Leopard Revenge!

A wounded cat takes down two men in a fight to the death.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

In the fading light of the last day of a two-week safari, Doug Hidden figured that he and his client were finally about to catch a break. They had spent the better part of the hunt trying to tempt a leopard into gun range without success. The haunches of waterbuck and kudu that had been hung in various trees to ripen in the strong African sun had attracted plenty of attention, but from the wrong kind of cat. Lions had been worrying the baits, and with the big cats around, the leopards, reclusive by nature, had become extremely skittish.

For three evenings Doug and his hunter had sat in this particular blind overlooking the flat brushy landscape of western Zimbabwe's Gwayi Valley. Doug knew that a leopard had been feeding on the bait late at night, but they had yet to spot it during hunting hours. This evening, however, their luck seemed about to change.

Doug and his client were about 80 yards from the tree that held the pungent, rotting meat when they heard a rustling sound that meant a leopard was shaking the leaves off the bait. The leaves were there to keep vultures off during the day. More important, they served to signal that a leopard, otherwise silent and all but invisible, had arrived.

For several minutes the cat refused to settle down. Perhaps the lingering odor of the lions made it fidgety; whatever the reason, it didn't present a good shot.

Finally, it started to feed and the crack and crunch of breaking bones coming from the leopard's powerful jaws easily carried over the distance to the hunters. Even now, however, the leopard was uncooperative. The bait had been hung to position the cat broadside to the hunter, but the leopard had twisted itself into an awkward posture straddling the branch, facing toward them.

Despite this, Doug's client felt he had a good target and was certain that his .375 H&H; would flatten the leopard without difficulty. With Doug's blessing he shot. The cat snarled and twisted as the bullet bit into it, and then it tumbled from the tree. As soon as it hit the ground it disappeared into the bush. The client's smile gave way to a look of surprise when Doug told him the cat was only wounded. The hunter thought he had made a clean killing shot, but Doug had seen many leopards wounded before and knew it wasn't yet dead.

Doug slowly approached the baited tree with his tracker, Muzungese, their eyes carefully scanning the bush for any movement, their ears straining for any sound. Doug held his .416 Remington at the ready while the tracker swept the bush with a powerful handheld spotlight to pierce the now complete African night.

They found just a little blood and some shards of bone at the base of the tree. The bone was particularly bad news. It meant the leopard had been hit in the leg-very unlikely a fatal wound. Doug and Muzungese followed the leopard's spoor about 150 yards through the tangle of vegetation, but as the batteries drained in the spotlight and their illumination faded, they gathered their client and turned back to camp.

[pagebreak] In the pre-dawn darkness the next morning Doug and Muzungese put on thick overalls, not only to ward against the chilly winter air but also to provide an extra layer of protection against the leopard's claws in case it attacked. They drove back to the blind with the hunter and an apprentice guide. Once there, Doug told the hunter and the apprentice to stay with the truck. Having the extra gun along would likely do more harm than good. Doug had witnessed this firsthand when he was an apprentice professional hunter about 12 years earlier. A wounded leopard managed to maul four men, one right after the other, and by the time the gunfire died down a fifth man had been hit with buckshot. Doug's boss, the third man the leopard mauled during its lightning blitz, had also been wounded by a shotgun blast.

During his nine years as a professional hter, Doug had tracked more than a dozen wounded leopards, and he thought about that mauling every time. He had been charged twice before. One leopard he shot four times with a semi-automatic shotgun as it came in before stopping it; the other leopard he shot "off the barrel" of the .416 he carried this day.

Doug and muzungese quickly picked up the spoor of the leopard from the night before. Steady rains in recent weeks had spurred the growth of the underbrush, and the dense mix of shrubs, grasses and trees provided poor visibility. Doug and Muzungese had worked together for about five years and each was confident in the other's abilities. The two worked as a team: Muzungese sought out telltale signs of the leopard's movements-a drop of dried blood or an impression of a paw print that would be invisible to someone not raised in the African bush-while Doug remained vigilant for the cat.

About 15 minutes after they started they heard the leopard moving. Doug could tell it was coming fast but he couldn't see it. Suddenly, the leopard exploded out of the bush only 10 feet in front of them, leaping for Doug. Doug tried to raise his rifle but the speed of the cat was too great. He shot underneath the leopard as it hit him and knocked him backward.

