Leopards are intelligent, shrewd and crafty animals and beautiful to boot. They are real survivors. In support of this statement is the fact that these animals often live in close proximity to, or even within human settlements without people even being aware of their presence.
Hunting leopard is not as easy an undertaking as some would lead us to believe. Their suspicious and retiring nature, combined with finely honed senses, make this species one of the more challenging of predators to hunt. They will quickly and silently melt away into the undergrowth if they become aware of humans approaching (that is of course if they have not chosen to select man as a prey species) and hunting them on foot is not a realistic proposition – especially if time is a limiting factor. Another aspect that makes these animals difficult to hunt is that they are, by and large, creatures of the night – they are in their element in the dark. Occasionally, they will become active at dusk and may be observed returning to their secret haunts just before or at daybreak. Although daylight sightings of leopard are uncommon they are not unheard of. The fortunate wildlife enthusiast or hunter may occasionally during the day find a leopard, resting on some rocky outcrop or suspended atop a tree limb in a state of regal repose.
The one tried and proven method of hunting these cats is to set up a bait and wait over the bait in a well-concealed blind. Simple … No, not as simple as it sounds. Hunting leopard is a process and a carefully worked out strategy.
It begins with establishing whether leopards are present and active in a particular area or not. It is pointless baiting for leopard if there are no leopard around. These animals will manifest their presence in a number of ways. They can be vocal at times and their hoarse “sawing” grunt (almost always at night) used to advertise territory, will confirm their presence. Other leopard sign include tracks and scats. Leopard tracks are described as “paws without claws”. This does not mean they do not have claws. They most decidedly do, and they are extremely effective weapons of attack or defence. It is just that when walking normally the claws are retracted into sheaths and do not register in the track. The spoor is 85–95 mm in length and shows four toes and usually no sign of claws. The pad in the print shows three clearly defined lobes along the trailing edge (photo 1). The size of the track is bigger than adult caracal or serval, but much smaller than that of an adult lion. Although very similar to these three species the leopard track may be distinguished by its size and more rounded shape as compared to that of lion. If leopard are present in an area spoor is often found along roads, tracks, dry riverbeds and around waterholes, as these animals, like other cats, are not too fond of bundu bashing, especially in wet grass or undergrowth.
Leopard scat is described as sausage shaped, segmented and with a tapered end. The diameter is about 20–30 mm. It usually contains a large amount of hair and undigested bones, and hooves are sometimes also present. The colour, when fresh, is light brown becoming tan to creamy white as it ages (photo 2).
Feeding sign is another clue to leopard activity. Prone to kill more than it can immediately consume leopard often haul their prey up into a tree where it is firmly secured in a convenient fork to keep it away from scavengers and to be returned to at a later time (photo 3). The power of these cats becomes evident when they haul fairly large species – often weighing more than themselves – up into trees. If prey has been left on the ground leopard will hide it by covering it with vegetation. Leopard leave clear claw marks when climbing a tree and this is a good indicator of where to set up a bait (photo 4). Signs of leopard feeding are also the following: the prey animal is eaten from the buttocks end and the shoulder. Internal organs are consumed but stomach and intestines are discarded and often buried under debris. If driven by hunger leopard will eat carrion.
Territorial marking is another sign to be on the lookout for. Leopard make use of urine, combined with scratching with the hind feet, to mark territories (photo 5). When fresh, the urine gives off a pungent, easily discernible odour and the scratch marks are clearly visible.
Once the presence of a leopard has been established the next step is to look for a suitable spot to place bait and erect a blind. The bait must be placed up high enough in a tree where lion or hyena cannot reach it. A vertical trunk (which makes it difficult for lion to scale) followed by a horizontal branch is ideal (see photos 6-8). The horizontal branch should be at right angles to the blind so that the leopard will present a clear side-on shot when it comes to feed on the bait. If possible, the bait tree should be in close proximity to a well-travelled game path, as this will be a likely route for a leopard to follow. Tie the bait firmly to the tree so that it cannot be easily dislodged when the leopard feeds on it. If it falls to the ground it will be carried off by hyena or other scavengers, and without something to feed on the leopard will soon move off. Minimise human scent by wearing rubber galoshes or standing on sacking, which will be removed once the bait is in place. Never allow anyone to urinate in the vicinity. Leafy branches can be packed lightly over the bait to avoid it being seen by vultures, who will soon devour it.
It is important to lay down a scent trail leading to the bait to lure the animal in (photo 9). Lay the scent trail along game paths and interconnect the game paths with scent trails. Place the offal of the animal shot for bait in a sack and pierce holes into the bottom of the sack to allow juices, blood and small pieces of offal to run out as the bag is dragged around. The bag of offal can then be tied up in the tree next to the bait where breezes can waft scent into the surrounding bush.
Correct placement of the blind is very important, and the most essential thing to keep in mind is to erect it downwind of the prevailing breeze. If the hide is upwind of the blind the leopard will smell the hunters and will generally not come to the bait.
From inside the blind the hunter should have a clear and unobstructed view of the bait. Make sure that there are no twigs, branches or grass in the way that could obscure the view or deflect a bullet. The blind should be dense enough to prevent any movement inside it being seen from outside (photo 10). Shooting ports should be as small as is practically possible and lined with grass, a small sandbag or cloth to prevent noise when a rifle is rested on it. The blind should be erected as close to the bait as possible, bearing in mind that if it is too close the leopard may be suspicious of it and may be reluctant to approach up to the bait.
If at all possible the bait should be placed in such a way that the background behind the bait should be clear sky. Leopard are usually shot at last light or sunrise and being presented as a silhouette against a background sky will make the shot easier. A blind may be anywhere from 40 to 70 m away, depending on the prevailing conditions. The entrance should be from the back and should be concealed.
Hunters should be in the blind well before last light or well before dawn, and should maintain absolute silence. Any noise or talking will immediately put any leopard on high alert and prevent it from coming to the bait, or send it at a run away from the bait if it is already on it. Try and void bladders and bowels at camp before entering the blind. Keep a sealable bottle in the blind if the need arises to urinate. Avoid eating or smoking while waiting in the blind.
Exercise patience. If a leopard is successfully lured to and feeds off a bait and does not present a clear shot all hope is not lost. Even if it moves off after feeding it may well return the following day if it was not disturbed on its initial visit. Modern “critter cams” – cameras designed to take photos when a beam is broken or when motion is detected – are ideal tools to scout an area for suitable leopards. Although the quality of images in early critter cams was not too good the latest models are excellent and can take good quality pictures even in the dark.
Some may question the ethics of hunting an animal by luring it to a bait, but realistically this is one method that does work. Leopard are also hunted using dog packs, but this method is likely to come under even more severe criticism. Hunting over a bait does increase the chances of success because the shot presented by a leopard on a bait facilitates good shot placement and reduces the risk of wounding. In the end, this should be the aim of every ethical hunter – to dispatch his quarry quickly, cleanly and humanely and minimising the risk of wounding and suffering. Many professional hunters will not advocate taking a shot at a leopard when it is lying down feeding on a bait as the vitals are “squashed” and it is difficult to then place a shot accurately into the heart/lung area. The advice would be to wait until the leopard is sitting or standing, at which time the vital areas would be more clearly exposed.
Once a bait has been set in a suitable area, a blind built downwind that can effectively conceal the hunters and provide an unobstructed view of the bait and a good scent trail laid down, all that is now required is a liberal amount of patience with a pinch of luck thrown in for good measure.
Laying a scent trail