Somewhere in the dense brush of the harsh Namibian landscape, a wounded leopard lurks. Failing to finish the job is not an option
That break came one evening when Ockert showed me a trail cam picture from a nearby ranch of a large tom feeding on bait. Immediately, our plans changed—we’d head there the next day. As a series of trail cam images revealed, the leopard covered his territory over a seven- to 10-day cycle; he’d visit the bait one day, then wouldn’t return for a week or more. We were at day seven in the cycle.
We arrived at the bait site around 3 p.m. and promptly added a zebra quarter to accompany the two very stinky warthogs already hanging. About 70 metres from the bait, we built a blind of canvas and brush, measuring five feet wide by four deep and four high; Ockert and I were in our chairs by 4 p.m. It soon became apparent, however, that the blind was excessively cramped, made worse by the stifling 36°C heat. We couldn’t extend our legs or move much at all for fear of alerting a watching leopard, and before long my arthritic knees and wonky lower back began to ache.
Legal shooting light lasted until 7:30 p.m. Our plan was to sit through the night and hope that if the tom didn’t show up in the evening, he would feed at dawn. One of our challenges was that in landscapes where leopards are targeted by ranchers, they learn to feed almost exclusively at night. Trail cam pics revealed this particular leopard had visited the bait in daylight once previously, however, so we were hopeful he’d show again during legal hours.
As is often the norm when leopard hunting, unfortunately, nothing approached the bait before sundown. It was nearly unbearable sitting dead still through the night, hour after hour in that uncomfortable position, unable to catch more than a few winks at a time. At about 8:30 p.m., two honey badgers and a black-backed jackal visited the bait, and an hour after that a brown hyena appeared. Then, at about 10, as I nodded in my chair, Ockert squeezed my leg, a prearranged signal should a leopard appear. Before I got overly excited, though, he whispered, “It’s a female.”
As we watched her feed through night-vision binoculars, I inadvertently learned an important lesson about leopards. Moving ever so slightly, my shoulder rubbed along the blind flap, making the most subtle scraping sound. The leopard immediately glanced in our direction, then dashed into the safety of the thorn brush. It happened faster than I thought possible, as though she’d simply dissolved into the night. She didn’t return, showing me first-hand just how acute a leopard’s senses are, and how even a minor mistake can cost you the chance of a lifetime.