In its fury, the leopard bit down repeatedly on Doug's right hand and wrist, ripping through tendons and crippling his arm. At the same time its back legs pumped up and down in a blur, raking Doug's belly in an attempt to disembowel him with its bladelike claws.

Muzungese quickly discarded the 10-inch knife he had at the ready in his hand. The writhing mass of leopard and professional hunter made it impossible to stab the cat without risk to Doug. Instead, he ran up to the leopard and started beating it on the head with a wooden cudgel he carried in his other hand.

The attack had proceeded so quickly that Doug had been unable to differentiate one instant from the next. But now, with the adrenaline coursing through his body, he experienced the sensation of time slowing down. After savaging his hand, the leopard started to bite at his face. With his good hand, Doug gripped the leopard's neck to keep the cat's jaws at bay. With only one good paw-the .375 had all but ruined one foreleg-the leopard was unable to pull Doug's head into its mouth, but with only one good arm Doug couldn't get the cat off him either.

Their eyes were separated by fewer than 12 inches. In a moment of near absurdity, Doug recalls the leopard wincing, cartoonlike, each time Muzungese's club cracked on its skull. With the suddenness of a room going dark after a light has been turned off, Doug realized the leopard was no longer on top of him. He looked up and saw that the cat was now on Muzungese, biting and tearing through the tracker's clothes and cutting him badly.

In shock, Doug rolled over and groped for his rifle, which had been knocked from his hands at the leopard's first rush. Pinning the rifle in the crux of his otherwise useless right arm, Doug awkwardly worked the bolt with his left hand, chambering a fresh cartridge and yelling at Muzungese to free himself from the leopard.

[pagebreak] Of course, the tracker was as helpless in the leopard's clasp as Doug had been, and with each second that ticked by, new slashes and punctures appeared on Muzungese's body, spouting crimson.

Doug knew that a rushed shot could easily kill the tracker. He kneeled and waited for what felt like an eternity for an opening. Rolling and twisting in the sandy dirt, Muzungese and the leopard were so close to Doug that he could have reached out and touched them. Finally, Doug had a clear shot. He pulled the trigger and blew the leopard off his partner.

As soon as the sounds of the melee died down, the client and apprentice hunter rushed to the clearing, where the leopard's body lay sprawled. They saw Doug doubled over, clutching his midsection. With all the blood they thought he had been gutted. As they peeled away the bloody tatters of clothing, they realized that the claws hadn't cut through to his abdomen, although Doug's arm and hand were an awful mess. The same went for Muzungese. The thick clothing had served its purpose; neither man was mortally wounded.

But they weren't out of danger yet. The filth from the leopard's mouth and claws quickly infected the men's wounds. Within an hour it became clear that both were at risk of dying. The nearest adequate hospital was in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital, 800 kilometers away by road. To get there they chartered an airplane; even so the journey took several hours to complete. The doctors in Harare carefully scraped away the infected tissue-in some spots right down to the bone. Both men spent the next few days in the hospital recovering.

A couple of weeks after the attack, the Zimbabwe Professional Hunters and Guides Association honored Muzungese with its bravery award for saving Doug's life.

But neither Muzungese nor Doug needs a plaque to remind them of what happened that winter morning. A glance at the latticework of scars the leopard carved into their flesh is all they require.er, clutching his midsection. With all the blood they thought he had been gutted. As they peeled away the bloody tatters of clothing, they realized that the claws hadn't cut through to his abdomen, although Doug's arm and hand were an awful mess. The same went for Muzungese. The thick clothing had served its purpose; neither man was mortally wounded.

But they weren't out of danger yet. The filth from the leopard's mouth and claws quickly infected the men's wounds. Within an hour it became clear that both were at risk of dying. The nearest adequate hospital was in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital, 800 kilometers away by road. To get there they chartered an airplane; even so the journey took several hours to complete. The doctors in Harare carefully scraped away the infected tissue-in some spots right down to the bone. Both men spent the next few days in the hospital recovering.

A couple of weeks after the attack, the Zimbabwe Professional Hunters and Guides Association honored Muzungese with its bravery award for saving Doug's life.

But neither Muzungese nor Doug needs a plaque to remind them of what happened that winter morning. A glance at the latticework of scars the leopard carved into their flesh is all they require.