My old Toyota land cruiser rocked lightly side to
side in the soft mangwe sand. We were following the old Embakwe
Mission road, heading south. Botswana lay only a dozen miles to my
west – or right hand side – and looking that way I could see the
endless miles of monotonous grey thorn and stunted Mopani stretching
away to the horizon.
To my left, the rocky jumbled hills of the Matobo
rose haphazardly out of the bush. Thousands of these "koppies" as
they are known here, march in an east-west line, some forty miles
deep, all the way from Gwanda in the east, to this dry thornland on
the Botswana border.
Next to me sat a Canadian hunter named Gunter
Strangeman. Gunter is an amiable likeable fellow who had been
referred us by Sidney Lovell-Parker- a friend of ours from Brazil.
Sidney has taken two giant Leopard with us in this western Matobo
area and he had told Gunter "The western Matobo Hills is the place
to go". I was determined to live up to Sidney’s recommendations.
Four days before Gunter arrived I received a
telephone call from a friend who ranches cattle in the Mangwe area.
"Old man Fourie stopped here at my place yesterday" he told me "He
said that he’s been having problems with a leopard. Apparently it’s
one that escaped from a trap a few years ago. This cat has really
started to knock his calves lately and he wanted to know if I knew
of anyone who had any decent dogs. I told him that I don’t, and I
also told him that you had a client coming out for leopard soon."
"What did he say to that?" I asked.
"Actually he laughed" my friend answered. "He said
that if he can’t kill the damned thing with gin traps, poison and
shotgun traps, there’s no way in hell any of us young fools will
kill it unless we had a good team of dogs".
Old man Fourie had no telephone on his farm so I
decided to just go down there with my client and a very light fly
camp in the hope that he would give me permission to camp out on his
farm and let me try to hunt the calf killer.
Mr. Fourie was a strange, tough, eccentric old man.
No one knew exactly how old he was. Some of the older settler
families in the district said that Mr. Fourie had arrived in the
area in 1947 with two mules, a rifle and very little else. They said
he appeared at that time to be a young man of about twenty, but they
couldn’t be sure. It was now 2004, so I reckoned he had to be in his
Even though I had been hunting this area for 17
years, I had not had much to do with the old man. His personality
did little to encourage visitors, and he attended no district social
functions. He had very little game on his farm, so none of us had
much reason or interest to pay him social calls, or any other calls
for that matter. Graham told me that there was a beautiful dam on
the Fourie place, and this dam held amazing numbers of large bream.
No one bothered to ask for permission to fish for them.
It was with reservation that I slowed down at the
two huge old gum trees which marked his entrance gate. I had briefed
Gunter on the reception we were likely to receive and he decided to
remain in the car. When I pulled up to the homestead the only living
thing I could see was a bony old dog who lay against the house
licking his balls. It stood up when we drove in and gave several big
deep barks. I saw that the dog was an elderly Rhodesian Ridgeback
with an old scar across its left flank.
As I got out of the vehicle a screen door clapped
somewhere and old man Fourie came out onto the veranda. He was
dressed in dirty khaki longs and an old vest that may once have been
white. He had on a large stained felt hat that was approaching the
end of its life, and in his right hand he held a beaten up old pipe
that was smoking away by itself.
"Morning Mr. Fourie" I said, walking toward the
"Morning" he answered. Nothing else.
Since the old fellow’s demeanor invited no chit chat
I decided to get right to it. "Graham told me that you have been
having trouble with a leopard"
The old man’s response could have been agreement or
query, I couldn’t be sure. It sounded something like "Eya hummmh!"
I pushed on. "Well, if you will give me permission,
I can try to kill that leopard for you – I’ll pay you for it too."
He took a suck at the dirty pipe, exhaled, then gave
me a smile which was actually more like a sneer, showing large
yellow teeth under a bristling white and brown moustache.
"You got dogs?"
"No" I answered him. "I don’t use dogs, Mr. Fourie,
but I have killed a lot of leopards with my clients – and most of
them have been cattle killers" – "I’m not a new boy in this game" I
Suddenly he turned, moving up onto the veranda.
"Come sit" he said. It sounded more like the Afrikaans "Kom sit".
I sat down on one of three metal garden chairs which
surrounded a rickety wood table.
"I have a client in the car" I told the old man
assuming that Gunter would be invited in.
"Leave him there" Mr. Fourie said. "Let’s talk first
about this skelm".
Skelm is an Afrikaans word meaning cunning, or
dishonestly clever – quite apt for a calf killer I thought.
Old man Fourie proceeded to give me the history as
he knew it, of the cattle killer. Three years ago a large leopard
started taking calves from the calving paddock behind the house. Mr.
