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The Great Hunters

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The Leopard stalks its prey by Victor Pohl

In their early manhood Victor Pohl and his brother Eric made a number of hunting trips into the big-game country on the borders of Portuguese East Africa. With them they took a trusted guide, Mosillikaas, and other Africans. These men maintained that the leopard was the most dangerous animal. It was shortly afterwards that they met one.

All hunters are agreed about the leopard’s (1) ferocity and cunning. But the fact remains that very few big-game hunters ever get a glimpse of these cats, for the leopard is almost entirely a nocturnal beast and is so cunning and secretive that those whose objective is big game seldom if ever encounter him.

Eric came into the camp one evening with the news that he had wounded a roan (2) bull about a mile away at the foot of a koppie, and we decided to follow up the spoor in the morning, for with us it was an established principle never to let wounded die a lingering death if it was all possible to prevent it.

Madoomi served our coffee as the first hint of dawn showed in the east, and before the birds were well awake and on the wing, and when duiker (3) and reedbuck (4) were still slowly picking their way to cover, we had almost halved the distance to our objective. When we reached the koppie we climbed it in the hope of seeing the remainder of the herd, if not the bull himself, from the vantage point, for these animals have a habit of remaining in the vicinity of their wounded unless they are stampeded, which Eric assured us had not happened.

These bushveld koppies are always much harder to climb than would appear from a distance, and we were thankful when we reached the summit, for rank vegetation and boulders of every size and shape barred the way at every step, as if flung there by some giant hand.

At the foot of the koppie, and at a distance of about a hundred yards, was an open space almost devoid of trees where the grass had been burnt about a month previously and which now had the appearance of a light-green carpet; but as we were searching the park-like plain below we at first failed to notice a duiker feeding right in the middle of it.

“Bushman Hunters on the Move” from an illustration by Jane Heath in Victor Pohl’s Farewell the Little People, 1968

Coerney, the Baby Elephant” from Major Pretorius’s Jungle Man, 1947

“Wolhuter preparing to knife the Lion” – an impression by C.T. Astley-Maberly in Memories of a Game Ranger, 1948

Presently, however, we caught a glimpse of the dainty little antelope, and almost simultaneously a hardly perceptible movement at the edge of the clearing caught Eric’s eye. We had only just whispered “Kiing?” (5) when Mosillikaas answered under his breath “Inque” (6). Bosveld who was held in leash, had already caught the leopard’s wind and was straining at the thong. But one word from Eric was enough, and she immediately took up a position behind us, where she stood shivering, not from fear but from excitement, for she had already had encounters with practically every carnivorous beast, and the intelligent and faithful brute knew exactly what was expected of her and what part she had to play.

And there in the growing light we suddenly realized that here at our very feet a drama was about to be enacted that perhaps no white man had ever witnessed, that of a leopard stalking its prey. It approached in such a way that the slight breeze was entirely in its favour, and it was quite plain that the buck was blissfully unaware of the threatening danger; but in the manner of all antelopes he would nibble for a few moments and then lift his head for a space for the purpose of carefully scanning his immediate surroundings, never afraid or worried, yet always vigilant to the last degree. About fifty yards separated the hunter from the hunted, and between them, about twenty yards from the leopard, were a few tufts of grass about a foot high. We were speculating as to whether the leopard would make his dash from the edge of the clearing, when the buck lowered his head, and the leopard simultaneously shifted forward a distance of about three yards with belly brushing the earth, and head, body, and tail forming an almost straight line.

So silently and swiftly was this movement accomplished that it had the appearance of a block of ice sliding down a short decline; and long before the buck lifted his head the leopard had once more turned into a statue, and even if the antelope’s gaze had been directly focused on the leopard it would not have taken it for anything more dangerous than a stone or a tuft of grass.

Every time the buck lowered his head to graze the leopard advanced, sometimes two or three yards, and sometimes only a foot. There was something uncanny and incalculable in these movements, for we had barely marked the position of the leopard when he seemed to have been mysteriously spirited on by some subtle force for a yard or two, till at last he reached those tufts of grass beyond which there was no cover, not even for a leopard, and we realized, amid tense excitement, that the moment for the final act was at hand. About thirty yards separated them now, and beyond the antelope the clearing extended for another fifty yards, which it would have to cover before it could reach the safety of the bush. Once more the buck lowered his head to resume his grazing and we felt convinced the moment had arrived; but some subtle instinct told the leopard to withhold his charge, and almost immediately the antelope raised his head again.

Up till now the buck had stood broadside on, but as he resumed his feeding he turned and presented his hindquarters to the marauder, and ere his head was half-way down the leopard shot forward, and so incredibly swift were his actions that fifteen yards must have been covered in about half a second; but the slight noise he inevitably made in doing so roused the duiker to instant action, for he leapt yards away from where he had been standing the minutest fraction of a second before. The reactions of all the denizens of the wilds are amazingly swift when danger threatens, and the duiker has proved by his ubiquitousness that he has no peer in this respect; but even so we were trilled by the wonderful agility this brave little fellow displayed in his dash for freedom. Not twice did he leap in the same direction, but he zigzagged at every bound, sometimes turning completely at right angles the moment his feet touched the ground, and for one moment it seemed as though he would elude his pursuer, but alas, that fifteen yards start proved just insufficient, for the leopard sometimes covered as much as twenty feet in his relentless zigzag course, and eventually landed clean on the duiker’s back not more than five yards from the sheltering bush. The next second he stood over a lifeless form while he furtively surveyed the scene as if to make sure he had not been observed. He then seized the buck just where neck and body meet and half carried and half dragged it along for a distance of about three yards, when leopard and victim vanished into thick cover.

