The Expert Safari Preparation Courses are the perfect how-to guides for your African safari.
Craig Boddington is a veteran outdoor writer who has published numerous magazine articles and books on hunting and shooting. He’s compiled decades of his experience, award winning video and top suggestions into these courses. Learn everything you need to know to make the most of your safari. The courses will take only a couple of hours each, and you’ll come out the other side a better prepared, more knowledgeable, and more successful hunter.
The Ten Commandments of Firearm Safety are stated variously by different organizations and are often presented in different order, but the meaning is consistent and universal, including in Africa. If these rules are followed, a firearm-involved accident is highly unlikely.
These commandments rely upon basic common sense. Implied throughout is the reliance on control of the direction the barrel is pointed—and the lack of reliance on the firearm’s mechanical safety. These rules don’t change in Africa. Most professional hunters (PHs) will attest that the most dangerous creature in the African bush is an excited visitor with a firearm!
The International Hunter Education Association (IHEA) reduces the Ten Commandments of Firearm Safety to four basic safety rules. They can be remembered by using the acronym ACTT and the statement “ACTT responsibly around firearms.” ACTT stands for:
Basic firearms safety applies no matter where you are, and is often accomplished by certain basic and universal rituals or drills.
Although size varies dramatically, lion and leopard have in common that they’re both extremely dangerous. In perspective, the leopard is a shy, nocturnal predator that’s generally not dangerous to man unless wounded. Then the game changes. Because of his size, speed, and camouflage, the leopard is by far the most likely to hurt a hunter.
Dogs howl as a wounded leopard runs out of the bush toward the hunting party. The hunters scramble backward, firing multiple shots as the cat runs past them.
Hunters: Got him. I got him.
A leopard will quickly inflict terrible damage, but realistically, life-threatening injuries from a leopard are rare.
Two hunters examine the mouth of a downed leopard.
Hunter 1: Look at that.
Hunter 2: He's got some big teeth here. And clearly, they work because one of the dogs got a bite right in the shoulder.
Hunter 1: Yeah, you don’t want this guy on you.
The lion is always dangerous, whether you’re hunting them or not. Due to their larger size, a mauling from a lion is generally far more severe. Survival's uncertain and crippling injuries are likely.
After a shot, a lion runs towards the hunting party, snarling at the hunters before turning to run away.
Hunter: Fall off. Fall off. Fall off.
As always, the best way to stay out of trouble is to listen to your professional hunter and shoot straight with an adequate cartridge and a suitable bullet.
Male leopards may very rarely weigh 200 pounds, but the average mature tom leopard will weigh 140 to 160 pounds. The lion's at least twice as large. Mature males probably average about 400 pounds, but an exceptionally large lion can weigh over 500 pounds. That's an awful lot of cat. With both cats, females are at least a third smaller than the males, and in today's Africa, most hunting is almost always for males only.
Although there are similarities, hunting either cat’s a highly specialized safari. The rifle chosen needs to be as perfect as possible for the cat without undue consideration for any other game you may wish to hunt with the same rifle.
Danger. Although their sizes vary dramatically, both the leopard and the lion are extremely dangerous animals. In perspective, the leopard is a shy and largely nocturnal predator that is generally not dangerous to humans unless wounded. Then the game changes. Because of his size, speed, and camouflage, the leopard is an African animal that is most likely to hurt a hunter. A leopard will quickly inflict terrible damage, but life-threatening injuries from a leopard mauling are rare. Lions, on the other hand, are always dangerous—whether you are hunting them or not! Due to their larger size, a mauling from a lion is generally far more severe. Survival is uncertain, and crippling injuries are likely. As always, the best way to stay out of trouble with both cats is to pay attention, listen to your professional hunter (PH), and shoot straight with an adequate cartridge and suitable bullet.
Size variance. Male leopards may very rarely weigh 200 pounds, but the average mature tom leopard probably weighs 140 to 160 pounds. The lion is at least twice as large; mature males probably average about 400 pounds, but exceptionally large lions can weigh more than 500 pounds. With both cats, females are at least a third smaller than males, but in today’s Africa, hunting is almost always for males only.
Specialization. Although there are similarities, hunting either cat is a highly specialized pursuit, and it will probably be the primary objective of a lengthy, important, and costly safari. The rifle chosen needs to be as perfect as possible for the cat, without undue consideration for other game that might be taken on the safari.
Since the leopard is considered dangerous game in some countries, there is a legal minimum, and it's usually going to be either the European 9.3mm or the .375. If a legal minimum exists, then absolutely it must be adhered to. Always ask your PH for his or her recommendation. Keep in mind, if you go against your PH’s recommendation, you may have to listen to a really nasty “I told you so.”
Keep in mind that the leopard is a relatively small animal, about the size of the average white-tailed deer. With that in mind, our opinion is that leopards are best hunted with a cartridge and a bullet designed for deer-sized game. Your favorite deer rifle in .270, 7mm, or .30-caliber is probably an ideal choice for a leopard if it’s legal in the area where you’re going to be hunting.
Any rifle used for leopard or any other dangerous game must be 100% reliable in mechanical function.
The shot at the leopard is almost never more than 100 yards. Now, the target is small, so accuracy is important, but it doesn’t have to be match-grade accuracy.
The rifle used must be reliable and accurate. On leopard, a second shot is extremely unlikely, so choice of action really isn’t significant. Bolt actions are the most common choice in Africa, but lever actions and single shots and appropriate cartridges are equally suitable. Most African countries today don’t allow the importation of semi-automatic rifles. So, if you wish to bring a semi-automatic, make sure and discuss that with your professional hunter and make sure it’s locally legal.
The same principle of specialization applies. The bullet chosen has to be ideal for leopard. This isn’t so difficult. Most American hunting bullets are designed primarily for deer hunting. And since the leopard is pretty much the size of a deer, a deer bullet is an ideal choice. What’s desired is a bullet that will open up and do some damage. Really tough bullets designed to penetrate on larger animals should be avoided because they’ll pass through without doing a lot of damage. Now, if the shot is perfect, this isn’t a problem. But if the shot is slightly less than perfect, a tough bullet that passes through doesn’t give you as much margin for error as a bullet that expands nicely and creates a larger wound channel.
If by law or preference a large-caliber rifle, such as a .375 is chosen, this is a problem because most .375 bullets are designed for optimum performance on much larger animals. Consider using lighter, faster bullets that will open up. And by all means, avoid the toughest bullets that may be just perfect for buffalo.
A telescopic sight is almost essential for leopard hunting, and in fact, it was the perfection and widespread acceptance of the riflescope after World War II that enabled baiting, which today, is by far the most prevalent hunting technique. This is not because of magnification. And in fact, shots at leopards are close enough that very little magnification is actually required. The advantage to the scope is its light-gathering capability. Most shots at leopards are going to come in fairly poor light.
The ideal scope for leopard hunting isn’t so specialized as to be useless for anything else, but it's a bit different than the ideal scope for plains game hunting or for buffalo because what’s really critical is light-gathering potential. So, while you don’t need the magnification, a 30mm tube is a good idea because it gathers more light than the standard American 1-inch tube.
And you probably want a larger objective lens. For instance, the classic dangerous game scope will have a straight objective tube, and that's very poor for gathering light—great for buffalo, not so great for leopard. So, you want a little bit bigger scope that is going to gather lots of light. Of course, you're going to keep it turned down fairly low because, after all, the shot's going to be close.
Lighted reticles are a huge benefit in leopard hunting. As the light goes, it becomes very, very hard to see the black intersection of a standard crosshair. With the lighted reticle, your eye is naturally drawn to the center. You’re also able to acquire your sight picture much more quickly, and both of these are key points when leopard hunting.
Legal minimums. Because the leopard is considered “dangerous game,” some countries include leopard under their minimum legal caliber requirements. If this is the case, the legal minimum is usually either the European 9.3mm (.366-caliber) or the .375-caliber. Obviously if a legal minimum exists, then it must be adhered to.
Recommendations. Always ask your PH for his or her recommendation. And be aware that if you go against your PH’s advice, there may be an unpleasant “I told you so.”
Best bet for leopard. If there is no legal minimum, keep in mind that the leopard is a small animal, about the same size as an average white-tailed deer. Our opinion is that leopards are, thus, most effectively hunted with a cartridge (and bullet!) designed for deer-sized game. Your favorite deer rifle chambered in cartridges from .270 through 7mms and .30-calibers is probably perfect for leopard.
Reliability. Any rifle used for dangerous game must be absolutely reliable in mechanical function.
Accuracy. The shot at a leopard is never far, rarely over 100 yards. The target is not large, so accuracy is important but doesn’t have to be match-grade target accuracy.
Rifle actions. Since a second shot is extremely unlikely and the shot will be at close range, choice of action is not critical. Bolt actions are the most common choice in Africa, but lever actions and single shots in appropriate cartridges are equally suitable. Most African countries today do not allow the importation of semi-automatic rifles. If you wish to bring a semi-automatic, be sure to discuss this with your outfitter to ensure that it is legal.
The same principle of specialization applies here: The bullet chosen should be ideal for leopard. This isn’t so difficult. Most American hunting bullets are designed primarily for deer hunting. Since the leopard is the size of a deer, a “deer bullet” is the ideal choice. What is desired is a bullet that will open up and do damage. Really tough bullets designed to penetrate larger animals should be avoided because they are likely to pass through without expanding. If shot placement is perfect, this isn’t a problem. But if the shot is less than perfect, really tough bullets give less margin for error than bullets that expand and create larger wound channels.
If, by law or preference, a large-caliber rifle such as a .375 is chosen, this is a bigger problem because large-caliber bullets are generally designed for optimum performance on larger animals. Consider using lighter bullets that are faster, and avoid the really tough bullets ideal for large game such as buffalo.
A telescopic sight is almost essential for leopard hunting. And in fact, the perfection and widespread acceptance of the riflescope after World War II is probably what enabled baiting for leopards—by far the most prevalent technique today. This is not because of magnification. The shots are close, so little magnification is needed. Rather, the great enabler is the riflescope’s light-gathering capability. This is because most shots at leopards come in poor light.
The ideal scope for leopard hunting is not so specialized so that it is useless for anything else, but it’s a bit different than the ideal scope for plains game or buffalo. Maximum light-gathering potential is the key. This means quality glass, a larger objective lens, and a larger tube. Scopes with 30mm tubes gather more light than scopes with one-inch tubes. And a 40mm—or larger—objective lens will gather more light than the straight (usually 20mm) objective lens on the standard low-range variable often used for other dangerous game.