Fourie set a shotgun trap at one of the dead calves, but
unfortunately this was triggered by a brown hyena, who apparently
escaped wounded. Perhaps the cat had been nearby, and was frightened
off by the blast of the shotgun – because there were no more calves
taken for nearly a year. Then the calves started disappearing once
Again, a large leopard was to blame. This time the
old man carefully laid a large gin trap (bear trap). "The Skelm came
back to the calf" the old man said "Petros heard the thing roaring
and carrying on down by the stone wall and he said he also heard the
rattling and other noises of the trap and chain". He paused to take
another suck at the pipe, but this time it only gurgled a bit and no
smoke came out.
"Petros woke me up and we went down to the stone
wall together. I had set the trap where the wall runs up into the
koppie. I had my bulala lamp strapped to my head, and my .303 in my
hand. Petros carried his axe and came behind me."
I thought that checking a leopard trap in the middle
of the night was a foolish thing to do, but I did not say so. The
old man pulled a crumpled bag from his pocket and proceeded to fill
his pipe with stringy black stuff that looked to me like tree bark.
"Well, we reached the wall, but the skelm was gone."
"I heard from Piet Liebenburg that I should not have tied the chain
to the tree, he says I should have let the damn animal go away with
the trap then follow it in the morning." "I don’t know." "Anyway,
the trap was sprung and the skelm left three toes and some flesh
from his foot behind. In the morning I tried to follow the blood,
but it soon dried up."
By this time the old man had the pipe filled and he
struck a match and held it to the nasty mess. It flared briefly and
then he began to tamp the flaming mix with his thumb. It was yellow
and calloused with cracks and old skin and that thumb reminded me of
the skin on an elephant’s foot. I half expected it to start sizzling
but Mr. Fourie tamped away absentmindedly.
"About four months later he was back killing my
young cattle. But now he was clever. We knew it was him because the
track of his front right foot showed no toes. Just a scuffed mark in
the dust." "Petros and I put poison in the calves, but now this
skelm never comes back to his kill. He kills, then goes away. A
week, maybe two weeks later, he is back." The old man stared off
into the bush, contemplating the cat, I’m sure.
this devil has taken more than twenty of my cattle over the last
three years" he said.
The old man stood up suddenly and the brown dog
stood too, knocking its elbows noisily on the wood floor of the
"Well, you can try to kill the skelm if you want to"
he said, looking down at the floor then up at me. "Just don’t let
your rich American give me complaints when you’ve wasted his time
"He’s German-Canadian" I answered.
He looked at me like I was simple, then emitted
another "Eya hummh" and he and the dog went inside.
Gunter, myself and the two trackers set up camp
about three miles south of the homestead. Petros, Mr. Fourie’s
foreman, showed us the way to a small dam which was surrounded by
low koppies and several shady fig trees. Camp was very basic – I had
checked first with Gunter if he was willing to rough it, and he had
answered that camping out with tents and camp staff, and ice and
cool boxes, was not roughing it at all.
Once camp was set up, we sat down in the shade with
Petros, who proceeded to give us a complete run down of the
leopard’s war over the years with Mr. Fourie. Petros referred to Mr.
Fourie as Mbongolo – which means mule in Isindebele. He could
shed no light on how or why Mr. Fourie had earned this name. I
supposed it could have something to do with the fact that the old
man had arrived in this area on the back of a mule. Or just as
easily, I guessed that it could have something to do with his stoic
stubbornness. Petros constantly referred to the leopard as sutaan
(satan) or mtagati (magic).
After Gunter and I had eaten a light lunch we told
Petros to show us where he believed the leopard’s "home" area was.
Petros looked at me as if I was testing him with a joke. "The
leopard lives behind Mbongolo’s house Bwana" he stated "Mbongolo
told you that."
I was puzzled. "Mbongolo said that indeed the
leopard hung around the house area in order to take cattle", I
answered "but leopards have very big areas which they call home. The
leopard could be many miles away at this moment."
"Not this leopard Bwana, come, we can go back to the
house, I will show you where this Mtagati lives."
We drove around the homestead and parked by the
stone wall Mr. Fourie had mentioned. Looking north, about a
kilometre away, a sort of crescent was formed by five or six koppies.
The centre most koppie was the largest, and it rose up about 900
feet higher than the scrubby thorn bush which lay in front of it.
"The mtagati leopard lives in there" Petros announced,
pointing at the koppies.
