Entering the forested area required shoving through a dense hedge of thorn-laden bushes. The further I went toward the din of howling hounds, whistling handlers, and roaring leopards, the denser it became. I was finally, reduced to crawling on hands and knees to get under the vegetation that seemed to have clutching hands and fingers. I was able to stand again when only a few feet away from Coenraad, Poen and the pack that circled, jumped, and howled around the base of a tree. Poen sidled up to me and pointed into the branches near the top. The dappling from my headlamp’s beam, matching the beautifully-spotted coat of the leopard, made it difficult for my brain to define the outline of the cat. When it did come into focus, the main emotion was amazement at how well the huge animal blended into its surrounding. I didn’t have long to be amazed. Several noises in rapid succession announced a change in the situation; Coenraad’s “He’s coming out!”, followed immediately by the fabric tearing sound of the leopard’s claws on the tree, and the enormous thump as he hit the ground. But none of those matched the furious roaring.
I had never heard a louder noise in my life. And, I was once inside a house while a tornado lifted the roof. As the leopard charged, the roaring reached a crescendo and did not lessen as the lead dog, Pistool, grabbed him by the back flank, turning the charge with only four feet to spare between the furious cat and where Coenraad, Poen and I stood frozen in our tracks. I watched as if in slow motion as the leopard streaked by. Poen’s rifle barrel swinging with the cat, a rifle he had no intention of using. Scientific research, not trophy hunting was the goal of our leopard hunt. Some thirty seconds later, the real object of our search – the female leopard – leapt from the same tree recently vacated by the huge male. None of us knew she was in the tree with the male. With the dogs otherwise occupied with the male’s flight, she could have brought her charge home, but instead tore into the surrounding thornbush. We looked at one another and shook our heads. We needed this female alive and GPS-collared. I also needed to start breathing again and get my heart back into my chest. It was understandable, but not comforting, that the male and female wanted to attack the people who were – in their eyes – tormenters. We would face their anger again shortly.
With hands trained by years-and-years of experience and scores of previous captures, Joao quickly assembled the drug cocktail and loaded the hypodermic-projectile into his 50-caliber Savage Arms Dart rifle. Like a many-legged alien, the entourage gathered in a tight cluster with Joao at the head, and moved slowly toward the leopard’s perch. To keep the dogs from becoming tangled up with the leopard on the ground, Coenraad, Life, and Poen had been pulling dogs from the base of the tree, clipping on leads, and securing them to any available object. Unfortunately, hound collection wasn’t over before the hypodermic dart left Joao’s rifle. This would not have mattered had the female chosen to stay in the tree. Apparently not a fan of hypodermic needles driven into the muscle of her flank, she leapt the twenty feet to the ground and began to streak for the surrounding scrub, with the remaining untethered hounds in hot pursuit. That was when I saw something I never expected. To keep her now slightly sedated body from the hounds, and the hounds from possibly stepping into her furiously swinging claws, Coenraad leapt for the quickly-receding tail. The grab was immaculate, but fortunately for him did not hold. I am not certain what would have happened had he gotten a better grip, but I cannot imagine it would have worked out well for the dog handler.
Excerpt from Mike’s Upcoming Book: BRINGING BACK THE LIONS: International Hunters, Local Tribespeople, and the Miraculous Rescue of a Doomed Ecosystem in Mozambique