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African Leopard: not your average feline ... the African leopard is stealthy, dangerous, and deadly.

In the 1970s we did a very good job making the public aware of the plight of the African leopard. Back then, when I started hunting in Africa, leopards were getting thin on the ground. The reason wasn't sport hunting. In 1968 alone some 8,000 leopard skins were imported into the United States to be used for coats and other apparel. Public awareness backed by law--first the Spotted Cat Act, then the Endangered Species Act, and then the near-worldwide Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)--stopped this nonsense. Although the leopard pattern remains popular, when is the last time anyone has seen a real leopard coat? Over the past 35 years the leopard has rebounded dramatically. In most of Sub-Saharan Africa, they are widespread, surprisingly plentiful, and continuing to increase.

From the beginning, CITES has authorized range nations to export "sport-hunted leopard trophies for personal use." The quotas vary by country, with a continent-wide total of less than 3,000. The rationale is simple: Regulated sport hunting places value on a highly efficient predator that otherwise would be considered a dangerous nuisance.

The problem with the leopard is that it's primarily a nocturnal predator, so it's rarely seen unless one is specifically hunting leopard. You do see their tracks. I have seen leopard tracks as far north as Ethiopia and as far west as Liberia. We caught a big leopard on a trail camera in Burkina Faso last year, much farther to the northwest than I would have expected. But in all the collective years I've rambled around Africa, I've had just a handful of chance sightings.

To see a leopard you usually have to work at it, using specialized techniques. That said, there are many more leopards today than when I started hunting Africa, and as a result, leopard hunting is much more successful now than it was 30 years ago.

Across the continent, the most common technique is baiting. The leopard is a highly skilled hunter, so it seemed odd to me that a leopard will readily go for a piece of meat that it knows it didn't kill. However, it maybe perfectly normal in leopard society for one leopard to steal the prey of another. And in areas where lions and hyenas also occur, it is definitely normal for leopards to cache their kills in trees. So in areas with other large predators, leopard baits are hung high. Absent other predators, baits are often wired on the ground.

Every experienced professional hunter has "secret" baiting techniques. In some areas night hunting is legal; in other areas the cat must be enticed onto the bait in daylight. The latter is more difficult and changes the game considerably, but baiting is always a matter of finding tracks, guessing where the leopard might hunt next, and selecting the perfect bait site. If the leopard hits, then it's time to build a blind and wait, but the final move is always up to the leopard.

Options are few. In certain areas, such as sand desert, it maybe possible to track a leopard. Using dogs is highly effective and very selective--also very exciting. This is legal in a few areas, including Mozambique and on private land in Zimbabwe. Calling can work, but calling is difficult simply because it's just random chance for a leopard to be within earshot of the call. My first leopard, taken in Botswana in a time when baiting was illegal there, came to a varmint call. Another time, in the Central African Republic, we were calling duikers when a huge leopard rushed in. I was sitting with a .22, and in any case I had no license for a leopard. Fortunately, the leopard quickly saw what we were and headed out faster than he came in.

There is one thing that is very different about modern leopard hunting. There was a time when "a leopard was a leopard," which didn't help maintain the population. Today all professional hunters specifically target only male leopards, and in most countries that currently allow leopard hunting, the license is valid for a male leopard only. This is as it should be, but it means the methodology must include a good and definitive look at the cat before a shot is taken. Tracks outsized for the area are an indicator, likewise a heavy build and broad skull, but today's leopard hunter really needs to get a good look under the leopard's tail, which means baiting and hunting with hounds are really the only viable techniques.

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NATURAL HISTORY

The leopard, Panthera pardus, is not specifically an African animal. The Asian counterpart is virtually identical. It is considered endangered, but remains relatively plentiful in some remote areas. I saw two while sheep hunting in Turkmenistan, and in Nepal there were leopard tracks on every trail below timberline. In Africa, incidences of leopards turning man-eater are historically rare, but for unknown reasons, it seems more common in Asia. The great Jim Corbett dealt with several infamous man-eating leopards in India, and to this day more than 20 children are taken by leopards annually in Nepal.

