Are lions the only big cats that hunt in prides and why are other big cats solitary? (specifically the females)

Answer by Rory Young:

Yes they are the only cats that hunt in prides. Young cheetah males will sometimes congregate in bachelor groups but these just temporary get-togethers.

Let’s look at the three big African cats, the lion, leopard and cheetah. They have each evolved to fill a niche which they dominate. These niches may overlap and when they do the lion is top of the pile, followed by leopards and then cheetah.

The leopard is an ambush predator. They like to stalk their prey as close as possible and then pounce on them. They also try to sneak up on animals in trees, especially baboons and monkeys and then start up the tree by which stage the baboon can’t go anywhere. Baboons will fight back at times as a group but that is another story.

In order to ambush prey they need to be on their own. A large group of them would not be able to stalk animals as successfully.

The ideal environment for them is forested or rocky not flat and open, as that would not allow them to stalk up close to their prey.

In some ways they are more gregarious than people would imagine. Males’ and females’ territories will overlap, as will females and females. However, males’ and males’ territories will not overlap and they will chase each other out of their areas. Adult offspring will often hang out with mom from time to time for a few days if they bump into each other. These habits show that they are not solitary because they don’t “like” each other but because they are necessarily so to hunt and survive.

Leopards’ spots are also ideal camouflage for an ambush predator, allowing them to sneak up close without being seen.

Cheetah of course also have spots. Most people imagine them running down prey from distance with their incredible speed. However, they need to get as close to their prey as possible first before launching themselves after it and running it down. Thus the need for spots. They combine stealth first and then speed to succeed.

So, leopards and cheetahs do not really compete in terms of environment because as explained, leopards prefer terrain where they can hide and ambush whilst cheetah open areas, with some limited cover such as tall grass or shrubs to first stalk their prey. The extremes of these two are mountainous terrain or cliffs where you will find leopards (who are incredibly versatile and will live on the edges of urban areas living off rats if need be) and flat open grassland areas where you will find cheetahs (who are not versatile at all). Both species are medium size, allowing them to take down relatively large game or small game to survive.

And then of course there are lions. Although the will not survive in the extreme mountainous terrain where leopards are happy, they will overlap a fair amount with them in areas of fairly open, broken ground and savanna woodland. When it comes to cheetah habitat however, there is much more competition between cheetahs and lions and cheetahs will often be chased off their kills. I was fortunate to be part of the cheetah re-introduction into Matusadona National Park in Zimbabwe 20 years ago. I built the boma (a boma is a pen where you keep the animals for anything from 4 to 8 weeks to acclimatize them to a new area and get them settled)  so that the 16ft fences were buried deep with rubble, very strong with steel posts and the fences were looser the higher up they went so that any thing trying to climb them would fall off. This was because we were expecting trouble and boy we got it. During the day we would shoot impalas to feed  the cheetahs and then sleep because we would be up all night chasing off lions and hyaenas (he he, yes they should be part of the question and answer but you did specify cats) with shots and Landrovers. Lions, leopards and cheetahs will kill each other if they get a chance, because of the competition for food.

Lions are “pack hunters”. They live in close-nit extended family groups. Their group behaviour allows them to take on prey that neither leopards nor cheetah could touch. They use herding and other techniques together with stalking and enormous strength to take down large prey all the way up to elephants (this is quite common in Botswana). Most importantly and most relevant to your question, they can tackle large herds of large game and this is their real niche which they dominate completely.

If they were solitary they would not be able to feed themselves consistently, as often happens with young males who are pushed out of the pride when they grow to big for their boots and start threatening the boss. These homeless males will either die of hunger, join up with other such males to hunt as a team or learn to hunt on their own, adopting methods more like leopards.

With regards to females specifically, although we males hate to admit it, females are the heart of any  group and whilst males tend to think first about sex and then food whilst females tend to think about feeding their babies and then themselves. So the males are pretty much obsessed with their… genes.

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Sengwa Research Area

October 2008.

Jim Levenderis

 I was due to hunt with Jerry again, we had hunted together before, further down on the Sengwa river mouth at lakeKariba in the Binga district and

We had developed a close friendship in the bush. He is an avid hunter and spends a lot of time and money hunting various parts of the world, but in Zimbabwe hunts solely with me as his PH. We have had had numerous good hunts and good times in the bush and, while hunting his Elephant and Buffalo, had certainly experienced some ‘testing’ moments together. These are the times that forge strong, lasting friendships and trusting bonds that, I feel confident in saying, only soldiers and hunters can experience. Some radical and extreme outward bound programmes can possibly be the closest to securing friendships like hunting does, followed closely by Rugby and other sports.

Jerry is, like myself, a competitive shottist which gives us both plenty to talk about in the long hours in the car and walking while cutting spoor and, he certainly knows is way around a rifle, which helps a lot when up against dangerous game.

