HOW NOT TO HUNT LEOPARDS.
The tunnel led through the thick thorn bush choking the entrance to the narrow ravine into which the wounded leopard had crawled. He had been wounded while he was in the goat stockade, by a shot from the goat herder’s ancient blunderbuss. Now he was my problem. I had to find him and kill him. I focused all my attention on the tunnel the animals had forced through the bush and the blood track leading into it. My Masai gun bearer and I started crawling through, trying to ignore the stab and scratch of the thorns. I knew if I survived the leopard I would probably look like a bloody rag doll. How did I end up here? Well, being the Tanzanian Game Department’s designated rogue animal control officer, it was my job to go after wounded or problem animals, and alleviate the misery of both the animals and the local populace. I had been camping at Mbega on the banks of the Rufigi River where I had been doing a little fishing during my off time. I was just starting to relax when the message arrived from Matambwe Ranger Station near the village of Kisaki. There was a rogue leopard in the district that had to be taken care of before it added humans to its diet of domestic goats. I arrived at the village after a long dusty trip over bad roads. After a short discussion with the headman I was taken to the stockade where the leopard was wounded.
My attention was so focused on spotting the leopard in the dappled light, that I did not notice the coil of scales next to my foot until it was too late. I felt a sudden burning pain in my left calf, which I knew was not a thorn prick. When I looked down I saw the Cape Cobra’s fangs still hooked on my khaki leggings. I kicked it off, and stumbled back knocking over the Masai. Fortunately the snake slithered away, and soon vanished into the tangle of vines.
This was the last thing I needed – a bite from a Cape Cobra, one of the most venomous snakes in the African bush, its toxicity only exceeded by its aggression! The situation was bad, very bad. I had 20 miles of rough terrain between me and the truck in which I kept the snakebite serum. To boot, I had a wounded leopard somewhere close by, as was evidenced by the rasping grunts we heard in the bush in just ahead of us. A daunting picture for anyone, even a seasoned animal control ranger, who was used to being in dangerous situations with animals. I whipped off my belt and made a tourniquet above the bite mark, pulling the belt as tight as I could. Every minute counted now.
“Almani, help me. The snake has bitten me!” I called to my gun bearer. “We better get out of this bush quick, quick, before the leopard doubles back and sorts us out. You will first have to suck out as much poison from the bite as you can. Then go and fetch the first aid kit, or I will become food for the first hyena that comes along”. Being food for hyena or other scavengers was not something I wanted on my record.
The pain was excruciating, and I could feel it moving up my leg as the poison spread to the belt tourniquet. I hobbled to a large acacia tree where I could sit, and took out my knife, thanking my lucky stars that I had sharpened it before the trip.
“Almani, I am going to take off my pants. Take this knife, and cut along the fang marks about a finger deep and about two fingers long, let it bleed, and then you must suck out the poison.” This was bad, very bad. He was not very happy, but he did what I told him to. I think he realized it was the only thing that could save my life.
When he cut me, I yelled so loud and long that any wild animal within a mile must have fled and is probably still running to this day. I bled like a stuck pig, but managed to stop some of the blood with my handkerchief when Almani finished the operation. I had to loosen the tourniquet every now and again to avoid the possibility of gangrene.
“Almani, leave me the gun, torch, and the water bottle. If you care for me, my friend, run like the wind, and bring the first aid kit back. Even if I look like I’m dead already, inject me with three bottles of the serum. You know how to do this. Go Now! Quick Quick”
I made myself as comfortable as possible against the acacia tree with the gun across my lap, and the torch and water bottle close at hand. I had to lie very still so as to keep the spread of the venom to a minimum. The venom was already taking effect. It was a fast acting nerve toxin. My breathing became labored, and the bush suddenly appeared to have double of everything. Sounds started blurring, and all I could think of was that the wounded leopard was still in the vicinity with my name written on his teeth. I was losing control fast. Fear made me the sweat run down my back. This was not what I bargained for. I felt utterly helpless.
As time passed and I started losing consciousness for longer periods. In one of the short lucid periods, I smelt something that must have come out of the faulty mortuary. A real putrid meat smell. But in my state I could not identify it immediately. I passed out again. The next time I came round it was already dark, and the horrible smell still hung in the air like a thick fog hanging over a broken sewerage treatment plant. Then the penny dropped! The leopard was near, very near! I could hear his rasping breath close. Too close. The only things I could move were my eyelids. A sense of despair ran darkly through me. It dawned on me that I was in for a grisly death if I didn’t do something quickly. As the fear of death coursed through my body, so did the adrenalin rush. Old hunting habits kicked in. Moving very slowly, I put my finger on the trigger of the gun, and took hold of the torch in the other. From the smell and his rasping breath I knew he had to be somewhere on my left. It was pitch dark. Slowly, and carefully, I turned on my side and pointed the gun in the general direction of the rasping. I took a deep breath and switched on the torch, straight into the fiery eyes of the leopard. He was crouched and ready to strike. I pulled the trigger quickly, hoping for the best, and promptly passed out again.
I awoke to a sharp stabbing pain in my arm as Almani injected me with the snake serum. Dazed and confused, I tried to take stock of the situation. He had started a large fire, and dragged me onto a rough bed of leaves. He had saved my life. The serum was quick acting, and I was already feeling more comfortable, and had less pain. I was beginning to feel human again, until he pointed to the left, at the dead leopard not five feet away from me. I must have gone into shock and passed out again. I think I would have wet my pants from fear if I had them on. I owed Almani my life. This was much too close for comfort.
In retrospect it was a toss-up whether an attack from the leopard would have been worse than the bite of the Cape Cobra. This was how not to hunt leopards!