Lighted reticles are a huge benefit in leopard hunting. As light dims, a scope’s black crosshairs become increasingly difficult to see. A lighted reticle not only offers a firm aiming point but also quickly draws the eye and makes aiming faster. This is always an important point when a leopard comes onto the bait.
Because of its small size, the leopard is often excluded from the legal minimums. But the lion is usually included. And in most African countries, either 9.3mm or .375 are going to be the legal minimum for lion. In this case, that makes perfect sense. Both the 9.3 and the .375 are ideal calibers for lion.
As with leopard, always ask for your professional hunter’s recommendation. And if you go against his recommendation, be aware that he’s got every right to say, “I told you so,” if things don’t go perfectly.
The traditional choice is probably the .375 H&H, which is absolutely perfect for lion. The other .375s—.375 Ruger, Weatherby, Remington Ultra Mag—are also perfectly good choices. And you can certainly use the lower .40s. The .416s and the .404 Jeffery and so forth. These are all good choices. These levels of power are not absolute. After all, the lion, at best, is a 500-pound animal. It's not a 1,500-pound buffalo. So, if that level of recoil is uncomfortable, you may want to think about .338 or a 9.3 or a .376 Steyr. But again, make sure you adhere to the legal minimums in whatever country you’re hunting.
Any rifle used for dangerous game has to be absolutely reliable in mechanical functioning. And in the case of lion, second shots are very, very likely. So, you really want a repeating action. And you want to practice so you’re fast in using that second shot.
Shots at lions are usually less than 100 yards, and the vital zone is about the size of a pie plate. So, while good shot placement is absolutely critical, extreme accuracy is an essential.
Lions rarely give up easily. And unlike leopards, circumstances are such that a backup shot or a follow-up shot is usually available. So, a repeating action is absolutely essential. Bolt-action rifles are the most likely and most popular choice. But since extreme accuracy isn’t necessary, a double-barreled rifle is also perfectly acceptable. However, the lion rifle really should wear either an optical sight or a red-dot sight.
The same principle of specialization applies: The bullet chosen needs to be ideal for a lion. Lions are neither huge nor particularly heavy boned, especially in the context of the powerful rifles most commonly used to hunt them. Expanding bullets must be used, and they need to be bullets that will expand reliably in an animal the size of a lion.
Traditional round-nose soft points are good choices because the round-nose design transfers energy more quickly and initiates expansion more rapidly. So, they work really well for lion. If you’re using a .375, consider using the lighter 270-grain bullet because it's going to be aided by velocity and it’s going to expand more quickly than the heavy 300-grain bullet.
Magnifying riflescopes aren’t essential for lion hunting. The shots are going to be fairly close. However, over bait, it’s probably going to be taken in poor light. And in tracking, I can’t overemphasize how well a lion blends into its surroundings. Either way, the shot’s going to be at a slightly greater distance than most hunters are comfortable with iron sights. If a variable-power riflescope is chosen, then it needs to have a low setting no higher than about 3X and probably even less is better.
The problem with magnification is that it does aid shot placement, but it also creates tunnel vision. And with lions, the greatest danger lies not necessarily from the lion that you're after but perhaps another lion that might be nearby. So, you need that peripheral vision. And you get that when you have very low magnification. And you start to lose it when you turn your scope up too high. So, a riflescope is a very good choice for lion hunting, but make sure you keep it turned down as low as it’ll go.
As with leopard hunting, the ideal riflescope for a lion will gather plenty of light and should have a lighted reticle. The holographic or reflex or red-dot sight is a really good choice for lion hunting. At the ranges you’re going to take your lion, you don’t need the magnification. The red dot will help in rapid target acquisition. This type of sight drives you to shoot with both eyes open, which is very helpful for maintaining peripheral vision. And that can be really critical in lion hunting.
Legal minimums. Because of its smaller size, the leopard is often excluded from minimum caliber regulations. However, the lion because of its larger size and much greater lethality is usually included. Set minimums are usually, but not always, the European 9.3mm (.366-caliber) or .375-caliber. Like all game laws, legal minimums must be adhered to, and in the case of the lion, these traditional minimums make perfect sense.
Recommendations. Always ask your PH for his or her recommendation. And be aware that if you go against your PH’s advice, there may be an unpleasant “I told you so.”
Best bets for lion. The traditional choice is the .375 H&H, which is probably perfect for lion hunting. Other good choices include the faster .375s (Ruger, Weatherby, Remington Ultra Mag) and the various .40-caliber cartridges, such as .404 Jeffery and the several .416s. These levels of power are not absolute. At best, the lion is a 500-pound animal, not a 1500-pound buffalo. However, with the lion, it is essential that the rifle carried be adequate to stop a charge. Shot placement remains essential. So, if cartridges such as the .375 H&H and greater produce an uncomfortable level of recoil, adequate alternatives, where legal, include the .338s, 9.3mms, and .376 Steyr.
Reliability. Any rifle used for dangerous game must be absolutely reliable in mechanical function.
Accuracy. Shots at lions are usually less than 100 yards, and the vital zone is at least the size of a pie plate. So, while shot placement is critical, extreme accuracy isn’t necessary.
Rifle actions. Lions rarely give up easily, and unlike leopards, the circumstances are such that additional shots are often available and may be essential to preclude a dangerous follow-up. Bolt-action rifles are the most likely and popular choice, but since extreme accuracy is not essential, double-barreled rifles are viable choices. One consideration, however, is that the rifle used for lion should wear an optical sight, either a scope or a red-dot sight.
The same principle of specialization applies here: The bullet chosen must be ideal for lion. Lions are neither huge nor heavy boned, especially in the context of the powerful rifles most commonly used to hunt them. Expanding bullets must be used, and they should be bullets that will expand reliably in an animal the size of a lion. Traditional round-nose soft-point bullets are good choices because ranges are short and a round-nose bullet initiates expansion and transfers energy more quickly than a sharp-pointed bullet. Lighter bullets, such as the 270-grain .375 in place of the 300-grain .375 (that might be chosen for buffalo), are effective on lions, aided by their higher velocity.
Magnifying riflescopes. These are not essential for lion hunting; the ranges are short and the target is not small. However, over bait the shot is most likely to be taken in poor light. In tracking, the ability of a lion to blend into his surroundings cannot be overemphasized. Either way, the all-important initial shot is likely to be taken at a greater distance than most hunters are proficient with open or iron sights.
Riflescopes. If a variable-power scope is chosen, it must have a low magnification setting no more than 3X, less is better. The magnification ring should be kept at a low setting. This is because higher magnification reduces field of view and creates a tunnel vision effect, and with lions, the greater danger is often from other unseen lions. Maintaining peripheral vision is important, so it’s ideal to train yourself to use a scope with both eyes open—much easier at lower magnification. As with leopard, the ideal riflescope for lion hunting will gather plenty of light and will have a lighted reticle.
Other options. Holographic or red-dot sights are good options for lion hunting. They offer adequate precision for both the range and target size of a lion and are extremely effective in low light. They also offer very fast target acquisition, and by their nature, drive the shooter to keeping both eyes open, thus, maintaining peripheral vision.
While we all think about Africa’s dangerous animals and snakes, most professional hunters (PHs) and guides worldwide worry most about strangers with firearms. Statistically, nearly as many PHs and trackers are injured by accidental gunshot wounds as by dangerous animals. In leopard and lion hunting, there is little danger until the initial shot is fired, especially from a blind. But thereafter, events can happen very fast. It is essential to follow your PH’s guidance and lead. And despite the excitement, maintain situational awareness—not only where the animal is but also where all members of the party are. Regrettably, shooting accidents during follow-up of the great cats are almost as common as maulings.
One of the first events on any safari or guided hunt is to go “check zero.” Some PHs are astute “gun guys,” but many are not. Either way, they will endeavor to get you as close as circumstances (terrain, vegetation, etc.) allow. If your cat is to be hunted over bait (the most common technique), then your PH may not know the exact shooting distance (because he or she doesn’t yet know which bait or blind will produce), but the PH knows the general distance based on how the baits and blinds are organized. He will probably have you zero your rifle for that distance, generally meaning a lower zero or point of impact than for general hunting. Whether this is done or not, once a bait is active and a shot is anticipated, insist on checking your zero one more time before going to the blind. At this point, you know the distance, and you can adjust your scope or sight perfectly for that shot. Keep in mind that the purpose of range day is actually threefold. The PH and his or her team—including the trackers—want not only to ensure that the rifle hasn’t shifted during travel but also to evaluate your shooting ability and your gun handling safety.
Every day is “qual day.” In the U.S. military, an oft-used saying is “every day is qualification or ‘qual’ day.” Range day is like qualification day, and it’s not an exam you cram for. Basic gun handling safety must be practiced all the time, and it matters to your safari. The way you shoot and handle your firearm on range day has much to do with the way your PH and his team will conduct the safari: How they will try to set up your shots, and what shots they will recommend (or, in fact allow) you to take, and how much time they will have to devote to watching your gun handling when they should instead be focused on finding game and orchestrating stalks. Safe gun handling starts at home on your range, but it continues on range day, and must be constant throughout.
In a blind, the shot will usually be taken from some type of solid sitting rest. However, in African hunting, three-legged shooting sticks remain almost universal. In tracking hunts or leopard hunts with dogs, sticks will be used if the circumstances allow. Likewise, during a follow-up, sticks will be used if the animal is spotted at distance such that the time and movement required to set up sticks are practical and safe. During range day, you will probably be expected to demonstrate your proficiency off sticks. This is not an exam you can cram for; you should arrive at range day already proficient. So, practice on your home range, and arrive prepared.
Shooting sticks require practice! It takes a bit of work to become comfortable and familiar with shooting sticks. The two primary secrets are:
Practice does make perfect! Sticks are not a perfect solution; slight horizontal wobble is almost unavoidable. However, with practice most shooters can become adequately steady for perhaps 150-yard shots, which covers the vast majority of African shooting in most areas.
In Africa, you are almost never alone. There are some tricks you can practice on your range with a buddy and demonstrate them on range day.
The buddy system. If the shot is a bit too far or if you’re shaky from nerves or exertion, a buddy, your PH, or a tracker can bend down and grasp the two rear legs of the tripod—right side for right-handed shooters or left side for left-handed shooters. This adds stability to the sticks, but the real secret is that you can then rest your shooting elbow on his or her shoulder. The increased stability from supporting that shooting elbow is simply amazing. With practice, this enables most shooters to nearly double their effective range off sticks!
Do the “chicken wing.” A second trick is to carry a second set of shooting sticks in the party. This is very practical in Africa because there’s always a PH and at least one tracker, more often two. The height has to be right, so this is an evolution to be practiced on your home range. The first set is used normally as a fore-end rest. The second set—legs spread farther so the sticks are lower—is tucked into the armpit on your shooting side (left for left-handers or right for right-handers). Although it takes a few seconds longer—and more practice—the “chicken wing” is actually steadier than the “buddy system” and, again, can double your effective range off sticks.
