I focused on the flat rock while my friend, John Wood, covered the opening above. Peter eased up the rock to peer into the shelf above, but he slipped just as he raised his head. When he fell, we thought we heard a low growl. Peter's wide eyes told me he was sure, but Norman stormed forward and grabbed the light. "That bloody cat isn't in there," he said.
I checked to make sure my safety was off one more time as Norman eased his long, lean frame onto the rock and craned his neck up and over the shelf. As he did, a tremendous roar filled the cave and sent Norman charging wide-eyed past me and John. I shouted "Down, down, down!" but Norman didn't hear me. Consequently, all I saw was an amber flash as the cat slipped out an impossibly small opening above the flat rock with Little Captain in tow.
Peter, Dumas and I scrambled up and over at full speed while Norman and John went to untie the dogs. Little Captain sounded strong, so we pressed on, literally running across the mountains at breakneck speed. Two hours later, I saw the dog walking slowly from left to right. I scanned ahead and saw the long, heavy cat walk across a small opening just ahead of it. Little Captain was right on its heels when Norman arrived with fresh dogs.
The pack caught up with Little Captain in a flash and quickly bayed the cat in a stand of long, leopard-colored grass. We approached cautiously, but the tom heard us and charged, sending dogs flying in its wake. I shouldered my rifle and shot the cat in the chest. Though not instantly fatal, the shot turned it and sent it straight up a nearby tree. One more shot through the shoulders dropped the massive cat into a pile of vengeful hounds.
I'll Be Back
Sitting under the tree with my hands on the leopard was a highlight in my hunting career. I'd earned the huge cat with blood, sweat and tears. I was thrilled to have, at long last, taken the cat of my dreams. However, as happy as I was, I must admit I was pretty sad, too--my leopard hunt had come to an end. As satisfying as taking the leopard was, it cannot compare to the thrill of hunting him.
I expected to love hunting leopards with hounds. Heck, I love any kind of hunt that involves dogs. It was far more exciting and fulfilling than I ever expected. There's just something about the physical challenge of the hunt, the scenic beauty of the mountains and the sound of hounds at full cry echoing through the mountains that gets in your blood. I went to Namibia for just one cat, but I'll be back.
Hunting with Hounds
Is hound hunting less ethical than other leopard hunts?
Hunting leopards with hounds is very controversial. The most often-cited complaint about hunting with hounds is that it isn't fair. Well, after chasing a total of nine cats in eleven days and only getting two of them (my hunting partner, John Wood, took his cat on day ten), I can assure you it's more than fair. After all, you're on the cat's home turf and it knows where to go to elude the hounds, and no matter how fit you are, rest assured the cat is much fitter. You have to be in great shape and work your tail off to even have a chance at success.
Proponents of baited hunts believe hound hunting is unethical. I find that odd because those same people would quickly denounce hunting whitetails over a corn feeder. However, they'll gladly sit in a blind with their rifle strapped to a bench rest while waiting for a cat to hop into a tree and eat a rotting carcass. They might even use a spotlight to illuminate it. I don't think there's anything wrong with baited hunts, but I cannot fathom how anyone can say it is more ethical than hound hunting.
In my opinion, the main argument in favor of hound hunting is that it is so selective. Houndsmen only put their dogs on the trail of big, mature males. In the unlikely event the dogs get off track and tree a female, as happened once on our safari, the PH can pull the dogs off the trail and the cat is no worse for wear. When hunting over bait at night, it's hard to be that selective; young males and females are sometimes taken by mistake.
This article is certain to draw a few letters from readers who are completely at odds with any form of leopard hunting. Perhaps they'll begin with "I'm a hunter, but I don't see how you can shoot those pretty cats. I mean, they're endangered, for goodness sake." Well, the truth of the matter is leopard populations have never been better. In fact, they've made a tremendous comeback since they were persecuted for their pelts after Jackie Kennedy made leopard coats as popular as go-go boots and free love.
Today, leopards are thriving thanks to their economic value as hunting trophies. A leopard trophy fee is far greater than the value of a few calves or sheep, so ranchers are more inclined to let them get away with killing a few. If leopard hunting was stopped, ranchers would poison and trap them indiscriminately. The small number of male cats taken each year has no real effect on the leopard population, but the dollars they bring create jobs, feed hungry people and ensure the health and longevity of the African leopard. That is the essence of conservation through sustainable use.