hunting leopard, which was consuming much of our effort. We wanted to get the buffalo hunt finished so that we could concentrate entirely on the leopard, and we were beginning to wonder when our luck would change. Hunters are by nature, however, optimistic, and good things were sure to come.

On Day 5 our luck changed. Late that afternoon we encountered two old “dagga boys,” old male buffalo that are beyond their reproductive stage and leave the herd to go off by themselves. They were about 600 yards distant and upwind, slowly feeding away from us. After a careful approach, the hunter and professional hunter took the leading animal with three well-placed shots from a .375 H+H Magnum. No drama here, the buff went about 100 yards and collapsed. It was a fine trophy, a mature old bull. It was most splendid, a 41-inch buffalo which is enough to complete any hunter’s dream. We were now anxious for leopard.

Ingwe, the leopard

Leopard hunting is, for me, and for most others with shared experience, a dichotomy best described as many days and hours of boredom and frustration, followed, hopefully, by a few brief moments of sheer excitement and exhilaration.

The hunt itself begins by looking for spoor, leopard tracks in an area sufficient in number to indicate a good likelihood that the leopard frequents the area. After finding such spoor, we began baiting, hanging meat of zebra or impala high in a tree. We put out nine different baits in a wide area. Our days began at 4:30 a.m. driving about 60 miles per day, checking each bait for sign that a leopard had fed. When we would find a bait that had been actively hit, the trackers would build a natural blind to hunt from, and the wait began.

Leopards can be exceedingly difficult to hunt. They are almost totally nocturnal, hunting at night and sleeping during the day. They have very keen senses, particularly hearing and smell. During the daytime they are almost impossible to hunt, you will never walk up on a leopard. They are much too clever.

Most successful leopard hunting is done at night from the blind. In our hunt area, Sengwa, night hunting is illegal. You can only hunt during daylight hours. This made the hunt exceedingly difficult. We hunted continuously for 15 days, every morning and night, without firing a shot. It was a most difficult hunt, not physically but mentally. Hunting all day, checking baits, harvesting impala for fresh bait and then sitting for hours waiting.

We had trail cameras out and observed two different leopards, one an exceptionally large cat and a smaller but very nice-sized cat at three of the nine baits. However, they were always after dark with one exception. One of the baits had been hit a half-hour before dark, legal shooting time, but at a bait we weren’t hunting at the time!

Another frustration we faced was the fact that the very large cat we had seen via the trail cam was the dominant cat in the area and it was chasing off other smaller males so that he could have the ladies to himself. It meant fewer toms and decreased our hunting chances considerably.

This is how the story ends – 15 days of hunting but no shooting. We could, however, take some solace in the fact that prior leopard

hunters here had met with the same outcome. In the last two years, there has been a total of 60 hunting days spent without anyone killing a leopard. Such is leopard hunting.

Unfortunately, unless your hunt is crowned in the end with the exhilaration of success, you are left a bit hollow. But every true hunter must experience this. It’s a rite of passage. You cannot feel the enjoyment until you have felt the pain.

Now we are onto another hunt in another area, Midlands Rhino Conservancy, for sable and crocodile. Next week we talk about the hunting and the conservation efforts to save the African rhinoceros.