Low tripods and multiple sticks. Most shooting sticks can be spread low enough so the shooter can sit or kneel behind them, and many commercial brands are adjustable or have sectioned legs for lower positions. Using sticks in a sitting position, including from a chair, is a great enhancement. Many PHs use some combination of multiple shooting sticks in blinds. This can be practiced on your range as you prepare for your safari.
As in all things, listen to your PH and follow his directions! Typically, rifles will be carried with cartridges in the magazine but with the chamber unloaded until the PH directs. The PH will walk ahead of you, and his rifle will usually be fully loaded and ready. Yours doesn’t need to be until you are “action imminent.”
In tracking, this can mean any time, although both the freshness and direction of the tracks will give clues as to when you’re getting close. Likewise, with dog hunting, the hounds’ barking tells the status of the chase. In bait hunting, there is usually no reason for the chamber to be loaded when going to and from the blind. At a minimum, the chamber should be clear when entering and exiting a blind because the direction of the muzzle can be difficult to control.
The basic rule is that the chamber should not be loaded unless you can absolutely control the direction of the muzzle. This means that if you are carrying the rifle slung over your shoulder, the chamber should be clear. Most PHs don’t use rifle slings; they carry their rifles in their hands, and the rifles are always ready. Most sport hunters do use slings, and that’s fine. But a fully loaded rifle should not be slung because it is impossible to control the muzzle in the case of a slip or fall, and many mechanical safeties can be brushed off by clothing while a rifle is slung. If in doubt, never hesitate to ask your PH if you should chamber a round. This can easily be done with sign language if noise is an issue.
The safety on your rifle is not a substitute for safe gun handling but serves as a backup for momentary lapses. Even if you are carrying your rifle at “port arms” ready, you may briefly lose control of the muzzle direction if you slip or stumble. But when tracking or walking to or from a blind, whether carrying the rifle casually or slung, the muzzle is not under tight control, so the chamber should be clear.
Whether loaded or unloaded, the muzzle must be pointed in a safe direction. When the chamber is loaded, check the mechanical safety constantly to make sure it is engaged. African hunting is especially problematic for gun handling safety because it is normal for you, your PHs, and your trackers to walk single file, and you as the hunter will be well back in the line. No matter how you carry your rifle and how often you check your safety, focus on keeping the muzzle in a safe direction: UP, DOWN, OR SIDEWAYS.
As so often seen in photos and on television, it is very common in Africa to carry the rifle with the action balanced over one shoulder, butt to the rear, muzzle forward and grasped and controlled by one hand. This is not in itself unsafe, as the hand controls the direction of the muzzle.
In order to understand the “African carry,” it’s useful to know where it comes from. In the old days when trackers also commonly served as “gunbearers,” the normal situation was for the gunbearer to walk ahead—rifle balanced on one shoulder, muzzle forward, butt to the rear. When game was encountered, the hunter needed only to reach forward, grasp the pistolgrip, and take the rifle, fast and efficient.
Today, almost all African hunters—professional and amateur—carry their own rifles. The “African carry” persists because few PHs use slings, and the muzzle-forward carry is very comfortable (especially with heavy double rifles, with flat action bottoms and broad muzzles to grasp). The obvious problem is the muzzle points forward. Thus, when walking in line, it is almost inevitable that the person carrying rifle will “sweep” the person walking ahead. If the rifle is unloaded, this is merely unsafe and a display of terrible manners. If the rifle is loaded, the “African carry” is potentially deadly. It is not recommended, but it is a very comfortable way to carry a rifle, especially on long, hot tracking hunts. If employed, it is essential to concentrate constantly on muzzle control. Keep the barrel offset well to the side and away from the people walking ahead.
Listening to your professional hunter (PH) is the first and most cardinal rule of African hunting! It is essential that you never shoot until your PH gives the go-ahead. But even when he or she does, it’s still your shot and your animal. So, don’t take a shot unless you are comfortable, steady, and confident.
This is your PH’s job, not yours. Experienced PHs are very good at it, but no one is ever perfect. Judging both leopards and lions is very, very difficult and for different reasons. There was a time when any leopard was considered shootable, likewise any maned lion. In today’s Africa, the leopard license almost always specifically states male, and some countries have legal minimum sizes. This is good because there are far more leopards in wild Africa today than there were just 30 years ago. Despite the restrictions, leopard hunting is generally more successful today than a generation ago.
Rarely is an attempt made to “age” leopards; it’s difficult enough to be certain of the sex. Lions are even more difficult to differentiate due to age restrictions. And, realistically, we must accept that lions are declining in today’s Africa, so the restrictions are essential. A maned lion is easy to see, so determining sex isn’t a problem. However, in today’s Africa, it is a conservation imperative to ensure that a male lion is not accompanied by lionesses, which takes time. More difficult yet, in most areas today, only males six years and older are allowed. Young lions are easy and so are old lions. But it’s difficult and time-consuming to make the judgment between five and six years of age. It is essential that you accept your PH’s judgment, and with cats, sometimes this is a painful pill to swallow.
There was a time in Africa when any leopard was good enough and any maned lion was good enough, but things have changed in different ways for both of the great cats.
With leopards today, most licenses are written male leopard only, and some countries have minimum standards. And so, your professional hunter has to be very, very careful now. This is really good news because there's a lot more leopards in today’s Africa than there was a generation ago, really, when I started. So, leopard hunting is more successful today than it used to be, but the professional hunter has to be very, very careful to make sure it’s the right cat.
Leopards are judged by a number of indicators, some of which are pretty subtle. First comes the track. Now, the track of a big male leopard is going to be a large track for the area.
Professional Hunter: Craig, this is a very nice paw. It’s a big male. It’s just under 9 centimeters, which is good for this area. And it’s like 5 1/4 wide, which is a good indicator that it’s a nice male.
But a mid-sized track could be a very large female, or it could be a medium-sized but perfectly shootable male. So, tracks are indicators.
Body & Head Shape
A male leopard has powerful shoulders and will tend to have a bigger head with the ears seeming to be set farther apart on the skull. So, this is also an indicator, but it can take a lot of hard looking, and in poor light, this is difficult.
Female leopards tend to be dainty feeders. They’ll kind of gnaw a little bit, and they’ll suck on the bones. Where a male leopard, and especially a big male, will smash a bait and crunch the bones.
Professional Hunter: Notice how it’s been put on the branch.
Professional Hunter: Notice how much has been eaten. It’s been breaking big bones. It’s broken the femoral bone. It’s eaten the ribs. It’s eaten the brisket. It’s eaten a lot more than what a female would normally eat.
When you come on to a bait that's been really hammered, chances are it’s a big male.
Trail cameras have really revolutionized cat hunting. A trail camera will tell you when a cat is feeding, which is critical information, but good trail cam photos will often be able to show you not only the sex but the size of a leopard.
The Final Truth
Realistically, it’s difficult to tell a male leopard from a female. And of course, the leopard leaving the tracks and the leopard that you have photographed on the trail cam may not be the leopard that comes to the bait at any given moment. Most professional hunters have made a mistake at some point in their career, mistaking a large female for a male, and this has to be avoided today. It’s a conservation issue, but it's also a legal issue since today’s leopard licenses are written male. So, the professional hunter needs to be very careful and very conservative before he gives you the go-ahead.
And the final truth is simply to see the testicles, which protrude under a male leopard's tail. Obviously, it takes a side-on view, and it takes enough light to see, but most professional hunters today are not going to give you the go-ahead to shoot until they’re 100% certain that they're looking at a male leopard. And often, this means waiting until they can actually see the testicles.
Tracks. With leopards, males and females look much alike, and this is greatly complicated by the low light conditions in which leopards are usually taken. Tracks are clues. Males are much larger, so an outsized track (for the area) is certainly a large male; however, a large female will have much the same track as a medium-sized (and perfectly acceptable) male.
Body and head shape. A mature male tends to have a more powerful build with heavier shoulders. The head will usually appear larger, with the ears set more on the side of the skull.
Feeding signs. Female leopards tend to be dainty feeders, seemingly sucking on bones and eating less. Males, especially big males, will smash baits and crunch heavy bones.
Trail cameras. Trail cameras on baits have revolutionized cat hunting. Trail cam photos will show when a cat is feeding—important—and, with leopards, will usually reveal sex and size of a feeding cat.
The final truth. Realistically, almost all experienced PHs have made at least one error, mistaking a large female leopard for a male. Today, this simply must be avoided, partly as matters of conservation and management and partly because the license says “male.” So, even a very large female taken by mistake may not be importable, and the PH (usually not the client) may face a very large fine and potential loss of his or her PH license (and thus livelihood).
Tracks and feeding signs and trail cam photos are invaluable, but there is never any guarantee that the cat leaving those signs is the one in front of you on the bait. So, good PHs today must delay the shot until they are absolutely certain. This can be extremely frustrating, and it also builds the excitement to an almost unsustainable level. But it’s necessary. Sometimes, especially with an obviously large male, a PH can make the call based on body build and feeding behavior, but this is risky. Most PHs will wait until they see the testicles. They are visually prominent under the tail of a male leopard, but it takes both adequate light and a side-on angle to see them.
Lions are in trouble in today’s Africa, and so, today’s hunting has to be ever more careful and ever more conservative and ever more selective than it ever used to be. We know today that it’s a bad thing to take a lion out of a pride, so you have to make sure that a male lion is alone. And in some countries and with many, many outfitters in areas, they’re trying to shoot only older lions. Tanzania, for instance, has a six-year-old rule, and this is growing across Africa.
So, while it’s pretty easy to tell a male lion and it’s not difficult to tell a young lion from an old lion, it’s very difficult to determine whether a lion is five years old, six years old, or seven years old. So, your professional hunter has to have time to make a really good call—to make cat hunting a lot more difficult than it used to be. But it's also a conservation imperative that we do this right and we be very selective.
Now, depending on the soil, the track of a lioness could initially be mistaken for the track of a very large leopard, but the lion’s tracks is less round and more elongated. And there’s absolutely no mistaking the pad mark of a mature male lion. That track is going to be 13 centimeters or more from heel to toe, and it's the largest pad mark in the African bush.
That’s about as big a lion track as I have ever seen. He may or may not have a mane, but that is a big lion.
Now, many mature lions never grow full manes. It really depends on the climate. It depends on the thornbush. In thornbush country, a lot of mane hair is going to be pulled out. And in really hot areas, it’s unusual for a lion to grow a really full mane because it’s great for heat retention, but it’s terrible in hot weather. But lions that are going to grow full manes, they usually develop that full mane by the time they’re about six or seven. A lion that's four years old or five years old will still need to fill in that mane between the ears and around the ears. So, the mane is an indicator, but it’s only an indicator of age.
