A (spotted) legend in the making
No I am not on an ego trip. Believe me I have done this job long enough and I realised long ago that there is no place for an inflated ego in the wilds of Africa. What I am referring to is a particular leopard in Northern Mozambique that I have been after for two solid years now. In one of my previous blog posts I spoke about him with admiration. Well after this year’s season my admiration for him has only grown and if anything has furthered my desire and focus to connect with him in a coming season.
This particular cat I am talking about favoured a sausage tree on the Lucinge and Kambala river confluences. We started calling him Sausage tree cat, but due to his distinct markings on his left flank we ended up calling him Peanut instead.
A friend of mine started the 2022 season in L7 with a lion and leopard hunt in July and I was responsible for doing the baiting. I had 18 leopard on bait of which 7 were tom cats – phenomenal leopard action by any measure! As luck would have it I placed a bait west of a mountain range called Marangamaranga and I had a cat hit the first night that the bait was up. I vectored my friend on to the bait and the following night he sealed the deal with a very old leopard before last light. The night after this, Peanut made an appearance on a bait in his favourite Sausage tree and we could only watch the trail camera photos with admiration as he languidly demolished the zebra leg I had hung for him. I was excited. I had an American client due in a week and I was hoping Peanut would stick around for me to finally meet him.
Leopard hunting is a funny game. It can be frustrating, and it can be exciting. My American client duly arrived, and we set to baiting with a fervour. I had told him all about Peanut and how he had, through quirk of fate, dodged me the previous year. I desperately wanted to connect with him. But as any hunter knows it is foolhardy to pin all your leopard hopes on one bait, and we duly set up a good bait circuit with 8 well placed baits throughout the area I wanted to target. Due to me having been the baiting man on the previous hunt I had identified 4 Tom cats that I wanted to target, Peanut being one of them.
The one morning we were trundling past a thicket in a ‘vlei’ and very luckily encountered a leopard trying to kill a small warthog. We didn’t get all that great a look at the event but we certainly heard the plaintive squeals of the small ‘hog. Due to our proximity to the situation the cat dropped the pig and slunk off. I happened to have a front leg of Zebra in the back of the truck and before long the bait was hoisted aloft into a Water berry tree nearby and the trail camera set to capture the action. That night the cat returned and absolutely demolished the bait. To the point where I didn’t think he would return as there was pretty much just a bone hanging in the tree. Disaster! We tried hanging an old piece of kudu but I knew that this cat, who we had nicknamed Muha after the vlei we had found him in, would not return. As it was I was proven correct; Muha cat didn’t return. However in another astounding turn of events he had walked down the road and hit one of our baits 8 kilometres to the north. Further fuelling the excitement was the fact that Peanut had found the very same bait as well – a full 12 kilometres away from his usual hang out. One might be curious or doubtful as to how I can tell these cats apart, but it is quite simple. I diligently study the spot patterns on the flanks and heads of these cats and the research has paid dividends. So now we had two different big cats feeding on the same bait, and both were daylight feeders.
The urgency in our actions shifted a gear and we built the blind in silence. I had a pop up deer blind from the States and, combined with a bit of natural shrubbery and grass, they work wonders. Within 20 min the blind was complete, and the shooting stand positioned just so. In the winter months in Niassa, the cats are mainly daylight feeders, necessitating us to enter the blind early. By 1530hr we were ensconced in the blind and eagerly awaiting the action. Andy, our cameraman caught the first flicker of movement at 1700hr. A cat had arrived and lay down in the grass off to our right, just tantalising out of sight to me and the client. The tsetse flies were bothering him and it was a flick of the head that Andy had caught. The cat was guarding the bait and he lay there for 30 minutes. Eventually the flies and his hunger got the better of him and he padded to the base of the tree. A swift leap was all it took and he was on the horizontal bait branch where the meat hung, fastened to the limb with nylon rope. The afternoon light was fading fast and I frantically searched the spot pattern for recognition – it was Muha cat, our warthog hunter. The distinct markings at the base of the tail gave him away. We watched him feed for a few minutes, the three of us in the blind willingly him to stand in the broadside position. Eventually the cat obliged and no sooner were the words, “yes take him”, out of my mouth when the client accurately placed a TSX behind the cat’s shoulder. The result was immediate and definitive – the tomcat crumpled and fell. The spotted beauty expired right there under the tree.
We exited the blind. Excitement, relief and disbelief in equal measure still palpable within the group. Muha cat was a beauty. I had to measure him three times for the mandatory Niassa Reserve research obligations as I wasn’t convinced I had done it right. But the tape didn’t lie – it is the longest cat I have taken in the Niassa and his SCI skull size a full inch bigger than the average cat from these parts of the world. I was happy. The client was happy. And Andy got some unbelievable leopard hunting footage. The photo session in a dried riverbed close to the scene was lengthy. The happiness was evident in the raised voices and laughter. Eventually we loaded up our prize and started our long drive to camp. For some reason I glanced at my watch and made a note of the time.
The following morning we hunted down this same road and as is customary, we stopped at the bait to dismantle the blind, drop the bait and recover our equipment. The bait had been fed on heavily since we left the night before. I was curious to see what the trail camera told me. It was Peanut. He climbed the tree and started feeding a mere 20 minutes after we had left with Muha cat in the back of the truck. Without a doubt he must have watched the whole episode – the gunshot, the talking, the noise, everything. However this didn’t stop him coming in and laying claim to that which Muha cat had lost! I wondered if this activity would have ‘educated’ him for future hunts. Knowing how relaxed Niassa cats are, I doubt it. A few days later we were still dropping baits at a leisurely pace. The last one we had to drop was due north, roughly 15km, from where we shot Muha cat and where Peanut had snuck in after the act. The bait had been hammered hard. Even though we had ‘tagged out’, the excitement bubbled. I placed the SD card in the reader and the results where astonishing. Peanut had found this bait too and as was his custom, pigging out to hearts content! On all the baits that he has hit over the last two years, he has been a daylight feeder and has never been what I consider a clever or sneaky cat. He just happens to find the bait after we have killed a leopard in another locale. Over the past two years he has survived four leopard hunts – three of which I have actively targeted him. By some turn of fate, I have killed four big leopard in this time, and he has managed to unwittingly escape. He is an old cat, of that there is no doubt. In 2021 he was big and old. In 2022 I noticed a definite drop in weight. Not much, but it is noticeable even on the trail cameras. Maybe it’s his advanced years dictating that he scavenges so readily off my baits? His dewlap has grown, and that is a sure indicator of age. His teeth are yellow and worn and his face is testament to the fights and hard years he has endured. I have leopard hunts planned in 2023 and you can rest assured I will be targeting this old legend. I hope the wet season is good to him and that we meet one day in the Niassa.