The leopard is a powerful animal, but in the order of great cats, it's considerably smaller than the jaguar and a bit smaller than our mountain lion. A good-sized mature male will average about 140 pounds. Over 180 pounds is huge, and in my entire hunting career, I've heard of just a few leopards that topped 200 pounds.

Adult leopards tend to be solitary except when mating. Mating can occur year-round, with two to four cubs born after a gestation of a bit more than three months. Cubs are born in caves, crevices, or hollow logs and begin to follow their mothers on hunts at about three months. Cubs remain with their mothers for up to two years. Sightings of multiple leopards are thus most likely to be a mating pair or a female with sub-adult cubs. Leopards establish territories, and males fight viciously with encroaching males. They do steal prey from each other, so the rare occurrence of multiple males on bait is most likely based on the coincidence of placing bait where territories collide.

The leopard is an opportunistic feeder. Although fully capable of killing very large prey, they will feed on anything from insects to large antelope. Studies of collared leopards indicate that most hunting is done at night, and they are most active during dark of the moon, when their hunts have a greater chance of success.

BEST HUNTING OPPORTUNITIES

As with any species, it's important to hunt in an area that has a good leopard population. But leopard hunting is a highly specialized undertaking, in that you're getting a highly skilled nocturnal hunter to present itself at the time and place of your choosing. Far more important than an area with lots of leopards is doing the homework necessary to find a professional hunter who is an experienced leopard hunter with a track record for success. But please understand with the leopard there are no guarantees.

SHOOTING AND SHOT PLACEMENT

The heart-lung region of all cats is a wee bit farther back than with ungulates. On a standing broadside presentation, the difference isn't enough to alter normal shot placement. However, when feeding, the leopard reaches far forward with front paws, almost dislocating the shoulders. So the most common error lies in shooting too far forward, rather than too far back. When the leopard is standing broadside, come up the centerline of the on foreleg, one-third up into the body. This shot should drop the leopard dead under the tree. If the paws are extended or the light is poor, the larger target is the lung shot, just behind the shoulders, one-third to one-half up into the chest.

Since the leopard is definitely "dangerous game," some countries have a 9.3mm or .375 caliber minimum. If so, follow the law, but if possible use a lighter-than-standard bullet designed to open. If no caliber minimum exists, think of the leopard as "deer-sized game" and use a cartridge and bullet designed for animals this size. I am convinced that due to better bullet expansion a .270,7mm, or .30 caliber will kill a leopard more quickly and more efficiently than a .375 designed for much larger game.

LEOPARD FACTS

POPULATION

It is impossible to properly count an animal as secretive as a leopard, but the African population is estimated to approach two million--a whole lot of leopards.

MOST EXPENSIVE HUNTS

Tanzania, where a 21-day license is required to hunt leopard. Where hound hunting is legal, a significant premium is generally charged for use of the dogs.

LEAST EXPENSIVE HUNTS

Baited hunts in Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.

DID YOU KNOW?

Although called "spots," the leopard's markings are actually rosettes--oblong clusters of spots. The jaguar of the Western Hemisphere has similar rosettes, but with a black spot in the center that is lacking on leopards.

Although leopards have been documented killing eland (Africa's largest antelope), small animals make up a large portion of their diet. A study in Zimbabwe's Matopo Hills showed 72 percent of stomach content was from animals 10 pounds or less (squirrels, hyrax, etc.).

The "black leopard" is a rare melanistic color phase (opposite albinism) that can occur anywhere, but in Africa it's perhaps most common in Ethiopia.
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Title Annotation:species Spotlight
Author:Boddington, Craig
Publication:Petersen's Hunting
Geographic Code:60SUB
Date:Dec 1, 2016
Words:1556
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