AFRICAN LEOPARD - Panthera Pardus
Elusive and dangerous are the first thoughts any hunter should have when leopard hunting. This is, pound for pound, the most dangerous animal in the world when wounded, drawing a deep respect from all who have hunted this magnificent creature.
Leopard are usually solitary, holding and protecting a large territory which is roamed in its entirety on a regular basis. They are extremely shy animals with excellent senses and camouflage. The perception that leopard are few is testament to this fact. Males are larger bodied with a broader head and generally a darker, yellowish-orange tinge to their coats, especially along the top of their back.
Leopard are thought to date back as far as 2 million years which is testament to their perfected ability in all aspects. They are the perfect predator, opportunistic hunters and massively strong for their size. In their heart lies the knowledge of this inner strength not often exhibited unless wounded or cornered, and they always prefer flight over fight. Lion do take them as competition and will readily kill and eat leopard if they can get at them.
They are largely nocturnal and hunt a wide variety of prey from medium-sized antelope down to frogs and mice. They are extremely adaptive and are able to live in a variety of terrain, including city limits and around villages making them widespread throughout Africa.
Leopard are not really known as maneaters although there are cases in Africa and India where these cats have turned into impressive human predators - the Leopard of Panar, shot by that most famous of cat hunters, Jim Corbett - killed over 400 people.
Leopard hunting tips - the hunt
Due to their secretive nature it would be very difficult to successfully hunt leopard on a 14 or 21 day safari without baiting or dogs. Baiting is the most popular method, lying in wait at dusk from a blind 50 or more yards away. If an area has been hunted before, the leopard are more alert, usually coming to the bait the last few minutes before complete darkness. Quality optics with strong light gathering capabilities are necessary. Take note of how the leopard is sitting on the bait and listen to your PH's advice as to where to aim for. The older hunters believe "If you can hear the cat hit the ground, it has been shot well ". The most common mistake is to miscalculate the angle of the shot as you are shooting up into a tree and usually you need to aim slightly lower.
There are a number of outfitters who offer leopard hunting with bloodhounds, where the leopard is either treed or hides in a cluster of rocks. In my opinion this is probably one of the least exciting and most demeaning ways to hunt this cat. It is a sorry sight to see this magnificent creature being shot out of a tree or cave, shying away from a crazed pack of hungry baying dogs. There are other more exciting ways to hunt this cat, be ethical at least if it is only with leopard.
The real challenge is to pit your skill against that of the leopard, try to outwit him and get him to come to bait with enough light to afford a shot. It is ILLEGAL and UNETHICAL to hunt with the aid of a light. However it is quite a common practice and some PH's don't know any other way of hunting leopard! Some countries do permit it, even allowing radio listening devices to alert the PH that the cat is feeding, especially when the blind has to placed at quite a distance from the bait.
Once wounded - TAKE CARE bwana! This is the stuff PH's hate, wounded Leopard are usually hell bent on revenge and their ability to hide means they hold all the advantages when following their blood trail. They will choose the time and the place and more often than not will wait until you are literally stepping on them before they charge. In these instances most PH's will opt for a semi auto shotgun with heavy buck shot - the Benelli super black eagle is a favorite! However it is more your ability to immediately recognise where the leopard is coming from and your speed in getting off an accurate shot that will save you from being bitten.
The picture on the right shows a PH who didn't heed the common sense law of following wounded leopard - stick together and take it slow. He wandered off alone trying to "kick-up" or spook the leopard into a charge - little did he know that he had walked past the leopard crouched not even 10 feet distant before it hit him from the back, severely biting his neck and shoulders - a mere warning - then it took off again never to be found!
Leopard hunting tips - the calibre
Any medium calibre rifle from 30.06 and upwards is adequate with the best shot being for the shoulder and vitals area. Use the best quality soft nosed ammunition you can get.
hunting tips - the trophy
With leopard, trophy judgment is usually not as important as deciding whether it is a mature male or not. The best indicators are the body, head and neck size and the base of the tail. BEWARE: in some instances Lion do manage to get into the bait tree and it is not uncommon to think you have shot a monster leopad only to find a lioness at the bottom of the tree.
Many inexperienced PHs have a tendency to shoot at any leopard, particularly in areas where they are sensitive and the first cats to the bait are usually females and young. This usually draws ridicule from the older PHs calling this a "handbag job": referring to a small leopard that can by picked up with one hand by all four paws, resembling a handbag.
Leopard hunting tips - where
With its widespread distribution and adaptive nature, quality trophy leopard are hunted each year in many different countries. Zimbabwe is most consistent with a high success rate each year although they do use dogs, while Tanzania and Zambia also hold some good concessions in the more typical style of hunting by baiting and blind. Namibia has of late become a very popular leopard hunting destination possibly due to the VERY reasonable prices. A very exciting yet perhaps unethical hunt is that using bushmen trackers and dogs in the kalahari. Thsi provides for some fast and furious action normally ending in a full on charge BUT you do shoot the cat from the safety of a truck (despite this many PH's have been mauled in this manner).
South Africa has a good many top quality leopard but due to the proliferation of stock farms, the animals are extremely sensitive and do not readily come to bait. In addition, permits are controlled by a CITIES and governmental allocation system each year. Unfortunately the intricacies of this system ensure many leopard tags or permits go unhunted each year.