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Hunting the mtagati

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Mid April. In south western Zimbabwe the Wild Syringa is always the first to hint that summer is just about over, and the bright yellow leaves looked beautiful.

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 late seventies.

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 veranda.

"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 added.

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 more.

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.

"Wragtig, 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 veranda.

"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 here."

"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 anyway.

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 impala.

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.

We 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 east.

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 rifle.

I 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?’

Wayne 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 it."

"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.


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