Hunting Africa: Leopards of the Kalahari

posted on January 17, 2018

A leopard looks bright yellow in the daylight. It has its spots, but the nearly golden sheen of its base coat stands out from the dull greens and browns of the African landscape. It hardly makes sense with a reputation as a deadly, invisible predator that lives in the trees, but the yellow pallor really shines. Up close, a leopard emanates life, not stealth. 

But everything changes in the dark. As it slips into the shadow of a low acacia tree, the cat disappears. Like a cloak of invisibility is thrown over its daylight beauty, the leopard becomes an opaque black form. If you already had your eye on it when it entered the darkness, you could maybe spot the arch of a menacing shoulder blade in the shadows, or detect a slide of movement when it crouches. But the amazing effect of that curious spot pattern is to make the leopard invisible in anything but direct sunlight. And they do spend their days in the shade, or up in the trees. They could be anywhere, you realize, looking up through the branches. 

Anywhere, but not everywhere: The leopard is a solitary predator, like a grizzly bear or its cousin, the tiger. The male leopard shies away from contact with others. The female only keeps to her cubs for a few years after their birth. Territories are fluid—males will walk for miles in a single night, stalking the nightscape to exercise their killers’ advantage on impalas or warthogs, to eat on and store in their trees. With what looks like a single leap, a leopard can carry a full carcass up a 10-foot-high trunk and disappear again from the ground we walk on. For the humans that live below them, without the leopard's speed or the senses, its keen forest knowledge—not to mention the invisibility—they are not an easy animal to hunt. 

So like our predecessors armed with torches and spears, we gather in a party to hunt this dangerous game. It requires cooperation—an operation. I have heard that in the bush of Mozambique they sometimes rally dogs to their side. Over the dry expanses of the Kalahari they brush long, sandy riverbeds clean each night and search them for tracks in the morning—research, investigation. The telltale paw print, measured for its spread and depth, sparks a slow chase that can take days. In Zambia last month, we were hauling the carcasses of impalas into high trees, dragging their scents through thickets, canvassing the landscape for hints of leopard presence, and doing a lot of talking, speculating, strategizing. We were hanging baits. 

To people who do not share their environment with hunting animals like leopards, baiting seems like a controversial practice. I’ve heard it criticized as a deceptive kind of trap-setting, or as an impersonal way of hunting that distances the predator from its fellow predator, or diminishes confrontation. It is true that there’s a certain irony in doing the leopard’s hunting for him, and in feeding the wild cats of the Valley with meat furnished by human efforts, in order to hunt them for ourselves. But what is hunting—for any species—if not dangerous deception? If not ingenious?

I handed the rope to our tracker, who wrapped it around the truck bumper and we hoisted a reeking half-warthog into our chosen tree. Of all the big acacias in the Valley, we’d chosen this one to take our next chance with. Villagers far down the road told us they’d seen a leopard (glowing in the daylight, of course) in transit somewhere between two distant springs. We’d discussed it among our little hunting party, the guide, the hunter, trackers and apprentice, all the previous evening. Sporadic rains were starting to fall and our season, our opportunity, was almost over. Other baits had been stolen away by female leopards, or rotted beyond recognition in the sudden onslaught of rainy-season heat. The past 10 days of the safari had been a suspenseful chess game of hanging and moving baits. As a group, we’d examined every suggestion of our invisible quarry’s presence. A male cat had visited one of our offerings for one night, but vanished the next. But in investigating the villagers’ tip, and the water sources in the area, we’d come across fresh tracks, and we began to speak of this leopard in particular at our nightly round-tables. The respectfully nameless “One by the Spring.” Of course, trackers and guide knew the ecosystem of the Spring well, and by our failures to entice other leopards in the area for more than one night, we were creating a map of their movements—learning their individual lives and making accurate guesses at where they were today, or tomorrow. Whether they were hungry, or with cubs, or if they’d evaded human hunters before. We knew them by their movements, and actions, decisions, if not by their spots. We could not think of this chase as anything less than personal. 

The One by the Spring came again on the eleventh night. He had his habits: walking around the tree in the early part of the night, nibbling on a part of the warthog near the morning. Disappearing. On the twelfth we planned our confrontation. The One by the Spring had seemed to develop a confidence in this pernicious gift of bait. We built a grass blind 70 yards from the tree: a hut with two folding chairs that, from the outside, looked like a heap of hay, but had a hidden slot for a rifle to fire through. It was meant to make us invisible. I remembered the leopard that had looked me in the eye, years ago, while I crouched in a blind and it ate boldly on the branch. As we crept into the blind in the late afternoon, we could not think of our intertwined fates as anything other than a confrontation.

I drove away with the trackers to leave hunter and guide alone in sheer silence for the evening. We parked a half mile away, and immediately set about our waiting. I read a book about biotechnology while the old tracker traced a Kunda translation of the Bible with his finger, but we looked up at the changing sky every two minutes, or whenever a bird would cry out. 

At six o’clock we were satisfied: The sky was gray and the sweet sound of a gunshot cracked in the distance. Our appointment had been made, and I slipped two spare .458-caliber bullets into my right pocket. The truck hurtled back to the blind. Hunter climbed out of it. Guide stood facing the tree where the warthog hung, slipping two spare bullets into his pocket. 

By intuition and strategy we had brought ourselves right into the world of something that can’t be seen in the dark. We had brought to the ground a deadly beast of the trees. In the thicket where it crouched, growling, wounded but so very alive, we would have to meet it, leveled, claws and rifles poised forward. We went in low, wide-eyed and side-by-side, eager for the charge.



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