Jerry had indicated early in the year that he would hunt with me again in 2008, but we had a long wait to confirm the dates he wanted from the safari operator who had the Sengwa research area concession. The dates he gave as desirable to him were September 26 through to October 16.

Earlier, before the dates were confirmed I had committed myself to accompanying the Hellenic grade 7’s to the Rifa educational camp in the Zambezi Valley, feeling sure they would not clash.

Jerry’s dates were confirmed and our hunt was on for Elephant and Buffalo.  Unfortunately, they did clash with the Rifa camp and I had to decline Hellenic’s invitation which left me feeling very sad due to a couple of special kids in the class that were going on the trip who had personally pleaded with me to accompany them. Unable to look them directly in the eye I told them my hunt had been confirmed and I would not be able to go with them.  If things were at all different I would have gone with the grade 7’s in a heartbeat, but they weren’t and I had work to do, which I needed badly, plus I had my commitments to a friend and client to uphold.

It’s clear now that had I gone to Rifa, I wouldn’t have been mauled and my face would have been spared the extra scars, not that I was by any means a pretty face before. A lot of trauma, blood and pain that could have been avoided though.  Sometimes, I think, things are just meant to be.

In this, I apologise to Hellenics grade 7’s of 2008 for not being with them at Rifa.  The previous trips with Hellenic school to Rifa had been very enjoyable and refreshing to be with such young enthusiasm and interest. The innocently unaware questions asked by these youngsters, the seemingly ridiculous assumptions and interpretations of Mother nature, are actually far from ridiculous and reminds one what the older generation takes for granted. The war stories from the boys and the wide eyed expressions on their faces from new discoveries and learning’s are, to say the least, a treasure to be experienced.

Jerry had brought with him a brand new Winchester model 70 .458 Winchester Magnum rifle, to replace my beloved Eddystone which blew up due to an incorrectly loaded cartridge in January before. This was NOT, I haste to add, a result of MY reloading. I was given some .458 Winchester Magnum ammunition by a previous client, one round of which was incorrectly charged.

I was deeply saddened to lose my Eddystone with which I had hunted and guided for over eighteen years. In this time my Eddystone became a part of me, physically and sentimentally having hunted, cropped and culled over 120 Elephant. We were a good team together and it was a rifle I maintained in pristine condition and trusted. It had got me out of trouble with just about everything from Lion to Elephant to Buffalo and even Hippo. In short, it was my first and foremost heavy calibre rifle which I could handle well, as one would expect with that time spent with any equipment.  It was so familiar that I can still feel it in my hands to this day.  The memories are sweet, but I digress.

The thought of receiving as a gift a brand new Winchester model 70 .458 rifle, was better than a teenager receiving a sports car for a birthday. And it wasn’t even my birthday.  I was excited to see it. This is a feeling only Gun Nuts like myself can understand. Others get the feeling with going on an overseas holiday maybe, or buying a car, or ladies may get it with new shoes, make up or clothes. We get it from new guns. The bigger the gun the better. It’s a gun crazy guy thing.

October 01, 2008. 20.00hrs

I had all the papers ready from Central Firearms Registry for the importation of my new rifle and a bundle of cash for the duty. I waited at the airport for Jerry to arrive when my wife phoned me telling me that Jerry had been delayed in Joburg and would be on the next flight in the morning.

At 06.00hrs I was at the airport but again Jerry was delayed by confusions, so it was to be later that day he would arrive.  All things that have a bad start end up good, or so I consoled myself. We had already missed one days hunting with these delays.

Jerry arrived that day at 12.30hrs and when I walked through immigration to receive him, (PH’s can do this when due to hunt a protected species as we have to hand a copy of the CITES tag to immigration to stamp.) With a look of concern on his face he told me his rifle was missing, together with mine.  This was real cause for concern but after asking officials and a short search, we found them.  Customs told us that Jerry’s GOLF BAG was in the receiving room.

I will remember as long as I live, the lost luggage official’s face went from pale grey to ash white when Jerry unlocked his ‘GOLF BAG’ to reveal not one, but two heavy calibre hunting rifles within, with ammunition to boot.

We said “Thank you very much for looking after our GOLF CLUBS, cheerio old chap” and proceeded to customs to clear my new rifle.  While Jerry was scratching around in his briefcase looking for the rifles papers to leave the US I was like a kid with a new toy. I was fondling my new rifle, taking aim at the luggage on the travellator, following suitcases as one would a moving target.

Eventually I had to contain myself as the chief customs official came to me and reminded me that I was in the Zimbabwe International Airport and this sort of thing is ‘Prorheebeeteed’.

He was not at all offensive so I humoured him by showing him my new rifle and told him what it was. He was grateful for the experience but reminded me still I was in a restricted area and please to stop aiming at people’s luggage, they were getting concerned.

I had no option but to obey, or face dire consequences. I chose to record the serial number of my rifle and pack it away obediently, back into Jerry’s ‘GOLF BAG’.

This whole time the lost luggage official was looking on at what he had been keeping in the open, unlocked and unsecured.

