by Hannes Wessels
Ask any PH who’s wandered through those parts and he’ll doubtless tell you the wild country south of Lake Cabora Bassa in central Mozambique is not a clever place to wound a leopard. And professional hunters are not the first white men to have spilt blood there. Hundreds of years ago the Portuguese Conquistadores and their missionary counterparts struggled up the Zambezi battling the elements, wild men and wild animals all at once. Most never made it back to the motherland.
Here, on the shores of the lake, my old pal Wayne Williamson was sipping on a cold beer having just finished a safari for Safaris De Mozambique in what is known as the Bower Concession. Step-son of the late Basil Williamson; elephant expert and a legendary character in the Rhodesian, then Zimbabwean Game Department, Wayne has been in the bush all his life and done his old man proud as one of the most highly regarded PH’s out of the Zimbabwean school.
Mid-August, 2006, while Wayne was watching a spectacular sun settle behind the hills in a crimson blaze a leopard hunt was in progress involving French PH, Yann Le Bouvier from Club Faun in Paris and client. Right on the button, just as the light slipped, adrenaline pumped as the hunters heard the rustle of leaves then the rasping sound of claws scratching bark and in a flash the cat was aloft on the limb and standing side-on to them in all its studied magnificence. Yann raised his binoculars and checked to see if it was a male. Satisfied it was, he decided to waste no time and called the shot.
The client hunkered down behind his scope and drew a bead in the gathering gloom. With the PH looking on expectantly the rifle roared. Then there was a brief, frenzied flurry, the blurred form of the cat leaping out the tree, the soft thud of its feet hitting the ground, then silence and the leopard was gone.
Yann and trackers arrived speedily at the base of the tree and hopes of finding him dead nearby were soon dashed. Studying the ground, the hunting party, picked up spoor and followed until a little after dark, all the time calling for help from camp on the radio but their messages went unheard. The search revealed blood but no body. Suspecting the shot was high the PH left the scene a little forlorn, now almost certain his client had blown the shot and testing times lay ahead.
Long faces arrived back at camp. Earnest discussions followed and, bearing in mind the scarcity of hyenas in the area it was decided the body would be spared the unwanted attentions of the scavengers if the animal died so the need for a doubly-dangerous night-time follow up was dispensed with. All agreed to hit the spoor first thing in the morning with Wayne lending a hand.
“I knew it was going to be tough going,” says Williamson. “The bush is mixed woodland with combretum thorn thickets – very tough conditions for chasing wounded cats in. For some added protection I bound my left arm with a towel and pulled on a glove then grabbed my shotgun loaded up with ‘copper buckshot’ and headed out. Two of the trackers carried rifles.
“We were on spoor at first light but we were disappointed to see how little blood there was. Fortunately soft sand underfoot made for fairly easy tracking but it was bloody hot and very hard going. Making it tougher the wind was behind us so the leopard knew we were coming well in advance and could keep his distance. We found some of his lay-ups along the way but no actual sighting and at 3.30 in the afternoon we were damn tired so we took a break in the shade. I was not optimistic; the baboons, which had been making a lot of noise most of the time, had gone very quiet. With them relaxed it was a strong signal the wounded animal was lost to us.
“With not a lot of hope, we decided to give it one last go and would call it a day at 5.00 if nothing came of it. Amazingly, no sooner were we on our feet than the baboons went wild and I was then pretty certain the cat had been lying up not far from where we had stopped and had to be close. Not wanting to miss the opportunity of closing in and killing him I told Yann to run with me into the thicket in the hope we would nail him while he was distracted by the baboons screaming all around us.
“We charged in but we were slowed up by thorns tearing into us making progress very difficult. Meanwhile I kept an eye on where the terrified baboons were jumping into the trees as an indicator of where the leopard had run to when all of a sudden I saw the cat, low to the ground, streaking towards us. I stopped, trigger-finger firm and waited for him when I heard him growling angrily and realized he too was snagged up in the thicket which had brought his charge to an end and stopped him getting to us. Then, just as suddenly, he was gone. I barely caught a glimpse as he ran away from us but now knew the chips were definitely down and the pressure was on.
“A little further on, stopping to listen, my tracker Connie said he could hear him moving down a ravine below so Yann and I ran quickly to try to cut it off. Very dense in there, the two of us moved shoulder to shoulder sweeping towards him when we heard him running at us again. Not a nice feeling; I knew he was coming, but I couldn’t see him so I decided to look low and crouched under a bush to try and get a better view while Yann moved up to higher ground.
I heard him loose off a shot when all in a flash and a spotted blur the cat was on to me just as I fired and I was sent reeling backwards off the impact struggling to regain my footing and my senses. Somewhat bewildered I lost sight of it for a second and reloaded rapidly then whirled myself around frantically looking to see where he was when, with incredible speed and terrific force, he was on to me and hit me again swatting the gun from my hands. Now helpless, I stuck my arm out to keep his jaws at bay while I felt his claws sink into the back of my neck behind my right ear and I could hear the skin tearing. Up on his back legs, using my right hand, I hauled his one leg off the ground so he couldn’t rake me with both feet. With his jaws gaping and huge incisors gleaming inches away from tearing my face apart I shoved my arm right into his mouth forcing his head away from mine. Under the circumstances I was quite happy to let him chew on it and buy a little time. By this stage, blood pumping into my eyes and down my back I was effectively scalped and skin from the back of my head was hanging in my eyes. Desperate, I found enough strength to heave the cat away from me and managed to roll it off. Quick as a flash Yann thankfully seized the chance and fired knocking the leopard down, then he fired another shot that killed it.
“Blood pumping out of my head I got my vision back when I took the skin out of my eyes and was very relieved to see the leopard lying still. Yann handled himself well; if he’d shot any earlier there was a good chance he’s have hit me in the process. What was clear was the buck-shot, apart from a few pellets in the shoulder and side, had had little effect. Another lesson learned on shotguns and their effectiveness against wounded leopards.
“Blood all over the place I was pleased to note my ears and other appendages were intact and still attached to the main-frame. I then covered the wound with a trauma dressing. Knowing that losing a lot of blood there was no time to waste, I staunched the flow as best I could with the field- dressing I carried then headed off at a brisk pace on a GPS bearing that took me straight to the road while Yann went to collect the car. I left the trackers to recover the leopard. Once in the car I radioed camp and told them to get treatment and dressings ready while a message was flashed to Zimbabwe to arrange my evacuation.
“Simon Rodger, who I work for received the message, got airborne almost immediately and flew to Kanyemba on the Mozambique border having alerted the other airports to the fact there was an emergency. At camp I got my head over a bucket and soaked my wounds in a strong antiseptic then having wrapped my head in a towel jumped in a boat for the hour-long ride up the lake to Kanyemba on the border.
“It was a hell of a relief to see Simon there. From Kanyemba we flew to Kariba to re-fuel but by then it was dark so we landed on a runway illuminated with little oil-fires but Simon flew with great skill and we landed with no problem. Tanks filled we took off for Bulawayo and there was an ambulance waiting. I was in hospital by 8.30 that night and in good hands.