Tekst and Photo: Christophe Morio
It is almost dark, the first drops of rain start to fall and in the last light of the day, the hunter just shot the prince of the night. We rush at the foot of the tree to pick it up. Nothing. I find signs of serious injuries, a few drops of blood and a piece of lung but we must act quickly because behind us, coming from the east, the tropical storm threats seriously. Some strong gusts of wind are bending the branches of the big trees, the lightning are tearing the sky and penetrate the bako, the thunder gives an atmosphere of apocalypse. The way of the leopard sinks into the thick forest and suddenly the storm broke in an infernal crash. A feeling of panic goes through my mind and the idea of not finding the beast grabbed me. These are not the best conditions to look for a leopard, I am convinced, is already dead.
We are in April along the Mbari River in the East of the Central African Republic. The first storms dumped torrential rain, the rivers are already high and the bush donned his green coat announcing an early rainy season.
Lily flowers, orchids, amaryllis and coral trees bloom one after another giving a touch of color to nature.
The objectives of the hunter for this safari are to hunt a bongo and a giant forest hog. The conditions are optimum, the food is plentiful, salines are flooded and after each rain, animals are out to dry up and feed. Leopard is not a priority for this experienced hunter because he already has five to his credit but his passion for the feline makes him still, excited.
The first morning of the two weeks safari, we check some salt licks to get some ideas of the movements of the bongos. Myriads of multicolored butterflies congregate around the salt and fly in a messy cloud at our approach.
While we walk on one of them in search of tracks, a sounder of seven giant forest hogs pops out of the bako hedging in the saline.
It is eleven o’clock in the morning, the heat in the middle of the clearing is terrible and the moisture due to the storm of the night makes us sweat profusely. While grazing on lush and wet grass, they move toward us peacefully. We are fully exposed; the hunter is in position and the rifle is steady on the shooting stick and although the big sow throws us some wary glances, she does not give the alert. It is true that the senses of sight and hearing of these pigs are not very efficient. Fortunately the wind is in our favor. The five piglets of the previous year are in front of the boar, easily recognized by its size and its characteristics disks beneath his eyes, and then he shifts slightly of the sounder. At that time the hunter fire at about thirty five meters. The animal is rather thin and the dentition shows that he is relatively old. He weighs only 164 kg on the scale.
In the evening, we settle ourselves on a mirador with the hope of seeing some bongo. By five o’clock appears a sounder of 13 giant forest hogs and of course the boar is just huge … probably the biggest I‘ve seen… Their sense of smell is well developed; we will have a clear proof. A quarter of an hour earlier, I was moving by the saline to look for signs and set up the trail cameras. These devices increasingly used in big game hunting to assess species diversity, density and quality of the animals. My scent was still floating around when the sounder came in. Like the elephants are doing, the sow followed by its offspring of the year lifted its snout to take better effluvia of the intruder, the enemy.
Alerted, the gigantic male approached her as if to protect the sounder, and also pointed his snout. At this time, the sow in a small grunt recall went back to the thicket followed by the entire troupe, the monster closing the walk and scaring a giant turaco on its path. We had no time to take pictures and videos nor a shot… I will have a look at him next year.
Sometimes the hunting gods are with you and the hunt runs easily. The second day we are again seating in the machan. A herd of 21 bongos comes in the saline. At first light the hunter shoots a very good bull, striped with 13 white stripes on the left side and 14 on the right side. His neck is huge. His head particularly dark is crowned by a beautiful and thick pair of horn with white tips and measure 31 inches.
With all the meat available I suggest to the hunter to hang some baits and try our luck with a leopard. They are numerous in this area and not over hunted. Our chances to get a big male are pretty good. The following days are spent to bait at strategic and known locations. At this time of the year it is very difficult to see the tracks of the leopard on the roads, where they often walk. There is a legend in that part of CAR from the Nzakara tribe people saying: the leopard is so smart that when he is walking on the road, he sweeps away his spoors with his tail. In our case I think it is because of the rain and the repeated passages of the 4×4 on the dirt roads, hard as concrete.