Jeff was also, to say the least, flabbergasted at our airports slack security.  None the less, a potentially disastrous situation turned out more than fine, and gave us our first of many laughs.

Naturally when we got home I examined my present. There it was, a brand spanking new Winchester .458 model 70 in Winchesters very own designed magnum cartridge, with an American Walnut stock, controlled feed conical breech action with hammer forged barrel and short draw bolt. And for the cherry on top – it is a SAFARI EXPRESS – Winchester have their SUPER EXPRESS model and the SAFARI EXPRESS model. The Safari Express is the Delux model with a number and engraving, their short draw bolt and silver tipped foresight.  I was speechless. I could not find words with which to thank Jerry.  It was, it is, a beautiful rifle.

October 03, 2008. 06.50hrs

With the car already packed, we had breakfast and left by 07.00hrs the following day. This was really meant to be the first day of hunting but with Jeff’s flight delays we were only starting the 6 1/2 hour journey to Sengwa.

Jerry had opted to drive in with me to experience Zimbabwe first hand. The drive through previously commercial farm lands, now repossessed and full of their magnificent crop of weeds, the decay and rot, the destruction and evident looting was, on it’s own, as much as Jerry could digest. Then followed Gokwe communal lands, Chief Mazivazvido, Chief Nenynunka tribal areas and the start of the Tundazi area, with all their poverty and barrenness, was overwhelming for Jerry who sat through most of the journey in silent disbelief.

I think I can imagine what it was like for him. There is nothing at all even remotely similar to experience where he comes from.

Jerry is a successful attorney, dealing with conveyance and very selected divorce cases, he is an educated, refined, wealthy and worldly gentleman. Having a touch of spoiled brat to his character with his business aggression, he makes for interesting company. He is never short of conversation, being able to talk on any given topic he reveals his experience and education in travel remarkably. His law profession links him to top American politicians and he exudes confidence through his status of wealth, knowledge and ability.

He is also a very keen shottist. Owning some 120 firearms, he competes in rifle shoots through out the US which makes him very proficient with his firearm and a pleasure to converse with for anyone similarly linked to or passionate with arms and ammunition.

Added to this, he was a professional cyclist and having a wiry frame of medium height, he can keep up with the pace on Elephant and Buffalo hunts. We seldom have to stop and rest for Jerry as we do other clients not in similar physical condition. His water discipline is good also as a result of his cycling which again makes for smooth hunting and good time on tracks. To the end part, he is also a fine sportsman, he wants to walk for his kill and he wants it fair. He will not shoot for the sake of shooting if time is short or if game is scarce. He will say to me “If I don’t get it Jim, I return, then we hunt again. It’s not the kill, it’s the thrill of the hunt”.

I like hunting with Jerry, and I like him.

The poverty, barrenness and desolation of Gokwe passed into rich, healthy and untouched wilderness and soon we were in Parks estates. Not much longer and the stretches of the Sengwa rivers dry sandy bed could be seen.  Fresh Elephant dung soon scented the air, old and new Buffalo pats lay on the road, 6 foot tall Hyperenia grass lay at an angle giving away an Elephants direction of travel, Sand Grouse frantically took to flight out of the path of the car. The ZambeziValleys oppressive October heat penetrated the car and sat with us for the remainder of the drive while Red-billed Hornbills watched us go past, clucking like chickens as we passed. Everything indicated we were entering big game territory. The bush was looking very healthy indeed.

We arrived at Sengwa camp at about 14.00hrs and spent the day sorting out kit, rifles and of course, I went to the camp shooting range and fired my new rifle for the first time. I had loaded a combination of hand loads for it and was eager to see their results. My loads of 70grains S335 propellant with Hornady’s 500 grain full metal jacket bullet produced pleasing groups of 3 ¼ inches at 60 yards. I opted to use these for Jeff’s Buffalo and Elephant. Jerry was using a CZ .458 model 550 Winchester magnum, also a very nice strong and reliable rifle. It had the bulged magazine allowing two more rounds than the usual 3 to be loaded into the magazine.

The evening sundown, typically around the campfire with drinks and snacks was spent with another PH and his client who had finished their hunt and were due to depart the following day. They had scored a fine Bushbuck the day before, which was being served as the snacks in kebab form with a spicy Bar b’que sauce. Cheese and wine, potato crisps and peanuts accompanied.

After a dinner of Buffalo fillet cutlets with vege’s, Jerry and I retired to our rooms by 22.00hrs.

October 04, 2008.

We had to sign in at the park office which opened at 07.00hrs, leaving us time for a leisurely shower and breakfast first. On arrival at the Sengwa research station park office, I had a heavy heart and was depressed to see the state of what was once the core pride of National Parks Research and Capture Unit, with which I worked briefly. Sengwa was a furious hive of activity in the 1980’s, with highly qualified and well trained vets and capture personnel, all totally dedicated to their job and rightly proud of their achievement in the capture of Rhino and other species. Proud men, officers, rangers and cadet recruits alike all smartly turned out in their green and beige uniforms with green berets, a well serviced and well presented fleet of vehicles, neatly piled and arranged stock of Elephant collars, Rhino blinds, dart guns etc etc.