Today, much is made of pink on the nose. The theory is that before he reaches full maturity, a lion will have pink spots on his nose. And when he’s fully mature, his nose will be completely black. And now this is very, very hard to see, unless you have good optics and good light. But it’s also not definitive because while it applies in some genetic pools, it doesn’t apply in others. Lions that are absolutely known to be 8, 9, 10, even 11 years old have been found to have some pink still on the nose in certain areas. So, this is one that you have to be careful with.
Facial Shape & Scars
An older lion will tend to have a face that appears longer and a bit of a Roman nose. He’s probably going to be a scarred old veteran. Now, some scrappy youngsters are also going to have scars at a very young age. Lions aren’t very nice to each other. But an older lion is definitely going to have scars from many battles over mating rights.
As with most animals, an older lion is going to appear ponderous and heavy. And again, like most animals—including us—an older lion is going to have a bit of a belly until he gets really old and then appears kind of like a bag of bones.
Trail cameras on baits are great for weeding out lions that are obviously too young. And of course, it also weeds out prides. And this saves valuable hunting time. You’re only going to sit for a lion that looks like he might be a potential.
Careful firsthand evaluation is absolutely essential. Again, it’s easy to weed out a young lion, and you’re not going to sit for him. It’s easy to tell a really old lion. But in the middle, which is really most male lions, is very difficult. Is he five or is he six? Or maybe is he seven? The professional hunter is going to have to take a firsthand look and evaluate all the evidence because none of the indicators that we’ve talked about are absolutely definitive.
Now, this is absolutely essential for modern lion management, but it’s difficult. And it means that today’s professional hunters are often going to err on the side of caution. It’s very difficult to tell a 5-year-old lion from a 6-year-old lion. An 8- or 9- or 10-year-old lion gets a lot easier. So, they’re going to use caution, and tell you what? This can be the heartbreak of today’s lion hunting—when your PH says, he’s close, but he’s just not old enough.
Tracks. Depending on the soil, a lioness’s track could be mistaken for a very large leopard track, although the lion’s track is less round and more elongated. There is no mistaking the track of a mature male lion, 13 centimeters or more from heel to toe and larger than any other pad mark in the African bush. The problem is that tracks tell size and sex, but they say nothing of age.
Mane. Many mature male lions never grow full manes. It depends on the area. Fuller manes are less common in hot, tropical areas. A lot of mane hair is lost in areas with very thick thornbush. Genetics are always extremely important, so the mane is often a poor indicator of age. However, lions with the propensity to grow a full mane usually don’t “fill in” around and between the ears until six or seven years of age.
Nose. Much today is made of “pink on the nose,” under the theory that a lion will retain pink spots on the nose until full maturity while an older lion’s nose will have turned black. Obviously, seeing the difference takes careful study in good light with good optics. But there is evidence that this characteristic only applies in certain populations. Lions positively known to be old—nine years and older—have been taken that still have pink on the nose. So, in many areas, this is not a good indicator.
Facial shape and scars. An older lion should appear to have a longer face with a Roman nose. A scrappy young lion may bear scars from his precociousness, but an older lion is almost certain to be a scarred veteran.
Body shape. As with most animals, an older lion will appear heavy and ponderous. Until he is downhill and skinny, he will show a bit of a belly just like most older deer and humans.
Trail cameras. Trail cameras on baits generally weed out lions that are absolutely too young to sit for and eliminate prides from consideration, thus conserving valuable hunting time.
Final approval. Proper firsthand judgment is critical. Again, older lions are easy, but borderline lions (Is he five or is he six or seven years old?) are very difficult. Modern PHs are obligated to take a close personal look and study the available factors (none of which are definitive) before authorizing a shot. This means, realistically, PHs must err on the side of caution. This means that modern lion hunting is better for lion management but has become less successful. Again, it’s the PH’s license and livelihood on the line, so however heartbreaking it is, his or her judgment must be accepted.
Baiting is the most common technique for both lions and leopards. In long-established hunting areas, many PHs will have favorite bait trees for both lions and leopards, but in most cases, baiting starts with an exhaustive search for fresh tracks.
Cats are lazy, and so, they tend to walk on trails, but water sources are good places to look for fresh tracks. And then, of course, the search goes on for a proper bait site. Most professional hunters are going to try to figure out, which is largely guesswork, where the cat is most likely to be next. And so, the baiting has to be based on a guess of where the cat might appear.
Now, with both lions and leopards, it’s common to drag. And what that means is that stomach and intestines and other good smelling stuff is dragged along trails and roads towards the bait. It’s amazing how many times you'll see both lions and leopard tracks following that drag right straight to the bait tree.
Baiting is extremely time consuming, as is building blinds. Now, some professional hunters will build a blind every time they set a bait. This takes a lot of hunting time, but it means that if that bait is hit, you can move into the bait very quietly.
Professional Hunter: We’re all done. The line’s up. Bait’s up. All we need now is a cooperative leopard.
Professional Hunter: So, this effort is not wasted.
Hunter: Sounds good.
Other professional hunters will never build a blind until a bait is taken. This saves a lot of hunting time, but it also runs the risk of creating disturbance when a cat may be laid up nearby. There’s really no right or wrong way. It depends on the condition, and every experienced professional owner has his or her own special tricks for enticing cats onto a bait. It’s really a chess game, and it’s very interesting. As the hunter, you’re going to participate in it, and it’s really a lot of fun, but it can be very time consuming and very frustrating.
Although legend has it that lions are most likely to be taken at first light and leopards are most likely to be taken at last light, this isn’t necessarily true. In both cases, some cats are morning feeders, and some cats are evening feeders, and some cats are dead-of-the-night feeders. So, plan on going into the bait in inky, pre-dawn blackness and plan on leaving the bait well after dark. And in areas where night hunting is legal, you may well spend the night in the blind.
Cat hunting is a very time-consuming business. It takes time to find bait animals, find tracks, establish bait sites, and build blinds. Now, in some cases, pre-baiting before your arrival may be an option. It isn’t always, but in any case, it’s a time-consuming process. And the second half of the hunt is often the most likely time when you’re going to take your cat. It could happen on the first day. It could happen on the last day. But the second half of the hunt is very important. So, as you’re planning your cat hunt, you want to plan as much time as possible. With most outfitters, 14 days is absolutely minimal, and some prefer 16, 18, and even 21 days to give you a really good chance.
All professional hunters have their favorite, but the bait used realistically is probably going to depend on game that’s readily available in the area. And you can expect that animals used for bait or are going to count against your license and trophy fees are going to apply. Now, you can take horns, capes, and skins before the meat is hung, but expect that these animals are going to be on your license.
For leopard, impala and warthog are common and often preferred and generally used, but you never know. Some professional hunters swear that a leopard will never come to a baboon bait, and other professional hunters use nothing else. It depends a lot on the game that’s available in the area. Even though the zebra, certainly a mature zebra, is not natural prey for a leopard; leopards do tend to like the fatty meat. And so, zebras are a common bait, and a zebra will yield about five leopard baits, so that's very economic.
Now, lions are different. Lions need a much larger piece of meat because you need the lion to be able to have multiple feedings. The worst situation in baiting is for you to run out of bait when the cat is feeding because the cat may not come back. So with lions, zebra are good, buffalo are good, hippo are excellent, even elephant, but you need a large piece of meat for the lion.
The most common technique for both lion and leopard. In long-established hunting areas, most PHs have favorite bait sites that might be used season after season. But most baiting for both species starts with an exhaustive search for the fresh tracks of a big male.
Cats are lazy and like to walk on trails. So much searching can be done from the vehicle, saving time. Waterholes and smaller game trails are also good places to look. Based on topography and direction of the tracks, baits are usually hung by guesswork as to where the cat might go next. Both lion and leopard baits are usually sweetened by dragging entrails and stomach along roads and game trails toward the bait.
These days, trail cameras are often used to identify and prejudge animals that take the bait. Baiting is a time-consuming process as is building blinds. Some PHs always build a blind when hanging a bait. This takes a lot of time but has the advantage of moving into an active bait with very little disturbance. Other PHs never build a blind until a bait is hit and the signs look favorable. This saves time, but it runs some risk of creating noise and movement within earshot of a bedded cat.
There is no right or wrong way, and every experienced PH has special tricks for enticing cats. Although the legend is that leopards are usually taken at last light and lions at first light, this isn’t necessarily true. Some cats are morning feeders, others are afternoon feeders, and some are dead-of-the-night feeders that will not be enticed onto bait in daylight. Plan on stalking the bait in pre-dawn blackness, leaving the bait in inky dark and, where legal, spending the night on the bait.
As with any hunt, a cat can be taken on the first day or the last day or not at all. But cat hunting is extremely time-consuming, so the more time you have the better your chances for success. Although “pre-baiting” before your arrival is sometimes an option, typically it takes a few days to find and take bait animals, find bait sites, and hang bait. Then, also typically, a few more days for the baits to ripen and cats to find them. Absent a lot of luck, the second half of a cat hunt is usually more productive than the first half. It takes patience and persistence, but it is never a sure thing. A two-week hunt is minimal for either cat, with some outfitters preferring 16, 18, or a full 21 days.
All PHs have their favorites, but bait actually used generally depends on game that is available and on license in a given area. Expect that bait animals will count against a hunting license, or trophy fees will apply, but capes and skins can be taken before the meat is hung. Warthogs and impalas are natural prey for leopards and are favored leopard baits. Some PHs swear that leopards will never touch a baboon bait while others use nothing else. It probably depends on available natural prey in the area. Though full-grown zebras are not natural leopard prey, many PHs believe zebras are especially irresistible because of the fatty meat. A zebra will yield five leopard baits but just two lion baits—obviously because lions eat far more. It’s essential for a lion bait to offer enough meat so the lion will return for multiple feedings. License and quota allowing, larger animals—buffalo, hippo, and even elephant, all of which provide multiple baits—are generally preferred for lion bait.
The romantic concept is that leopard bait will be hung so that the leopard is silhouetted against the sky and preferably against the sunset. Hey, that sounds nice, but it often doesn’t work that way. The most important criteria for a leopard bait site is that it be surrounded by thick bush so that the cat can approach in secrecy and with confidence. And that's really the most important thing.
Lion baits can be chosen in a little more open area. Lions are a lot more arrogant, more likely to move about in daylight. So, the lion bait can be in a little bit more open area. Often a clearing is chosen because, hey, nobody wants to follow a lion into thick bush unless it's absolutely necessary.