Up to this moment we had completely forgotten that the marauder had been at our mercy had we wished to destroy it, for we had been spectators of a drama so intensely interesting and exciting that it would have amounted almost to a crime interfere had it occurred to us to do so; but on the leopard’s disappearance Mosillikaas broke the silence by saying in a voice filled with emotion:

‘He is gone with the meat!’

Our point of view was completely lost on him, and he was plainly indignant, not only at the leopard’s escape, but because the marauder had been allowed to carry off the buck as well. All thought of the roan bull was now set aside for the time being, and we had a short consultation as to how to proceed in regard to the leopard. We knew it would be the work of a few minutes only for the experienced Bosveld to bring him to bay, but we were also well aware that we were risking the life of an uncommonly faithful and valuable dog in the process, for a leopard in possession of its prey is about the most ferocious beast on earth, especially if it happens to be a female with cubs in the vicinity.

The whole matter was resolved by Bosveld’s somehow slipping her leash and making off after the marauder without our being aware of it, and eventually we heard her bark about two hundred yards away in a deep donga covered with ‘wait-a-bit’ thorns (7) and rank undergrowth of unusual density.

We penetrated as far as we could into this forbidding stronghold, but snarls and coughing grunts and a headlong retreat on the part of Bosveld in our direction, made us realize the risk we were taking and we promptly fell back to the foot of the koppie, there to confer and to decide on further action. We then decided that I should proceed to a point where the donga narrowed, and that Eric and Mosillikaas should attempt to drive the leopard in my direction with the aid of Bosveld and by throwing stones and firing into the thickest parts. I accordingly took up my position at the appointed place and began my vigil, and soon after the din began on the opposite side.

Presently Bosveld once more gave tongue and Eric fired two shots in rapid succession in the direction whence the grunts and snarls came, then for some time all was quiet and I was just beginning to fear that the leopard had given us the slip when about ten yards away in the dry water-course I plainly heard an animal on the move and raised myself in readiness to fire; but to my surprise instead of a leopard I saw Bosveld hot on the spoor of the marauder where he had sneaked past me at a distance of about ten yards without making the slightest sound to attract my attention! I would never have believed it possible for any animal to move through bush, grass, and shrub with less noise than a grasshopper might make, and I was more than ever impressed with the cunning and stealth of these cats.

But to-day the brute had to deal with an enemy that was quite unlike anything he had ever encountered before, for Bosveld had no intention of closing with him in battle, and although she made full use of her speed and agility when pursued she returned to the attack again and again and led us nearer and nearer our quarry. So persistent was our sagacious and gallant ally that at last she treed the leopard, for we caught a glimpse of her circling round a big trunk; and for the first time the look of concern left Mosillikaas face. He knew that a leopard would only seek the safety of a tree if he had a wholesome respect for his pursuer, and that he would not descend unless he was forced to do so. This return of confidence nearly led to his undoing, for he rushed forward in advance of us and through a miscalculation found himself right underneath the branch to which the leopard had ascended; but luckily for him he had the presence of mind to stand perfectly still while Bosveld held the brute’s attention by barking furiously and circling round the tree.

Simultaneously Eric and I sighted our quarry, and instantly realizing the danger that threatened our guide we raised our rifles and fired as one man. The effect was startling in the extreme, for the leopard dropped nearly on Mosillikaas’s head, and as it was impossible for him to know whether the animal was dead or merely wounded it can be imagined what a shock he received.

We knew, however, the moment we had fired that the leopard was stone dead, so that the humour of the situation was not lost on us when our terrified companion beat a precipitate retreat! But once he realized that the leopard was killed all the savage and uncontrolled instincts of the primitive man asserted themselves, and rushing forward he pierced the now prostrate form time and again while Bosveld mauled and tugged at its throat.

Notes

  • The leopard’s ferocity. (Panthera pardus) A carnivorous animal/ erroneously called a ‘tiger’ (tier) by the Boers. Preys on baboon, monkeys, small buck etc.
  • A roan bull. Roan antelope (Hippotragus equines). Sometimes called the Bastard Eland. A large antelope, with dark brown head showing white patches and a white muzzle. Good eating.
  • Duiker. A small solitary antelope. Various types including the Red (Cephalophus natalensis) and the Blue (Cephalophus monticola)
  • Reedbuck. Also Rietbok (Redunca arundinum). A small antelope with a speckled coat. Found in thick vegetation.
  • “Kiing.” What is it?
  • “Inque” Leopard
  • ‘Wait-a-bit’ thorns. The Afrikaans wag-n-bietjie is more frequently heard. Variously applied to thorny species of shrub in different localities.