A big wild fig tree of which the high branches are sticking out of the forest gallery is chosen in priority because for the last 3 years I spotted a large leopard track of 8 centimeter wide…
The dominant wind rocked southwest and some of my usual ‘’places’’ are not exploitable. I choose the hedge of some forests with intersections with streams. The leopards in that area are forest animal, they are darker with well pronounced rosettes.
It is an adaptation to their environment that allows them to hide, running in homochromy, in mimetism with the vegetation. The food is abundant with plenty of monkeys, duikers, bushpigs, giant forest hogs and bushbucks. They don’t leave often the forest canopy. This solitary hunter is considered rather nocturnal. But, when not over hunted and with the favor of the cover, it is not uncommon for him to hunt during daytime.
Every leopard has its own territory and the one of the male overlap the one of several females. We must therefore bring him to the trap. Baits are not placed anywhere because the animal must feel confident and the branch on which he is supposed to come must be sufficiently clear to enable the shot. We must also consider the wind. I tend to hang the bait in late afternoon, so that the smell of the fresh meat remains strong during the first hours of the night. It takes between one and five days to the cat to locate and feed on bait.
Nature is generous for a few days. We just hang the last giant forest hog shoulder and return to the camp when the night falls. At about five hundred meters from the last bait, in the lights of the truck, a feline escapes and disappears into the tall grass. Torch in hand, we are looking by curiosity the surrounding. A young and elegant female is looking at us with her piercing eyes. She already seems exhilarated by a ‘’ dinner gift’’.
The next day we drive slowly towards the baits we need to check. The morning mist is still hung on the plains when a tracker announces a red flanked duiker.
It is quite far, about hundred and fifty meters, I need my binoculars to check it. I see straight away that we have a ‘’particular case’’, the horns of the little duiker seem very thick!! We start to get close, using the small green brush as a cover. At about sixty meters and before the hunter shoots I take a picture of the animal. The horns are quite long and exceptionally thick which puts the trophy in the SCI top 20…
The bait on the fig tree is hit.!! But we were soon disillusioned because it is not the big male we were waiting for. It is undoubtedly one of his conquests with her cub. Anyway we add a bongo shoulder, just in case!!!! That afternoon the shy is dark, the tornado threats. We arrive at another bait, which was also visited. All the signs are good, the width of the track measures 6,5 centimeters, the claw marks on the tree trunk are deep and the way he ate shows that we have a good male. The rain is now imminent and I set up the trail camera in a hurry and we decide to come back the next day. It is sheltered under a tarp that we drive back to the camp, in the pouring rain!!! The next morning, we are back. The pictures show that the leopard was feeding before 9 o’clock, a few second before we get there, he heard us and jumped into the forest. He is still close by watching at us. The picture is amazing, it is a superb male of about fifty kg but the hunter is looking for an exceptional subject… so he can carry on his feast.
The days pass and the activity on baits decreases, reducing to nil. The hot weather and the rains have made the baits rot and dry prematurely. On his side, Yannick, the young Danish assistant, full of energy, hunter in the soul, who officiates in the main camp and discovered CAR a few months ago, let me know by sat phone that a large leopard is on baboon bait for 2 days. The decision is taken with the hunter to go the next day. After several hours of slippery road and before we get mired in a deep ditch that holds us a few hours we saw a nice buffalo herd.
We finally get to the camp… late, almost too late to go in the blind. Muddy and tried, we hesitate a bit… But Yannick, very excited and ‘’hot as embers’’, convinces and leads us to the spot. Driving on the hilly road, I can see the bright sun that gives an extraordinary luminosity to the vastness of the bush we dominate. But, far away, over there to the east, I see the storm that pours its waterspouts and moves in our direction and worry me!!!