But the bait site is going to be chosen with where the blind is going to be in mind. You may build a blind at the time. You may not build a blind until the bait is hit. But when the PH hangs a bait, he knows where that blind is going to be located. And it’s going to be downwind and opposite the most likely approach of the cat.
Hanging the Bait
Typically, lion baits are hung high so that the cat can barely reach it and has to really work to feed. And that means he’s going to stay on the bait longer and really work at it. But hyenas and other scavengers won’t be able to reach it. Now leopard baits will tend to be hung high in the fork often of a straight tree that a lion can’t possibly climb. And of course, a hyena can’t possibly reach it either.
Now leopards do occur in areas where both lions and hyenas don’t occur. And so, in some cases, a ground bait for a leopard may well be appropriate, but not in areas where there’s hyenas. It’s possible to hang a combination bait for both lion and leopard, whichever comes first. But it’s impossible to hang a lion bait that a leopard can’t get to. And this really isn’t a problem because a hungry lion will very quickly chase the much smaller leopard off of a bait.
Typically you're going to put leafy cover over the top of your bait so that the vultures can't find it. They’ll quickly, quickly spoil a bait, so that's a really important last step before you leave a bait site.
Checking the Bait
Once baits are hung, it’s absolutely essential to check them every day. Now this greatly limits the amount of other hunting that you can do on a cat hunt, but failure to check a bait on any given day is a huge mistake because that might be the day that the cats hit.
Craig Boddington: OK. Well, we’re going to kind of figure out our strategy for this bait because the leopards have been spending a lot of time here. Yeah, you bet they have. We just saw one cross the arroyo down here about 75 yards. And I really think I saw the second one as well, Andrew.
Professional Hunter: Yeah, I just saw the one run across the way.
Craig Boddington: Well, I saw movement to the left of where the first one went in, so I think they were both right there.
Professional Hunter: The one we saw looked like a large female to me.
Craig Boddington: Yeah.
Professional Hunter: So, maybe the male’s there. You know what I think we do? I think we leave this bait; we get out of here now.
Craig Boddington: Yeah.
Professional Hunter: We’ll come back tomorrow again and see if they've fed. If they haven’t fed, we’ll change the buffalo for impala.
Craig Boddington: Yeah.
Professional Hunter: Put an impala up.
Baits are usually checked in the late morning to midday hours. This is partly because this is the least likely time to disturb a cat on the bait. And also, so that if the bait needs replenishing, you have the afternoon to quickly take care of that before darkness falls.
Professional Hunter: OK. I don't think a male’s fed there. The bait's gone rotten, but there’s a lot of activity around here. And we saw males through here four or five days ago. So, I think we put a new bait up and see what comes in there. It’s definitely worth keeping going.
Many professional hunters will drag offal to the bait every time it's checked. And this process of baiting and checking and dragging takes a lot of time, and is a large reason why cat hunting is such a time-consuming and specialized endeavor.
The romantic concept of the perfect “leopard tree” will have a horizontal limb silhouetted against the setting sun. Nice, but it doesn’t always happen that way. The most important thing with a leopard bait is that it is surrounded by thick bush, so the leopard feels secure and can closely approach the bait in secrecy. The bait site is always chosen with regard to where the blind will be sited: The blind will be downwind, opposite the cat’s most likely approaches, and with access that can be concealed and quiet. These principles also apply to lions, except that lions are less secretive and more arrogant. So, a typical lion bait may be in small clearing, also taking into account that the shot will be on the ground, and nobody wants to follow a lion into really thick bush.
Typically lion baits are hung high enough so the lion can (barely) reach it and must work to feed, requiring time—and so hyenas and other scavengers cannot reach it. Leopard baits are usually hung on a higher fork in a straight tree that lions will be unable to climb. Leopards are sometimes found in areas where neither lions nor hyenas occur, so ground baits may sometimes be appropriate. It is possible to hang a “combination bait” for either leopard or lion (whichever comes first). While it is possible to hang a leopard bait so that lions and ground scavengers cannot reach it, it is impossible to hang a lion bait so that a leopard can’t get to it. This is not a problem because a leopard is no match for a hungry lion and will be easily chased away. Leafy branches are usually placed on top of a bait to reduce exposure to sun and retard spoilage and to prevent ever-circling vultures from finding it.
Once baits are hung, it is essential to check them every day. This severely limits other hunting that can be done, but failure to check baits daily is a huge mistake. Baits are usually checked in the late morning and midday hours, partly because these are the least likely times to disturb a cat on the bait and partly because adequate daylight remains to replenish a bait if necessary. Many PHs drag offal to the bait every time it is checked. It’s amazing how often both lion and leopard tracks are seen following a drag mark to the bait. The process of baiting, checking, and dragging is extremely time-consuming, and a primary reason why cat hunting is such a specialized and single-minded endeavor.
Terrain dictates distance and location, but rifle blinds will usually be established 60 to an absolute maximum and rare distance of maybe 120 yards. Archery blinds are, of course, going to be set much closer, and that means minimal movement and no noise while in the blind.
A lot of PHs today use pop-up blinds as a base, but they’re going to add natural camouflage, preferably that’s cut elsewhere and then brought to the blind location. The ideal situation for a blind is BOB—Bait, Obstacle, Blind. And that means that you have the bait and you have some kind of a natural obstacle, such as a water course, and then the blind, to prevent the cat from discovering the blind.
Professional Hunter: This is a very thick river line, incredibly thick, which is good cover for the leopard to come in under. We put the bait on the eastern side of the river, and our blind is gonna be on the western side. If one hits this bait, that gives us a barrier between blind and bait.
At a minimum, the blind is going to be established downwind from the bait and opposite from the cat’s most likely approach to the bait.
Building the Blind
Pop-ups and pre-fabs save a bit of time, but building a proper blind is a time-consuming effort. The ground has to be completely leveled and raked clean so that there will be no noise and no crunching of leaves while you’re in the blind. Natural camouflage has to be added so that the blind is as close to 100% invisible as absolutely possible.
Professional Hunter: OK. Good. That looks good to me. I think from a leopard’s perspective, he’s not gonna see anything here. So, from the front, I think we’re pretty much done. We’re just gonna get on the back and make sure our approach is fine, and then we’ll just get out of here.
Craig Boddington: Sounds good.
A silent approach to the blind has to be created, and this means marking, clearing, and raking clean a trail of, oh, 100 sometimes as much as 200 yards. It takes a lot of time.
Professional Hunter: We clear the path for silence. If it’s nicely swept, you can get in undetected. But if you walk, if you don’t make a path, you sort of hear this type of sound.
He steps off path onto leaves and ground cover, making a loud crunching sound.
That’s actually a very important part of your approach is clearing your path properly. All sticks and leaves and everything we take out of the way.
Now, this is effort that your safari team is happy to do, and they’re experienced at it. Tell you what, a lot more blinds are going to be built and abandoned than cats taken. But this is where you can lend a hand. There’s always things you can do. An extra hand helps a lot, and this does a lot to making you a part of the hunting team and making them want to work even harder to get you your cat. So, pitch in and help.
Setting the Rest
Once the blind is completed, small openings are created for the rifle and so that the PH can view the bait. Now, some professional hunters use commercial rifle rests, and others will build sturdy rests out of sticks. But to do this properly, you’re going to sit in the chair, and they’re going to build the rifle rest around you so that you can be absolutely certain that the rifle is properly rested, very secure, that it’s pointed at the bait, but you also have the flexibility to move if the cat is in a slightly different presentation than anticipated.
Clearing the Shot
As you’re sitting in the chair and adjusting the rifle, make absolutely certain that there’s no branches or other obstruction between your rifle and the most likely shots.
Craig Boddington: Yeah. That’s right. OK, good.
Andrew, I’m really glad to see you being so meticulous about clearing the lane. That’s so important. The one time that I had to follow a wounded leopard, that’s why. My bullet caught a branch.
Professional Hunter: Yeah. It’s critically important to take every single obstacle out the way.
Craig Boddington: Yeah. Law of averages, Murphy being the optimist that he is: If there’s a branch, your bullet’s going to catch it.
Professional Hunter: And it’s quite an easy thing to take out of the equation for having a wounded leopard.
Craig Boddington: Yeah.
Professional Hunter: So, might as well do it.
Craig Boddington: We’ve only been 15, 20 minutes in it.
Professional Hunter: OK. Every bait I set up, I go back to the blind when I’m finished, and I try and envision what that cat could possibly do. Can he pull it this way? Could he pull it down that way? What could hide him? And try to eliminate all those obstacles to give you maximum chance to shoot him.
Clearing the shooting lane is usually the final evolution in completing a blind. It’s a very important step.
Checking the Rifle
Once the blind is completed, take a rangefinder reading for the exact distance between the blind and the bait.
Now, through the brush, it looked like it was a long, long ways, but we’re 67 yards from the bait. So, if we get a hit here, that’s exactly where we’re going to re-sight the rifle and make sure we’re on at that distance.
Write it down. Before you sit in that blind, you should adjust your zero so that your rifle is in perfect zero at exactly that distance.
Blind Gear & Etiquette
Silence is golden. You don’t want to be scrabbling for stuff and making noise. You don’t really need much. You need cough drops; you need a water bottle, maybe a good book, flashlight or headlamp, a bottle for urination if a longer sit is anticipated. You want to lay this at your feet so you know where everything is and you can reach for it silently.
You and your PH will probably work out a set of hand signals so that he can tell you what’s going on. But if the bait is some distance from the blind, talking in low whispers may be acceptable. You can read a book when daylight allows. You can doze off—no snoring. Your PH may appear to be dozing too, but you can bet that he’s listening. Often, birds, baboons, and even antelope, like bushbuck, will tell you when a cat is approaching.
Terrain dictates the distance and location, but blinds for rifle hunting are usually established about 60 to, in rare circumstances, 120 yards from the bait. Archery blinds are much closer, requiring minimal movement and no noise while in the blind.
Many PHs today use pop-up blinds as a base, but natural camouflage—preferably cut elsewhere—will always be used. The ideal principle for a blind is BOB—Bait, Obstacle, Blind—meaning that some type of natural barrier, such as a watercourse, lies between the blind and the bait in order to prevent the cat from discovering the blind. Where present tall termite mounds can be ideal places to site a blind. At a minimum, the blind will be downwind and on the opposite side of the bait from the cat’s anticipated approach.
Pop-ups and pre-fabs save a bit of time, but building a proper blind is a time-consuming effort. The ground must be shoveled level and raked clear so slight movement in the blind crunches no leaves, and the blind must be sturdy and perfectly camouflaged. A silent approach to the blind must also be created, usually requiring marking, creating, and raking clean a trail of at least a hundred yards.