Now, all that remained was a shabby building with scuffed floors, broken furniture and no Elephant collars to speak of, apart from one piece which was being used to strap a broken chair together. Tracking equipment has disappeared, transmitters and receivers that we strapped onto drugged Elephant and Rhino were in pieces, most of them missing.  Water pumps lost and broken, the 20,000 litre tank, once on 10 metre stilts, was now on it’s side on the ground dented and rusting with water being provided in common plastic buckets brought in by foot to the offices was now the way. The shimmering white sand of the twisting Sengwa river, once a feature on the horizon over a valley of Combretum and Mopane trees, could now not be seen through the remnants of grease and dirt stained windows.  Clem Coetzee, dear old Clem, a pioneering soldier in wildlife capture and relocation, operation Noah veteran, would turn in his grave should he see this.  Senior Warden Anthony Hall-Martin would simply die on the spot.  I silently wept at the degradation and couldn’t wait to get out of there. I once was proud to be there, to be part of these elite, dedicated men and learn from them, to have been a part of their life and their world was like a dream come true for me that I had since boyhood.  Now, only dirt and splinters, broken window panes, damaged floors, offices missing their doors, words echoing in empty rooms.  I choked on my tears and excused myself to stand outside on the pretext I wanted a smoke. It was once my home that I willingly left my friends and family for, now I don’t want to return.

I was called in to produce the pre hunt form and my hunters licence and ID. We had also been allocated ‘Lucky’ as our parks scout.  In all fairness I cannot complain about Lucky. He was of the old school and was a courteous, honest and friendly individual who I started to like and respect. He had been with Parks and wildlife for over twenty years and was still only a senior ranger, one of the lower ranks in parks. He had been posted to various stations in the country and Sengwa was new to him, so he was asking me a lot of questions also as to what past times were like.  He hung his head in genuine shame several times listening to my recounts of previous years, so much so that I eventually felt sorry for him and his embarrassment.

Once the paper work was completed Jeff, Lucky, my trackers Namu, Simba and I beat a hasty exit and commenced our hunting. Steven, my driver come batman come security guard was also with us.


The dry Sengwa river and flood plain from the top of a high hill, Kandariander.

It was already late in the morning and I knew the Buffalo would have gone to ground at least an hour ago. It was after 10.30hrs and there was no movement, more concerningly, I had seen no spoor from movement the previous night.  Jerry and I were conversing on anti poaching when Namu tapped urgently on my door – there were three Dagga Boys resting in the shade. I could not see them from my seat which was lower, so I stopped and climbed the car.  The old bulls were all magnificent, and best of all, they had not heard or seen us yet. I indicated to Jerry to hurry, as I felt sure we would be rumbled soon. Hunting mode clicked in, alertness rises and senses sharpen. Exhilarating stuff and it all happened too quick, so quick infact that I had to start my approach without my  gun belt and spare ammo. The terrain was open Mopane woodlands with little cover necessitating a slow stalk, hugging the ground till we reached an erosion gulley. Once in the gulley which was about a foot and a half deep, we lay in it looking for an alternative solution. The Bulls were spread out over 40 metres, about 50 yards away, partly obscured by Mopane scrub.

A big Mopane tree offered a direct approach to the centre Buffalo but was 12 yards to our left in the open, which I decided to take. Doubled over, with Jerry behind me, we inched over to it and began our stalk, inch by inch literally. After what seemed an age we reached the cover of the tree and stood up behind it to examine the bulls. All three were excellent, but the left hand one caught my eye so I waited for a chance to examine him further.

They must have sensed something because completely unexpectedly they stood up and looked in our direction. I was confident they could not see us, but they were curious and advanced in our direction. I had to make a call urgently now as for sure they would rumble us and a great opportunity would slip us by.

The Bull on the left broke into the open, walking directly towards us, nose in the air, looking malevolent and strong.

Jerry was still directly behind me waiting for my call. I took in the Buffalo’s trophy and uttered a muffled “Jeez man, he’s huge”

I pulled Jerry into position next to me and told him to take him.

“Hit him Jerry, he’s absolutely wonderful”

Jerry stepped to the left of me and took aim free hand. His rifle barked it’s first shot and as the Bull recoiled Jerry had hit him again. The Buffalo was even larger than expected seeing it in the open, now only a mere 12 metres from us.  Jerry fired again and I backed him up. The bull slowed, staggered and fell. It was done and Jerry had his trophy, within three hours on the first day. It was really too good to be true, but there it was. Jerry had a wonderful Dagga Boy trophy, measuring 39 inches in spread with a 13 ¼ inch boss. It was rippled and rugged, slightly worn tips with a grey mud splattering. A true Dagga Boy. The patience for flight delays and missing luggage stress had been rewarded in a grand way.