The small grass door is closed silently, we seat as comfortable as we can and the truck with Yannick and the trackers is going to park at about one kilometer away. The bait is at about 40 meters, too far for me. My marks are usually different. I prefer to be at 20/25 meters but we don’t have time to change it because it is already quarter to six and it will be dark in 45 minutes. In addition with the storm coming, it may get dark earlier. I already feel the fresh air on my face, the first sign of the rain. All is calm, the birds of the day, drongo, francolin, coucal are already silent and tonight the night birds are quiet. Time is like suspended until the deluge that I would like to delay. There is no sign of life on the edge of the bako. The light fades quickly but I can still catch a glimpse of the bait. Ten minutes pass and suddenly as if by magic, the leopard is there. What a thrill!!! In our breast the heart begins to beat wildly. We have neither seen nor heard him climbing up the tree. What an elegance, what a beauty, it is an animal of exception. There is something paralyzing in his eyes. A petrifying beauty watching me in silence as I try, falsely relaxed to master my emotions. He is not in the pose, he fixes me as I’ve seen dozens of times and imposes its style at a glance; sober and intense…. And he seized the 30 kg baboon and puts it on the branch without effort. He now begins his feast. The hunter is ready. We are watching and waiting for the powerful male stand up. Now he is side on and raises his head, as if he wants to honor its domain. The rifle thundered, the leopard does not move, like paralyzed, and then drops abruptly in a vacuum. The wind is too strong and I can’t hear him running away, but I think he is dead at the bottom of the tree.
The trackers and Yannick join us, it is now pitch dark and we are soaked!!! Flanked by two trackers with flashlights and myself with the shotgun loaded with buckshot, we move in the direction where I saw the last drops of blood. There is no particular stress because I am convinced that the cat is extended a few meters away from us but we must remain cautious because the attack of a wounded leopard can be devastating. The problem is to guess, to feel the escape route because now the rain is so strong that the water flows between our feet and clear all the signs… The first curtain of vines and branches requires us to crawl on our belly several meters. We arrive at a very steep and deep ravine that I check meticulously without success. The water is running so hard in it that it forms a powerful torrent. I really have a bad feeling that we will lose the leopard because of the flood and it will end up in the jaws of a hyena… We finally arrive on the main stream, the land is flat and waterlogged, and we wade through the mud up to the ankles… I remove my glasses and put them in my pocket. My vision is affected but I am so focus and over tense that I can carry on all night… Some words are exchanged with the trackers and we split up to keep on looking in the pretty wet bako, inspecting every nook and cranny within a radius of fifty meters. There are many deep ravines to check. Guy, one of my trackers goes on one of them. I can see him cling on to the roots, avoiding the slide and then he disappears on his knees under the green cover. I can barely see the light of Assan, the second tracker who is also in an unusual and uncomfortable situation. I struggle in the slope; I grabbed a root with my left hand to pull myself up, the 12 gauge in my right hand when I heard Guy yelling. But with the crash of the tornado and the thunder I don’t understand his words…. Fearing the worst I join him as fast I can. But he is all smiles and in his muscular arms he carries the big leopard. I had not heard: ‘’mourou akwe awe’’ the leopard is dead. Assan join us and we sit next to each other looking at the big wet beast.
This intense research lasted only 30 minutes but seems endless. At this time the rain stops suddenly as it began, only a few drops of water are sprinkle on us. We are soaked, frozen and tired but happy and proud of not to have lost the prince of the night.
Yannick and the hunter join us. They open wide eyes. The animal is huge, probably one of the biggest I’ve seen. It measures 2,41 meter from the tip of nose to the tip of the tail. The skull measures 43,5 centimeters. It is a big one. The hunter is very happy and we thank Yannick for his help and good job.
What a success, the hunter has collected 3 precious game, bongo, giant forest hog and a leopard, like the lion, is in Africa a mythical animal who inspires fascination, fear and respect. At the camp tonight, it is the party. With the rhythm of the drums, the celebrating dance will last long and get lost in the African night.