There is much work involved, which your hunting team is experienced at and happy to do. Many more blinds are built and abandoned than the number of cats taken. However, in terms of safari etiquette, another hand saves time. Helping to build the blind reduces the time, and it goes a long way toward making you a part of your hunting team.
Setting the rest. Once the blind is completed, small openings are created for the rifle and for the PH to view the bait. Then a shooting rest is built. Some PHs use commercial shooting rests while others use shooting sticks and natural supports. You need to sit in the chair, make sure you’re comfortable, and ensure that the rifle is firmly rested on the most likely shot but not so firmly that you can’t adjust the rifle easily and silently.
Clearing the shot. As you’re sitting in the chair and adjusting the rest, make absolutely certain that there are no branches or other obstructions between your rifle and your potential shot. Clearing the shooting lane is usually the final evolution in completing a blind, and it is an absolutely critical step.
Checking the rifle. Once the blind is completed, take a rangefinder reading and check the exact distance from blind to bait. Before you use that blind, the rifle should be checked and zero adjusted to exactly that distance.
Silence is golden. As it gets dark, you don’t want to be scrabbling for stuff. You don’t need much. Items you should have, and lay out at your feet, include the following: water bottle, cough drops, flashlight or headlamp, a good book, and a bottle for urination if a longer sit is anticipated. Depending on the distance, talking in very low whispers may be possible, but you and your PH will normally work out a system of hand or “by touch” signals so that he can tell you what’s happening. Depending on the length of the sit, dozing may be acceptable but no snoring! Reading is acceptable when daylight allows. Your PH may read and even doze, but you can be sure he’s listening. Birds, baboons, and even antelope will often tell you when a predator is approaching.
When a cat appears, there is much adrenaline and excitement, and this a moment that is very easily messed up. The shot cannot be taken until your PH has made the final judgment and gives the go-ahead. This is usually done silently by pre-arranged signal, for example, one squeeze on the arm means the cat is there; two squeezes mean take the shot when you’re ready. When the cat is there, you need get on the rifle, try to see him, and visualize the shot—silently and slowly. When you get the go-ahead, you may take the shot, but that doesn’t mean you should take the shot. Only you know what you’re seeing, and you must not take the shot unless you can see the cat properly—never easy in bad light—and you’re certain you can place the bullet.
The shot at a cat over bait should be the easiest in the hunting world. The distance is known and is not far; the rifle is steadily rested. It’s amazing how often it gets messed up. All too often this results from firing before the PH gives the okay or shooting out of frustration and anxiety when you know you don’t have a proper sight picture. The consequences can be grave, so it’s important to fight off the excitement. Do what you know how to do, and listen to your PH.
Tracking for leopards is very rarely done because it takes very special soil, such as fine Kalahari sand, for a small animal such as a leopard to be effectively tracked. Lions can be effectively tracked in the same sandy soil and also in some other areas but only by extremely skilled trackers. This is an extremely exciting way to hunt lion and also very dangerous.
Cats will typically rest and sleep during midday hours, so it might be possible to track a lion or leopard to its bed in deep thornbush—but it’s much more likely to track the cat until he has had enough, and then the hunter becomes the hunted. In tracking, it’s important to be ready at all times—not easy when the tracks lead you on for several hours into the heat of the day. It is unlikely that the cat will be caught unawares, so expect a face-to-face encounter with a cat angry at being disturbed. The cat may run once or twice, but every encounter increases the risk of a charge.
A century ago, dogs were often used to hunt both lions and leopards. Today, hunting lions with dogs is almost unheard of, but leopard hunting with dogs remains legal in several areas. It is a highly successful technique, though certainly not foolproof. Leopards can and often do evade the dogs or cross boundaries where the hunters can’t follow. That said, with a well-trained pack, it is both an exciting and successful method—and also very traditional (like hunting cougars with hounds). It is a physical endeavor, requiring following the chase wherever it leads, and for many hunters, it beats the monotony of hanging baits, checking baits, and sitting over baits.
Although looked down upon by many today, using dogs is also a highly selective technique. There is no reason to release the dogs until the track of a big male is found. There is always the chance that the dogs will cross the tracks of a lesser leopard, but the cat can usually be properly identified before shooting is necessary and the dogs can be called back. There is just one thing: Hunting a leopard with dogs is dangerous. When the final approach for a shot is made, the shot needs to be taken as rapidly as possible. If a leopard sees hunters approach, the cat seems to instinctively appreciate that the dogs aren’t his real problem. Many dog hunts end in determined charges.
This method is not legal everywhere, but lions can often be called in by roaring a challenge—or at least their general location identified by a roar in response. This is also an extremely exciting method. Lions that come to the challenge roar of another male come in looking for a fight!
In some areas, night hunting for leopard and/or lion is perfectly legal, and in other areas, it is strictly illegal. To some extent this is a matter of tradition but also practicality. In ranch areas, the great cats have been persecuted for a century and more. They don’t move around much in the daylight, so night hunting is the only real option and is often legal. Daylight baiting is generally limited to wild areas where there are reasonable chances for daylight encounters. Some areas allow night shooting but do not allow the use of artificial lights or such modern conveniences as night-vision scopes. Honestly, prohibitions against night shooting are probably the most often-ignored game laws in Africa. Ask the questions, and obey the law!
Where night hunting is legal, it offers a great advantage. Leopards, and lions to a slightly lesser extent, are nocturnal predators—most active at night. Obviously, your chances are improved if you can hunt when the cats are most active. Against this, however, shooting at night is much more difficult. Chances of a wounded cat are greatly enhanced; thus, the chances of a wounded and lost animal or somebody getting hurt are also enhanced.
Paradoxically, before World War II, hunting lions with dogs was the most common technique, and most leopards were taken by chance encounter. Things have changed. Lions are large and visible, and they are often seen while simply cruising through good habitat. Smaller, better camouflaged, and much more secretive, leopards are rarely seen even where they are plentiful. But in the days when safaris averaged several months, sooner or later a leopard would be seen. Today, when the average leopard safari is just two weeks, don’t count on it! Even if one is seen today, the chance encounter is a poor way to take either cat. This is because a sighting is one thing and the chance for a shot is another and the opportunity to properly observe the animal and correctly judge its sex, size, and age is still another. With proper selection now a matter of law, the chance encounter may occur but probably won’t result in a shot.
The problem with sticks is that it takes both time and motion to set up sticks and get into position. At close range, the motion required may spook the cat or initiate a charge. And the extra time delay may mean loss of an opportunity or increased danger. Shooting from a blind is usually a controlled situation. But during tracking hunts, leopard hunting with dogs, and any follow-up on cats, there is no predicting how the shot might unfold. The shot may be very close, very fast, and unsupported. Proficiency with fast offhand unsupported shooting is important in cat hunting.
Shooting standing (offhand) with no support is the most difficult and least precise of any shooting position. It’s a position a hunter hopes to never use, but since it’s the most difficult and may be required with cats, it should be practiced extensively before the safari.
Extreme precision is not required. As distance increases, the likelihood of being able to set up sticks or find a natural rest improves. As a goal, the prospective cat hunter should be able to raise the rifle, fire, and consistently hit a 10-inch paper plate out to about 60 yards. Practice with the rifle fully loaded, learning to work the action quickly and hit the plate multiple times.
In the event of an encounter at very close range or in the last instants of a charge, the game changes again. The shot must still be precise, but instead of being deliberately aimed, the rifle is now pointed, more like a shotgun. Shotgunning is thus very good practice for close-range encounters in extreme circumstances. Shooting clay targets can be combined with turn-and-fire rifle drills, using a target set at about seven yards.
The blind is usually approached with the rifle fully loaded and ready with the safety on. This is especially true with lions because they are much less nocturnal than leopards. Some blinds are elevated platforms while others are ground blinds. Either way, the chamber should be cleared before entering and exiting or climbing in and out of an elevated blind—no different than the safety protocol with a whitetail stand or blind. In most situations, once in the blind, the chamber is loaded, the safety is engaged, and the rifle is placed in a steady rest pointing more or less at the bait or aimed at the most likely shot (which can change). Ideally, the rifle is left with the safety engaged. But distances from blind to bait vary widely, and some mechanical safeties are much noisier than others. Once the rifle is securely nestled in its rest, the PH will sometimes direct for the safety to be in “fire” position. Everyone in the blind needs to be cognizant of this—especially the shooter.
It is almost unavoidable human nature to check the sights frequently during a long sit. This is done mostly out of nervousness and boredom, but it is beneficial by ensuring the rifle remains aimed as it should be and also monitoring light conditions through the scope. If the safety is not engaged, the shooter must be fully aware of this and ensure his or her hands and fingers stay away from the trigger guard. It is also important to ensure that the rifle is fully and steadily supported in the rest, and it cannot fall out of position.
The great cats are almost never stalked. They may be tracked to a shot, or the barking of hounds that have a leopard at bay may be stalked. A blind is almost always stalked because, however unlikely, a cat could be on the bait at any time of day. During the final phases of these movements the rifle will almost always be fully loaded (cartridge in the chamber, safety on)—not only to be ready but also to avoid the metallic noise of working the action in proximity to game. Again, muzzle control is essential, with the mechanical safety only as a backup system.
Crawling. Depending on terrain and vegetation, a lot or a little creeping and crawling may be required, perhaps to get into a final shooting position or simply to get to the blind with no chance of being seen. The biggest safety challenge comes when crawling is required. And this is potentially one of the most dangerous situations because many mechanical safeties can be brushed into firing position by grass and twigs. The trigger can also be snagged. Natural excitement doesn’t make it better! It is essential to focus on the muzzle, step by step, and ensure it is pointed in a safe direction. The muzzle can be offset to one side, or if one is in the rear of the line, the muzzle can be reversed.
Butt scooting. An alternative to crawling on hands and knees is to sit flat with legs forward, knees bent, and feet flat on the ground. The rifle is laid across the lap with the muzzle to either side in a safe direction and with arms straight and hands to the rear. Using legs and arms, you scoot forward a foot and then repeat. Although slow and uncomfortable, butt scooting is safer from a muzzle control standpoint. If any significant distance must be covered, it is also less strenuous than hands-and-knees and creates much less wear and tear on hands, knees, and rifle.
Leopards are not especially tough. On bait, a leopard is taken completely unaware, no adrenaline surging. With ideal shot placement a leopard will simply drop, and the “thump”—like a sack of wet cement hitting the ground—is the sweetest sound to a PH’s ear. Lions are more tenacious; it is rare for a lion to drop to the shot. More likely, there will be roaring and biting at the wound site, and the opportunity to fire again should be taken. Either cat, however, will succumb quickly to a well-placed shot. And either cat can go considerable distance with a poorly placed shot. A cat can survive long enough to either make his escape or lie in wait and attempt to wreak vengeance.