The next couple of days was spent looking for Jerry’s Elephant, still with the euphoria of scoring his Buffalo on the first day. After seven days of looking at herds and locating a good Elephant, we found one for Jerry.  As usual, the hunting was a constant adrenalin charge, walking with Elephant herds merely ten to twelve paces away from them sometimes, listening to them rumbling and growling gently to each other in something I cannot quite attempt to describe for reason that I will fail to adequately describe the feeling and experience.

Their quick and silent movement, their rumbles echoing through the dense Jess, vibrating in your chest, the smell, their enormous grey bulk absorbing your human insignificance, their sheer strength and power entwined with delicate and precise gentleness, their trunks, comic in look and appearance but ever so effective and of course, their ivory. Some stained and dirty, some broken, some without and others with long, thin ivory or short and stubby. Some shining white and some twisted and irregular and uneven in length. I could continue but still I would fail to find sufficiently expressive descriptions of how I see these stunningly amazing animals.

God in Heaven alone knows how I never want to destroy another Elephant as long as I live. I have to through my job, but I honestly don’t want to. I find all their deaths tragic. Very, very unfortunately necessary in controlled numbers for the benefit of all wildlife, but none the less tragic.


Jerry with author and a very fine Buffalo Bull.


Jerry with the author and his Elephant. 

October 11, 2008. 13.00hrs

Jerry now had a very enviable Buffalo trophy, his Elephant was down and we were left with his second Elephant and I had convinced him to take a Hyena as they were plentiful in the area to the extent they were pressurising the Lion population. There was still Hyena on licence so he agreed to take one.

We had seen a drag mark from a Hyena the previous day and followed it to a cave where we found the remains of an impala it had killed (or stolen), so it was obvious we should try for it. We set up the blind in the heat of the day so as not to leave too much human scent on the ground. Hot conditions dissipate scent quicker than cool, setting up a bait and blind requires several people to be present on the job.  Cutting tree branches that may obscure ones view or a clean shot, sighting the bait so as to make it look natural, securing the bait to something to prevent it being dragged off somewhere, setting up the blind with the clients shooting rest. Chairs, blankets, water and ‘Pee’ bottles brought in, clearing a path for the approach to the blind, cover from above and finally the drag of offal and intestines to ‘direct’ the animal to the bait.

The sooner all the scent from this activity can dissipate the better, thus it is done in the heat of the day. Plus of course, there is far less chance the animal will be active then and will be lying up in shade.

The bait sighted and secured, the blind done with chairs and water ready for the next day, we retired early to camp at 16.20hrs for an early dinner and early night.

October 12, 2008. 03.00hrs

The wake up call came too soon for both of us. We were lethargic and fatigue from the Elephant hunt was catching up.  The long distances walked on tracks, the waterless hours on spoor, the heat and the adrenalin from walking inside Elephant herds was telling. We were both tired.

I decided to shower to wake up properly. I needed to be wide awake to listen and identify noises in the dark whilst in the blind.

We left camp at 03.35 and within 25 minutes we were in the blind, waiting for the Hyena. We waited and waited, and waited but it never came. At 06h00hrs the sun was up and any chance of a Hyena coming had gone. I called Namu by radio to come with the car, and we packed up the blind. There would be no more opportunity now so late in the hunt. Tomorrow would be the last day and then we departed.

We drove to the Sengwa river to look for Elephant spoor with the intention of getting Jerry’s second Elephant. At the Sengwa we came upon spoor from a large group of Elephant that had drank there during the night. There were tracks all over, in all directions, leading to and from little pools and puddles dug by the Elephant in the dry river bed to enable them to drink water.

I decided to follow the herd and not any particular tracks as they would all converge later anyway, we headed inland with Namu and Simba in the lead. I was paying attention to the horizon and sounds of the early morning.

Within 70 yards I and Namu together saw two little black blobs in the middle of a clearing of some 140 square metres, with no trees or bush around except two tree stumps with Combretum Mozambicense entangled around them in typical Bougainvillea style. Apart from these two stumps and bushes there was nothing in the clearing of sand and soil for a good 50 metre to 60 metre radius. I immediately identified them as Leopard Cubs, no more than two and a half to three months old. Jerry was hopping with the excitement of seeing live Leopard cubs for the first time in real life, in the wild.  It was certainly a special occasion. The cubs, having the sun directly in their eyes from over our shoulders were unable to properly identify us as human, were still unperturbed at our presence and quite relaxed, sitting in the centre of the stumps, until we moved. They immediately adopted typical cat like stealth and crept towards the left stump, and disappeared. I half expected them to appear briefly again once past the bush, but they didn’t and I marvelled at the ability of wildlife to totally disappear like that.