The following day Gunter, the trackers and I scouted
amongst, and around the range of koppies behind the house. We worked
hard. The koppies were actually a lot deeper than they appeared from
the front, or south. It was rugged ground. A leopard had in fact
been in these hills recently. My tracker, Bee, found tracks that
seemed to be about four or five days old, but there was no fresh
sign and no way of telling when exactly the cat had walked there,
and indeed, even if the tracks belonged to the cattle killer.
This was a new situation for me. We shoot just about
all of our leopards off of baits or off of natural kills. I don’t
run dogs and I have never been successful in calling a leopard with
a predator caller. According to Mr. Fourie and Petros this wily old
campaigner did not come back to his kills – so even if we were lucky
enough to find one, it seemed that it would be of no benefit to us
I decided to put a bait out and sit over it. My
reasoning was that skelm may not come back to his feed a second
time, but if we were lucky, and right there when he first found the
bait, then we could probably get a shot at him. We managed to find a
small group of impala that first afternoon, and I shot one of them.
Petros showed us a well-worn path that snaked
between two koppies. One koppie was considerably larger than the
other, and it was thickly covered with Malalangwe and various
Combretum bushes. Here and there huge fig trees threw dense
shade over the rocks.
"When this mtagati leopard comes to the
calves" said Petros, "he comes on this road." "He calls in the
night, and his calls come from this hill."
I looked up at the top of the koppie and saw that a
huge jumble of bare granite boulders stuck prominently out of the
surrounding bush. Petros saw where I was looking and said "My
youngest son, the one who looks after the goats, he says that he has
twice seen the leopard sitting on those rocks late in the evening."
I have seen leopards several times high up in the
koppies, on these promontories. In fact in front of our main camp at
the Mangwe Pass we have twice seen a leopard sitting on the rocks
grunting away just as the sun was coming up.
I believe that the Matobo leopard – and in some
areas the lowveld leopards too, utilise these high lookouts to
locate their prey.
We placed the impala near the footpath, jamming its
head and horns securely between two strong saplings. I did not want
to use wire, or any other man made material. I wanted the carcass to
appear as natural as possible, and I did not want the cat to drag
the bait away into the thick stuff where it would be almost
impossible to erect a blind a reasonable distance away.
We built a blind near the top of the adjacent,
smaller koppie. I used soft grey blankets for the blind sides, and
we camouflaged it carefully with broken sprays of gwarrie bush. This
smaller koppie – and the blind, sat to the west, or downwind side of
the bait. The blind faced east, and looking down we had a good view
of the bait, about 85 yards away. But I had placed the blind in this
position for another reason too. We could also see, clearly, the
rocky promontory that overlooked old man Fouries’ homestead.
The idea was to watch the bait and the promontory at
the same time. Usually only the hunter and I will sit in the blind,
but this time I was going to alternate "guard duties" with Bee – and
hopefully, if the cat came, one of us would be awake, and watching.
In normal circumstances I tie a fishing line to the bait animal so
that when a leopard moves the bait, the line will move a bent
warning stick situated in the blind, alerting us to our quarry’s
arrival. But I did not use the line this time. I was scared that
skelm would smell a rat if he detected anything unnatural around the
Gunter was armed with his .338 Winchester mag which
held four 250 grain soft nosed Federals – in my opinion, an adequate
combination for leopard. The rocky promontory was a good 120 yards
away and the bait was about 85 yards away, so we zeroed the rifle
dead on at 110 – I was sure that this would take care of our target
no matter if Gunter shot at him at the bait or on the promontory.
set the rifle on two large flour bags filled with sand. Gunter would
be shooting from the prone position. All was set. We placed a car
battery and strong spotlight inside the blind. In Zimbabwe it is
perfectly legal to hunt private farm leopard at night with a light.
These animals have become almost totally nocturnal in their habits,
unlike the leopards in government concession areas. Even though
hunters are permitted to use the light, it is no easy matter
shooting a leopard at night on private land. These cats are
unbelievably wary and often walk in a wide circle around the bait
before coming in, trying to detect unwelcome visitors. I hoped that
our elevated position would help keep our scent up, away from the
impala, so if the cat did circle the meat, he would not smell us.
A three quarter moon bathed the rugged hills in its
ghostly silver light and I felt sure that if the cat came, and if
one of us was awake, and watching, we would be able to see him with
my 10 power Swarovskis. The plan was to spot the cat, get Gunter
into a firing position, then turn on the light.
We slept in the hide on the koppie three nights in a
row. On the second night two honey badgers ripped into our impala
but no leopard came. We replaced the impala, but the badgers tore
into that one too.
Petros came to our camp shortly after lunch on the
fourth day. I asked him how long the cat usually disappeared for,
and when he thought it might return. "This mtagati will not
come while you are here" he answered. "You cannot kill this thing."