Leopards are small, and they’re really not especially tough. And on a bait, a leopard is taken completely unaware with no adrenaline surging. If a leopard is hit with really good shot placement, he’ll drop. And that sound of the leopard hitting the ground is a bit like a wet bag of cement dropping, and that’s probably the sweetest sound that a professional hunter can hear. Now, if the leopard exits the bait under its own power, it may still be fatally hit or may not be, but that’s not a good sign.
Lions are a lot more tenacious. A lion will usually not drop to even an ideally placed shot. Usually, a lion will roar and circle and bite at the wound site, and there’s often an opportunity for another shot. And then it should be taken.
Now, hit poorly, either cat is plenty tenacious enough to make good its initial escape. And then, like all animals, it’s either going to keep going or it’s going to circle, lie in wait, and wreak vengeance if it can.
Though instantly fatal if placed correctly, these shots aren’t recommended. The leopard offers too small of a target, especially in the poor light that’s common. And the lion’s mane often obscures the aiming point. The only exception is during the final moments of a charge, when the bullet must be placed in the open mouth, on the nose, or between the eyes.
This is the shot preferred by most African professional hunters for cats and everything else. The margin of error is not so great as the lung shot, but the target area is still maximized. This shot will break one or both shoulders. And even if the heart isn’t penetrated, it will take out the massive blood vessels leading to the heart, causing instantaneous and catastrophic loss in blood pressure. The shot will drop the leopard under the bait tree, which is the most desired outcome. A lion will probably not drop to this shot but will expire quickly.
With a broadside presentation, come up the center of the foreleg, one-third into the body. This shot will break heavy shoulder bone and take out either the top of the heart or the vessels above the heart. A hit slightly higher back will still be solidly in the lungs, but it’s important to stay below the horizontal halfway point.
The greatest risk with this shot is hitting too far forward, catching nothing but brisket. This is especially critical with cats. When a cat is reaching forward to feed, as is common on bait, the shoulders are almost dislocated, and the center of the shoulder is much too far forward. In this attitude or if the light is such that any slight quartering angle can’t be read, then the behind-the-shoulder lung shot may be safer.
This is the shot that American hunters often prefer because it offers the largest target while ruining very little edible meat. Most professional hunters discourage this shot because a lung shot will often require more tracking than the shoulder/heart shot. On cats, however, it may be a safer shot. As above, when feeding, the shoulder/heart shot is harder to visualize and may be misleading. Also, a lion’s extremely heavy mane may obscure the shoulder and confuse the aiming point on the shoulder/heart shot. As with all animals, a double lung shot is absolutely fatal, but expect the lion or leopard to exit the bait site under its own power, which means a formal follow-up must be organized, just in case.
With a broadside presentation, come up the backline of the foreleg. Divide the animal into horizontal thirds between belly line and backline. Just behind the shoulder, from the top of the bottom third to the center of the middle third, will be a central lung shot. Extreme care must be taken to avoid hitting too far back, and equal care must be taken to avoid hitting too high. Stay below that upper horizontal third.
Brain and neck. Though instantly fatal if placed correctly, these shots are not recommended. The leopard offers too small of a target, especially in the poor light that is common, and the lion’s mane often obscures the aiming point. The only exception is during the final moments of a charge—when the bullet must be placed in the open mouth, on the nose, or between the eyes.
Shoulder/heart shot. This is the shot preferred by most African PHs—for cats and everything else. The margin of error is not so great as the lung shot, but the target area is still maximized. This shot will break one or both shoulders. And even if the heart is not penetrated, it will take out the massive blood vessels leading to the heart, causing instantaneous and catastrophic loss in blood pressure. This shot will drop a leopard under the bait tree—the most desired outcome. A lion will probably not drop to this shot but will expire quickly.
With a broadside presentation, come up the center of the foreleg and one-third the body width into the shoulder. This shot will break heavy shoulder bone and take out either the top of the heart or the vessels above the heart.
A hit slightly high or back will still be solidly in the lungs, but it’s important to stay below the horizontal halfway point.
The greatest risk with this shot is hitting too far forward, catching nothing but brisket. This is especially critical with cats. When a cat is reaching forward to feed, as is common on bait, the shoulders are almost dislocated and the center of the shoulder is much too far forward. In this attitude or if the light is such that any slight quartering angle cannot be read, then the behind-the-shoulder lung shot may be safer.
Behind-the-shoulder lung shot. This is the shot that American hunters often prefer because it offers the largest target while ruining very little edible meat. Most PHs discourage this shot because a lung shot will often require more tracking than the shoulder/heart shot. On cats, however, it may be a safer shot. As above, when feeding, the shoulder/heart shot is harder to visualize and may be misleading. Also, a lion’s extremely heavy mane may obscure the shoulder and confuse the aiming point on the shoulder/heart shot. As with all animals, a double lung shot is absolutely fatal, but expect the leopard or lion to exit the bait site under its own power, which means a formal follow-up must be organized just in case.
Obviously, game animals don’t always stand perfectly broadside. It’s essential that the shooter properly visualize exactly how the animal’s standing, then envision where the vitals lie and adjust the sight picture accordingly.
On quartering angles, try to envision exactly where the center of the chest lies.
On angles other than broadside, both front legs will be visible, and there will be daylight showing between them. Divide the space between the front legs in half. Divide the light.
Come one-third to no more than one-half the horizontal width into the body.
Envisioning the center of the chest, aim behind the shoulder for quartering-away shots and from the point of the shoulder to inside the shoulder, between shoulder and neck, for quartering-to shots.
The frontal or facing shot is always tricky because the target is small. And if one’s aim slips to one side or the other, there’s risk of the bullet sliding along the inside of the shoulder without entering the chest cavity. However, if the distance is reasonable and the shooting position is steady, the frontal shot is deadly. Aim at the center of the chest, one-third up from the brisket.
With cats, especially leopard, it isn’t uncommon for the animal to sit on its haunches like a dog. Broadside, the best shot is to follow the backline of the front leg one-third into the body. Facing, aim for the center of the chest.
These are tricky because it’s extremely difficult to visualize exactly how the vitals lie. However, since the great cats lie up for about 20 hours per day, and leopards especially often lie down on the bait branch to feed. A lying-down presentation isn’t uncommon. It’s highly recommended to wait for the cat to stand. Sometimes, it’s not possible to wait, for instance, if the light is going quickly. Take your time, trying to visualize exactly how the cat is lying and the position of the chest cavity. Avoid shooting too high. And if you aren’t certain, don’t shoot.
On unwounded game, never. However, to prevent the escape of a wounded animal, the going-away or Texas heart shot is sometimes an option. Because of the animal’s speed and customary proximity to heavy bush, backup or follow-up shots on leopards at an angle are very unusual. They’re common with lions because a lion, like a bear, will often circle, roll, and bite at the wound site before succumbing to a well-placed bullet or exiting the area if the hit isn’t immediately fatal. Lacking certainty as to the exact placement and bullet performance of the first shot, additional shots to anchor the lion are wise. And this includes the going-away shot if presented.
Obviously game animals don’t always stand perfectly broadside. It is essential that the shooter properly visualize exactly how the animal is standing—envisioning where the vitals lie and adjust the sight picture accordingly.
Adrenaline is surging, and that’s good. But that’s not the time to throw away safety. After firing a shot immediately, make ready to shoot again if needed. With leopards, opportunities for additional shots are rare. In many blinds, it is impossible to see the base of the bait tree where the leopard might have fallen, and in many cases even if perfectly hit, the leopard makes one bound and has vanished into the close cover surrounding the typical bait site. However, although unusual, it is not unheard of for a first shot to miss and the leopard to stand still and offer a second opportunity. Work the action immediately—not only to be prepared for whatever might happen next but also so that the sound of the action is lost in the echoing roar of the rifle. With lions, a second shot is much more likely. The lion is probably moving, so the second shot may not be as well placed as the first. But it should be taken if the lion remains visible and you are certain he is the same lion you initially shot at. After the shooting has stopped, the hunters (you and your PH) will usually remain in place and listen and observe for a time. With cats auditory clues—crashing in brush, roaring and growling, labored breathing—are extremely important. Be quiet and listen, and do exactly what your PH tells you to do. There is much excitement and sometimes confusion, but your rifle is still the most dangerous thing in the bush. After the shot, be loaded and ready. But make safe while exiting the blind, and then reload before moving forward.
Time the move carefully. With cats, it is very rare to rush forward immediately. Most of the time, in a blind, it will be just you and the PH. So, typically, your PH will wait for his team to assemble before moving forward. There may be radio communication or, more likely, their instructions are to approach the blind after a shot is heard. Usually, you will wait for them before moving. Exceptions to this are usually based on time, distance, and impending darkness. If darkness is imminent you and your PH may make an initial inspection, based on what the PH saw and heard just after the shot. If the cat isn’t located almost immediately, caution dictates backing off until the team can be assembled and the situation assessed. The cat may be lying dead just a few yards away, but this isn’t known, so now you have a follow-up with a potentially wounded cat to be covered later.
Approach downed cats with extreme caution, and do not rush ahead of your PH and trackers. Approach with caution with your PH, and be ready. Check the animal carefully for any sign of life, rifle ready. Be fully aware of where your trackers and PH are. Once it is certain the animal is deceased unload your chamber.
Following up a wounded leopard is dangerous. Following up a wounded lion is deadly. Laws vary in different African areas and countries. In some areas, it’s completely illegal to shoot from a vehicle. But if the terrain and vegetation allows and if it’s legal, I strongly recommend that a vehicle be brought in for a follow-up on the cats. It’s not cowardly. It makes sense, because, you know what? It doesn’t really reduce the danger of the animal. Either cat can be on top of the vehicle in a flash. But it gives you some visibility. And while it’s preferable to not get anybody hurt during a follow-up, the real goal is to prevent the escape of a wounded animal. So, if possible, allow the PH to bring in a vehicle for that follow-up.
Of course, in many cases, the terrain and the vegetation simply won’t allow that. And so, you have to take the blood spoor, and you’re going to take it one slow step at a time, wherever it leads.
A large percentage of leopards and some number of lions are taken at last light. And this means that, by the time the PH can assess the situation and get a proper team assembled, it’s going to be dark. It’s extremely dangerous to follow up a wounded cat in the dark.