As the Elephant spoor was talking us right there, I continued slowly, now with a new worry of the whereabouts of the mother Leopard. I stopped Namu and said “Watch out for the mother, she has to be here somewhere, be very careful”  Namu is well adapted to the bush and my reminder was not needed, but I made it clear I was uneasy with the situation.

We got to the point where the cubs vanished and I looked into the tangle of leaves of the Combretum but there was nothing. I looked up into the branches and there was nothing. “Just how is this possible?” I mused to Jerry when Namu beckoned to me. “Look here Sir” he was pointing to a burrow in the ground on the other side of a slight mound, hence the entrance was not visible to us.

I walked over, with my rifle butt in my hip, thumb on the safety catch and finger on the trigger.

Greeting me on the other side was a sight I will remember forever. The two Leopard cubs were in the hole looking up at us, without a care in the world, wide eyed and interested in what they saw, they sat there quite calmly looking at us looking at them. Soft black, yellow-gold and white fur engulfing little blue-grey watery eyes, long white forward curled whiskers and little pear shaped wet black noses on chubby little bodies with stubby legs and pigeon toes. Two, side by side huddled next to each other. It was just too gorgeous for words. Very, very cute indeed.

My skin ran cold. Fuck me man, we were right at the fucking door of a Leopard burrow sticking our stupid heads in at two baby Leopard. How bloody out of line and totally ridiculous was this?  I reeled back and did a 360 degree search for Mom. “Namu, find the spoor of the mother!” I instructed.

Jerry was still hopping with excitement at this exceptionally rare spectacle, I admit, I took it all in but was very jittery standing there.  Namu was confident there was no adult spoor causing me to think that she had gone hunting to get something and bring it back to her cubs. This I felt was a strong possibility as she was definitely nowhere to be seen. Due to the time of the day, I was sure that would be the most logical answer for her absence, so we took a quick glance at the cubs again and left to return to our Elephant spoor which we left a mere 11 metres away.  I relaxed slightly with leaving the burrow.

The Cubs, it turned out, were in a tunnel of some eight metres in length in the ground, at one entrance. The Mother, possibly too big for that entrance, was watching us unseen and unbeknown to us at the other entrance, which we were walking towards.

I stepped next to the indiscriminate looking hole when the ground erupted under me. The female Leopard was right at my left foot, I had no chance to do anything when she was on me. I barely realised what was happening at all when she had already clawed my face and my left leg. With a deep throated growl from the pit of her stomach she flew up at me, catching my leg, arm and the left side of my face. I heard my skin tear and her paw impacted again and again. Her teeth were clacking open and closed looking for a part of me to clamp on when I came to my senses. I looked to my left and she was standing on her hind feet growling and snarling at me with fur, teeth and claws flashing in front of me trying to climb up me. As I looked round, her paw found my face again and I heard more skin tearing open, I caught glimpse of her standing over me, mouth open, teeth bared and growling when my world went red. Blood spurted from the wound just below my left eye and blinded me. Instinctively I fed her my rifle and she clamped her teeth onto my rifle with part of my wrist in her mouth, I felt bone crunching and cracking. I swung my head in protection of my face and more blood spurted into my right eye, I was now totally blinded by warm, sticky, salty blood and could do nothing. I could not see her but she was still biting my rifle and wrist, which, because the rifle was preventing her from closing her mouth completely, was not broken.  I swung my open left palm at her and caught her in the side of her jaw knocking her back slightly. I sensed she was still standing up, and could feel her back claws in my left leg and lashed out with my right, kicking as hard as I possibly could and I connected her in her lower stomach swinging her back legs upwards causing her to release her grip on my arm and tumble head over heels backwards.

In a split second I was able to wipe me left eye on my shirt, the pain was excruciating, but I cleared the blood sufficiently to see her tumbling over backwards and thought to myself “Now I’m done, now I’ve really pissed her off”

Having both my hands free now, I took hold of my rifle like a cricket bat and readied it to swing at her when fresh blood spurted into both my eyes blinding me once more, with force this time. By wiping my eye on my sleeve I had opened up the wound even more.  There is always a lot of blood from a facial wound, but the  amount that came from my face was truly horrific.

Blood was now all over me, my hands were slippery with it, I felt the warm sticky trickle of blood down my arm, down my chest and my legs, the sickly sweet smell unmistakeable. I wondered in just how many places I had been torn open.  Namu’s voice was in the background, Lucky was screaming, something, what he was screaming I have no idea, Jerry, Steven and Simba? Where were they?  I was hoping they would retreat to safety and not get themselves caught up in this mess.

I heard the Leopard growl again at me as she ‘plopped’ to the ground in front of me.  I braced myself for the next attack, holding my rifle at the ready to use as a bat or a barricade, I waited, blood pouring down my face, into my eyes, down my arms, my shirt was sodden like I had come in from a thunder storm of red rain, my hair dripped with blood.  Then the pain set in.  I had only just come to terms with the fact that I was doing had to hand combat with a Leopard when I went dizzy with pain. I thought “No, not now, don’t pass out now, she’s coming again, you have to stay on your feet!”