Gunter did not want to sleep out again on the fourth
night. The confined space in the blind and the pressure of keeping
silent for long periods was taking its toll on all of us. I had
found myself nodding off several times while I was supposed to be
watching the bait. Was this looking for the proverbial needle in a
haystack? Was Petros telling us the truth about the regularity of
the leopard’s visits? I began to doubt my plan. Maybe we should have
just run Gunter’s hunt on our established areas of operation further
On the morning of the fifth day, Petros arrived at
our camp while we were sitting around the fire watching the cook
make breakfast. After traditional greetings were over, he announced
"The mtagati is back. He was calling last night in the
hills." I could not believe it! The first night we didn’t sit, the
cat came back to his stomping grounds!
We made our way to the koppies. Had the leopard
found our bait? What if he had eaten? According to Petros and the
old man, that meant he would not be back.
We found the clear, fresh, unmistakable tracks of a
large male leopard. A large male leopard with a damaged front right
foot! Skelm, mtagati, - the cattle killer was back! The
tracks indeed came straight down the footpath between the koppies –
just as Petros had said they would.
The bait however had not been eaten, even the
badgers had not returned. The cat’s tracks showed where he had lain
down in the pathway, about 6 feet from the impala. Watching it. Who
knows how long he lay there, what was he thinking as he lay
contemplating that fresh badger-eaten impala? His spoor continued
down the pathway toward the old man’s homestead. I decided that we
had to sit. Trying to work out why the cat had not eaten the impala
was pointless. He knew that there was a meal there, and we had left
no man-made warning signs like wire, or rope. Hopefully the badger
scent had covered any man-smell we may have left around the meat.
We were quietly settled in the blind by four pm. I
could hear clanking and talking from the homestead and actually felt
a bit foolish sitting there so close to human activity so early in
the evening. But, Petros and the old man said that this cat was
blasé and bold around the homestead, so I figured that he could
actually be nearby.
The farm noises ceased, and the tired red sun seeped
quickly into the thorns. In the twilight Bee and I sat glassing the
promontory, the bait and the hills. Gunter lay on his belly near the
was watching Venus sulk redly in the west, just about ready to
follow the sun over the edge when Gunter suddenly elbowed my leg. He
was looking through his scope, down where the bait lay next to the
path. He looked up at me, eyes wide. "Something to the right of the
bait, an animal!" I edged forward a bit and glassed the bait.
There’ sitting like a dog, grey in the dusk, - the
leopard! I whispered to Gunter "It’s the cat Gunter, can you see him
in the scope? He’s sitting up, like a dog, facing the meat. Do you
need the light? Take him if you see him! Take him through the left
shoulder – he’s sideways on!" My heart was hammering and my fingers
shook as the adrenalin and excitement thrilled through me. Gunter
snuggled into his rifle. Come on man, what was taking so long?
Flame shot out of the barrel as the cracking clap of
the shot echoed over the koppies. A deep fierce grunting from the
bait area! Bushes breaking! A burbling grumbling. Then silence. It
would take a long time to describe our decent from the hill, our
elation and excitement at finding the giant heart shot leopard which
lay there thick and heavy and beautiful, with his wrinkled neck and
hanging dewlap and exquisite golden mountain type markings.
But I must leave that all for the fireside. He was
the trophy of a lifetime, and his clubbed right foot detracted from
his wild beauty not one jot. Gunter had seen him first, and shot him
well. He was a very happy, satisfied man.
We were packed and ready to leave the next day
shortly before noon. I pulled in to the homestead one last time;
Gunter again remained in the truck. Old man Fourie stood on the
veranda wearing the same clothes and smoking the same pipe.
"Mr. Fourie, thank you again. We’re off now."
"Eya hummh" he answered. "So you killed old Skelm"
it sounded more like kilt. "Luck of the English" he added.
"You mean Irish" I said to him.
He looked at me and said "You’re Irish?"
"No Mr. Fourie, I’m not Irish – the saying – it’s
luck of the Irish – not the English."
Once more the old man looked at me like he felt
sorry for me, shook his head slowly, and walked back to the screen
door. Then he stopped, turned, and said "You like to fish?’
Grant is the author of "Into the Thorns". He started
professional hunting at the end of the war in Rhodesia
(1980) and in 1985 he started his own safari company.
I answered "Yes, I like to fish Mr. Fourie. I love
"Eya hummh, well, when you come, bring brandy" and with that he
clumped off inside. I stood there on the veranda a little longer
thinking about this strange old man, and then made my way over to
the land cruiser.