Now, in areas where there are hyenas, some attempt is probably going to be made, simply because if you don’t recover the cat relatively quickly, then it’s very likely that it’s going to be eaten. And that’s, of course, a terrible waste and a terrible shame. So, in hyena areas, a PH will normally make at least a limited attempt. Obviously, at some point, you have to conclude that you have the worst. But even in the dark, most professional hunters will take a track 50 yards, 75 yards, maybe as much as 150 yards. But by that time, you have to conclude that you have a wounded cat. And so, you're probably going to wait until the next day and assemble a proper team.
Obviously, much depends on what the professional hunter observed when the shot was fired and what he heard just after the shot was fired. He may know from the very beginning that this cat’s not hit properly, and it’s going to be a long night and maybe a longer day.
If there are other professional hunters in the area, then he’s often going to get on the radio and see if he can get another PH or two to come in and assist. And of course, he’s going to assemble his trackers, and they're going to talk it over and look at the spoor and decide what’s to be done—whether should take it for a while or wait until the following morning.
Depending on the professional hunter’s opinion of his client’s coolness and experience and safe gun handling, you as the hunter may be invited to go along on the follow-up, or the PH may prefer that you remain behind. Either way, this has to be altogether the professional hunter’s call. He’s the one who has the license. He’s responsible for the safety of the party. So, whatever his decision is, you need to go with it. But if you’re invited along, you may not love it.
As with all wounded animals, the cat’s going to be followed until he’s either found or he finds you or the blood trail diminishes and is lost. And it could be any one of these events. Because of the cat’s camouflage and smaller size relative to, say, a buffalo or an elephant, a follow-up on a cat is much more likely to result in a charge, and especially with leopards. It can turn into a wild melee.
The lion will usually pick one person and make the charge and continue through until he’s stopped. But the leopard, who’s probably going to come from closer range and has speed on his side, the leopard is likely to jump from one person to another.
The maximum that I’ve heard of is six people mauled in one follow-up. But it happens. Two or three is very common, and more than that happens now and again. So, you have to understand that now you have an enraged cat hissing and spitting and clawing and snarling and jumping from one person to another, sort of like a runaway chainsaw.
The most dangerous thing out there is still the rifle. If you’re asked to go on the follow-up, this is serious business. Take your assigned place. Keep up. Keep your rifle on safe under control of both hands, muzzle in a safe direction, and try to be aware of where every member of the party is at every time.
A cat charge can come from very close quarters, and it can come from any angle at any time. Unfortunately, there have been a lot of accidental shootings during follow-ups with both lions and leopards. If a cat has someone down, probably the only safe angle to finish it is to get very, very low and parallel and make absolutely certain that all members of the party are clear. Hey, this takes some real cool thinking and things are happening awfully fast and a little bit messy.
In darkness, there’s some advantage that the cat’s eyes will shine in the light and offer a shot before a charge is launched. So, there’s a slight advantage. But obviously, it’s terribly dangerous in the dark. Again, most professional hunters will take a track for 50, 75, maybe 150 yards in the dark. And then most will agree that it’s time to call it off until the morning, and then the follow-up will start in earnest.
Following up a wounded leopard is dangerous. Following up a wounded lion is deadly. In some African countries and areas (game laws are often different between public and private lands), it is strictly illegal to shoot from a vehicle. However, if legal and the vegetation and terrain allow, it is highly recommended (and not cowardly) to bring in a vehicle for the follow-up.
Protection is scant; either cat can jump onto the vehicle in a flash. The real advantage is the elevation gives better visibility, and while it’s preferable to avoid human injury, the real goal is to prevent the loss of a wounded animal.
Often, it is not possible to bring in a vehicle. The blood trail must be taken one step at a time and followed wherever it leads.
At least 60 percent of leopards and some number of lions are taken at last light. This means it’s dark by the time the situation is assessed, the team assembled, and a follow-up can begin. Following up a wounded cat in the dark compounds the danger; most PHs prefer to wait until the following morning. However, in areas where there are hyenas, waiting until morning runs a huge risk of the cat being eaten before he can be found. Understanding this, most PHs will make at least a limited attempt in the dark.
If the cat isn’t found dead in close proximity to the bait site, then the worst case must be assumed: The cat is wounded, and an organized follow-up is necessary. Based on what the PH observed and heard when and just after the shot was fired, this may already be known, but for safety’s sake, it must be assumed. If other PHs are in the area and communications are available, help is often requested. Depending on the PH’s opinion of his or her client’s experience, coolness, and safe gun handling, the client may be asked to join or may be asked to remain behind. Either way, this is purely the PH’s call, no arguing.
As with all animals, wounded cats may be followed until the blood trail diminishes and is lost. But wounded cats are at least somewhat more likely to charge than the larger thick-skinned dangerous game. Because of size and camouflage, a cat will usually launch from closer range, and because of speed, it is more likely to get through. So, a charge may turn into a wild melee. This is especially true with leopards, which will often leap from person, scratching and biting and then dashing away. Multiple persons have often been injured by a single wounded leopard, with six the known record.
Unfortunately, the rifle—especially in nervous and inexperienced hands—is still more dangerous than the cat. If asked to go on a follow-up, take your assigned place, keep your rifle on safe and under control of both hands. At all times, be certain you know exactly where every other person in the party is. Keep up and be alert, listening as well as watching. Both lions and leopards usually telegraph their charge—the lion with tail-lashing and growling and the leopard with amazingly hair-raising roars as he launches. You cannot shoot unless you know the shot is clear, and if a cat has another member of the party down, the only safe shot is probably from a very low angle.
In darkness, there is some advantage in that the cat’s eyes will shine in the lights and may offer a shot before a charge comes. But since an attack can come from any angle, the danger is extreme. In areas where there are hyenas, most PHs will follow at night for 150 or 200 yards, hoping to find the animal dead or at least incapacitated. This can seem a very long way in the dark, and many charges occur within this distance. If the cat is not found, then most PHs will call off the search until daylight and then start again.
Anticipation is part of the fun of any safari, but smart preparation will make any safari more successful.
For further study:
African literature. These works are unusually rich, and many of the great old classics are still in print. There are excellent books available about both lion and leopard hunting, and there are also books specifically about shot placement, including lion and leopard, that are invaluable for careful study.
Films and videos. While it’s wise to be wary of any unnecessarily sensationalized media, the rich body of films, television shows, and videos (both amateur and professional) offer a good way to become visually familiar with Africa’s wildlife and terrain. Because both lions and leopards are high-profile animals, there are excellent films available about the hunting of both, some including excellent visuals for studying shot placement.
Hunting cats over bait is obviously not physically demanding. But be aware that the days and sometimes weeks of hanging baits, checking baits, building blinds, traveling to and from blinds in the dark, and sitting over baits requires long hours and allows less time for sleep than most African hunting. It is mentally demanding and, if the hunt drags on, can be exhausting.
Tracking generally requires more walking, but tracking is conducted at a slow measured pace. Hunting leopard with dogs is the most physically demanding form of cat hunting. It is virtually impossible for hunters to keep up with the hounds. But once a cat is bayed or treed, it’s essential to get there as quickly as possible, which can mean a lot of scrambling and climbing in extremely rough terrain.
Shooting accurately is a key to the success of any hunt. The more practice time one can manage in the months and weeks before the hunt is to the good. However, there are no bench rests in the African game fields, so practice smart.
Always consult your doctor before planning any distant hunt, or beginning a training regimen for any hunt. That said, medical preparations for most great cats safaris are minimal.
Temporary firearms importation and visa requirements vary with countries (and visa requirements vary depending on your country of origin). Both are subject to change. Discuss these requirements with your outfitter well ahead of your safari, and be clear as to what actions are required and who (you or your outfitter) is supposed to do them.
It is essential to obtain the most up-to-date information while planning your hunt. Good sources include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service permit office, Safari Club International, Dallas Safari Club, and Conservation Force. Your African outfitter or PH may not be familiar with the latest U.S. regulations, but an American hunting consultant or booking agent will be.
Traveling with firearms is increasingly difficult. Some carriers no longer carry firearms, and many carriers require advance notice. Some interim destinations require special permits to transit with firearms. The simplest and safest solution is usually to use a “firearms-and-hunting-savvy” travel agent to help sort through the labyrinth, but if you book your travel yourself, speak to an airline representative and make sure all requirements are fully understood.
With current baggage restrictions it’s advisable to pack light. This is generally possible on an African safari because weather is usually mild and, unlike hunting camps in many areas, laundry is done on a more or less daily basis.
Binoculars are mandatory, likewise good sunglasses. Most PHs, but not all, today have rangefinders, so a compact rangefinder is handy. Spotting scopes are not in widespread use in Africa but in more open areas can be invaluable. Ask your PH if you should bring one.
Cleaning kit. Africa is hard on firearms. Dust is the major issue, but once in a while, insects nest in gun barrels (overnight). Bring minimal cleaning gear: oil, solvent, patches, and jointed cleaning rod.
Rifle sling, scope caps, soft gun case, belt ammunition pouch, hearing protection. In the blind, it is wise to remove your rifle sling—both to reduce noise and avoid any impediment to movement if you must shift the rifle to bring it to bear. Consider wearing noise-amplifying hearing protection in the blind.
Ammunition. Required amounts vary depending on length of safari and size of bag, but running low isn’t fun, and running out is a problem. Think about two to three cartridges for each animal you plan to hunt along with spares for zeroing and checking zero periodically. For one rifle, 60 rounds is usually more than adequate. For two rifles, 40 each is usually plenty. Either number will fall well within the maximum 5-kilogram or 11-pound baggage limit for ammunition.
Firearms must be packed separately in sturdy locked cases. Make sure your hinges are secure and the hasps allow the case to be securely locked. Always declare firearms and ammunition when you approach any ticket counter.
In the United States, up to 5 kilograms or 11 pounds of ammunition in original factory containers can be in checked baggage, separate from firearms. In Europe and South Africa, the same weight limit applies, but ammunition must be checked separately in its own locked case (wood, metal, or plastic). The simplest approach is to get a small, sturdy ammunition case and pack it in your duffel bag with locks inside but not locked when you leave the United States. In this fashion, you are ready to comply if required during a plane change or stopover.
While baggage handling is generally reliable, delays and lost bags do occur anywhere in the world. Pack your carry-on bag as if it were the only bag you will receive! You can usually borrow a rifle and ammo and purchase basic clothing articles, so mandatory in the carry-on are binoculars, camera, extra prescription glasses, all prescription medications for the full period of your hunt. Don’t have a cold? For hunts over bait, bring a bag of good cough drops anyway, perhaps out of nervousness, just about everybody has to cough in the blind at least once! Include in your carry-on one change of clothes and anything else you simply cannot live without for two weeks.
Luggage must be rugged and waterproof, but soft duffel bags are better than hard-sided luggage because they are easier to fit into vehicles and smaller final transport to camp.
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