I felt a grab at my rifle and instinctively swung it round but it was not the Leopard attacking again, she had decided to retreat. It was Jeff grabbing my rifle and giving chase, shouting at her.  I heard this and wiped my eye.  JEEEZUS CHRIST the pain, a wave of dizziness overcame me but I felt compelled to fight it. How I managed I will never know, but I cleaned my eyes to see Jerry in full sprint after the leopard, who was loping away, already at a distance of some 35 yards.

How in the hell did she get there so quickly I thought, and once more I was struck back to my situation with a blinding punch of pain from my face, more blood now blinding me for the third time and I went weak and shivered at the thought that I had lost my left eye.


“I’m going to get that cat Jim” was is reply.

“JERRYYY–YYY, STOP MAN, DON’T SHOOT HER” my voice anxious with a tone of urgency.

Did I say this? Did I just tell Jerry not to shoot her?  I should be saying “kill the bloody animal, wound her, make her hurt”, but I wasn’t.  I realised that she was doing what was instinctive to her, she was protecting her cubs. Any mother would do that. Can you imagine if it was a WOUNDED Leopard?  Were we not lucky it had not happened with the Elephant, God knows we were close enough for long enough for something to happen with the Elephant!  Buffalo too, just think what could have happened with a Buffalo attack out of the blue like that. The Leopard was a Mother, the cubs were still there, they had retreated deep into the tunnel by now but they were still there and were too young to be orphaned. They would die for sure.

I barely came to terms with my thoughts, wondering if in fact she should be destroyed but my eye was now my priority. Everything and everyone else could take second place. I was still responsible for my client and staff, but now I was a casualty.

I was gently feeling around my eye, and although the pain was intense, it felt like everything was still in place.  Everyone quickly came to me to help me, Jerry and Namu took my right arm and led me back to my car and started with the field dressings in my first aid.  Jerry demanded my attention which made me go weak, I was sure he was going to tell me my eye had been popped open, or was hanging out, something. Something bad had to make him sit me down and demand my attention.

“Jim, your eye is fine, it is still there and untouched, however, your cheek has been opened up to the bone, I can see your cheek bone as we speak. This can be stitched but you will remain scarred. Your leg is lacerated so is your back and shoulder. Your left cheek has been punctured and your neck has a gaping hole in it. Your arm is bad and will need urgent attention, bone is protruding and looks splintered from where she bit you. All this can be stitched closed and repaired. You are one extremely lucky guy I will have you know!”

He continued once I digested what he had told me. “You are lucky you’re strong and weren’t knocked down, if she was on top of you it would have been worse. You got her square in the groin with your kick and sent her flying, why she gave up I don’t know but she took off after that.  You are one lucky, brave Son of a Bitch Jim, you really are!” That was a sterling fight you gave her and it was something else to witness.

Jerry, during all this, was at my right side some 3 to 4 metres away.  I still don’t know what he did and I will not ask him either. But I know when the Leopard was finally off me he did take my rifle and gave chase.  For this I admire him as it took courage and dedication. He took my rifle as I was basically helpless and it was cluttering my hands.

The whole experience, from my side, happened in the blink of an eye, pun not at all intended! The speed at which she attacked me is indescribable.  It would do me no justice to try to describe the speed at which she swatted me three times, bit me, spun me around and swatted me another twice. In a flash and a blur it started and was over. At my last sight of her she was already some 35 to 40 yards away from me. Her speed, her deep belly growl, the strength in her paws and the ease at which her claws opened me up are just awesome. She shredded me in a milli second.

Another colleague of mine was attacked by a Leopard some time ago. He said to me since, “If you haven’t experienced it, or witnessed it, don’t try to describe the speed of a Leopard attack because you can’t!”

October 12, 2008. 07.25hrs

I was wrapped in field dressings and driven by Namu to Sengwa clinic some 35 klms away.  This was not at all comfortable as I was holding a flap of flesh closed on my left cheek, trying to stem the blood flow and the bumps in the road were jolting my hand causing the loose piece of flesh to rub in the wound, and I could feel the cool morning air on the naked bone in my cheek. Sitting in the passenger seat of my own vehicle, Namu driving and Jerry with Simba, Steven and Lucky at the back on the hunting seat, we arrived an hour later at Sengwa clinic. They had nothing. No sutures, no dressing, no injections, nothing. They cleaned my wound as best they could and told me to go to Gokwe, giving me a note for the duty Doctor there.

Gokwe was 145 Klms away, over two and a half hours on dirt road. The drive was agonising with my face wound being opened at every bump, flapping about and raw flesh rubbing against raw flesh, I was very uncomfortable but decided that after all, I was lucky and still have my eye, so I decided to shut up, and stopped yelling at Namu, poor guy, for every bump he hit in the road.  In time the pain eased and my face went numb which helped.

After the attack.

The duty Doctor at Gokwe did a sterling job. While stitching me up we talked, she had never attended to an injury sustained by a wild animal before and was asking lots of questions. I was calling her Sister, as she was not in uniform and I was unsure of her exact status. Embarrassed, I apologised when she told me she was a Doctor. She saw humour in it and giggled at my mistake. I tried but my face stung me into silence.

She was well spoken and tended to me very professionally.  I do admit to wincing once or twice when she poked a needle directly into the wound to administer a Lignicane injection, but I was now quite drained from pain and was feeling sensitive.

It wasn’t long at all before I was patched, repaired and stitched. Jerry had been with me all the time, with visible concern on his face about my predicament. I apologised to him also for the loss of time on his hunt and suggested we return to hunting.

“Absolutely no bloody way am I letting you hunt today. You are going to stay in camp today” he retorted.

The ride back to camp took forever.  The pain had gone but my face was swollen and puffy. Bandages over my eye prevented me seeing properly and I was tired. We had, after all, been up since three in the morning. If all had been well, Jerry and I would be resting in the shade somewhere by now anyway. I slept on and off for the rest of the 3 hour journey.

 I was all prepared to hunt the next day, being our last hunting day But Jerry wouldn’t have it. We stayed at camp to pack our things and clean rifles at leisure. Only at this time did I see that my brand new rifle is carrying scars from the attack also. Bite and claw marks scar the American Walnut stock, top and bottom which made me really mad. Everyone says it has character now, but I didn’t want it spoiled so soon. At this rate I thought my new rifle will only last another four safaris. We then went to the Sengwa offices again to check out. Lucky was sorry to see us go, and I was sorry to be leaving him behind. He was a good man, suffering the injustice of the present Government by not supporting them or their cause, he’s overlooked for promotion time and again, irrespective of his good command of English, his knowledge, public relations experience and devotion, he was still a junior ranking office after some 20 years with the department.


Jim, Jerry and fellow Hunting Client in Sengwa Camp

prior to departure on last day.

The drive home, apart from the hot air on my face causing the wound to dry and crack was uneventful and good time was made returning home.

Keeping in touch with family by cell phone, we arrived at home just before dusk and my family were there to greet us at the gate. Di, my wife, opened the gate and let me drive in, once inside the gate I got out the car to greet her when she saw my face.

“What happened to you?” she asked

“I got on the wrong side of a Leopard!” was all I managed without too much emphasis on the issue.

“Oh like Hell you did” was her quick, disbelieving reply.

I smiled at Jerry in the passenger seat and he winked at me.

We knew another chapter in our hunting journal was closing. Another experience, another binding link in our friendship formed. It didn’t matter who believed and who didn’t. Did it?

Jim Levenderis



How do you track a leopard, or any other wild animal?

Answer by Rory Young:

I’ll focus on leopard specifically..
All cats have three “lobes” on the base of the “Pad”.
Four toes show in the tracks of the front and back feet.
Aside from Cheetah, all cats keep their claws sheathed when walking.
So, three lobes on pad + no claw marks = cat.
Next, the size of an animal’s footprint is proportional to the size of the animal. Big track=big animal and of course big cat track = big cat.
What big cats are there aside from leopards sharing the same habitats?
Well, in Sub-Saharan Africa where the largest populations exist, lions are also found.
We have already established that big cat track = big cat so how big are leopards compared to lions?
Lions are a lot bigger! The average leopard in the Cape area of South Africa is only (male) 28kgs and 58kg in the Hwange National Park area of South Africa. The average male lion on the other hand ways around 200kg, depending on the area.
An average large male leopard of around 50kg will have a track length (the track being the paw impression not the stride length!) of around 90mm whilst a a lion of around 225kg will have a track length of around 180mm.
The fact that the tracks are so different different doesn’t mean the two species can’t be confused. For example a lion cub track can be the same size as a leopard track. The difference is that front lion tracks especially are “messy” and more elongated; not neatly rounded in shape and symmetric as in the case of leopards.
To tell the whether it is a male or female leopard look at the straddle. The straddle is how widely or narrowly a human or animal places their feet when walking. This is usually measured by drawing a line from the heel of the right fore foot track to the heel of the right rear foot track and doing the same with the  left feet. The distance between the two lines is the straddle.
A male leopard has a wider straddle than a female leopard. Imagine a fashion model walking down the ramp placing her feet in front of each other and compare that to a big guy walking along with his thighs and crotch area getting in the way…
Now look down at your own feet. Notice how your toes are pointing in the same direction that you are pointing? Well the same applies to leopards. The pad points to the rear and the toes point to the front, so, unless the animal is walking, backwards moves in the direction its toes are pointing.

You can also tell whether a leopard is walking forwards, backwards or sideways, the height and weight, condition, speed, how long ago it was there and many other details.

I won’t go into that now. I am busy writing a book on the subject of tracking men and animals and how to determine or estimate all these different facts with real accuracy.

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