Besides the rare encounters in my adolescence, my relationship with the Leopard started in earnest in December 1996 with my appointment as a field guide for a private photographic safari camp in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve. Being the most sought after animal for viewing by visiting tourists, the Leopard is a priority to find if one has the determination to provide a quality experience to the paying guests. This translates into a professional competition amongst all the field guides operating in a certain traversing area, resulting in a drive to be the most efficient tracking team.
The tracking team consists of the field guide, responsible for controlling the vehicle, and the tracker, responsible for identifying the spoor from his perch on the bonnet of the vehicle. Once a spoor is found the pair must co-ordinate their efforts in order to bring the tourists in view of the Leopard, either by vehicle or on foot.
By 1998 I believed that the team of which I was a member was quite efficient, managing to track, locate and view both male and female Leopard fairly regularly, however my move further North to a camp situated close to the Timbavati/Umbabat border resulted in a revolution of that concept when I had a tracker by the name of Giyani assigned to me.
I can freely state that Giyani opened up to me a new world of insight into Leopard habits and behaviour. Being of Shangaan origin and having grown up as a herder boy for his fathers cattle, Giyani had a seemingly emptyless basket of experience and talent. I had a lot of learning to do and a lifetime probably was not enough to catch him up. Regardless, the time spent tracking Leopard over Giyani’s shoulder was to fabricate the foundation of passion for pursuing this elusive cat, which remains with me to this day. We took every chance presented to us to find Leopard and it became our specialty.
Several years of the duty cycle of working for 4 weeks followed by 7 days leave passed so quickly it now feels like a dream but at the time each day was packed with exposure to raw nature in the pristine African bushveld. I began to feel the need to be more involved – to remove myself as just a spectator and be included in my surroundings. This desire led me to leave the photographic scene and enter the professional hunting industry.
I obtained the required qualifications as stipulated by the law in 2004 after having intermittently served apprenticeship on several game farms in the Limpopo province in between paying the bills with forestry work. During this time I constructed a hound pack for hunting the Bushpig that are numerous in the mountainous areas where I was functioning. I also began to receive some freelance work performing Leopard hunts for other hound operators, which over time increased in frequency and profitability.
Finally by 2006 my ‘Bushpig pack’ was a rough and tough dual-purpose unit and I had acquired all the necessary tools and equipment to respond to a call for a Leopard hunting pack anywhere in Southern Africa. I had infused my line of locally bred hounds with foreign genetics through the mating of a male Bluetick I imported from Canada in order to amplify certain qualities required for successfully pursuing Leopard, and I had equipped a good Zimbabwean tracker with the skills to additionally perform the function of hound handler. He remains in my employment to this day.
November 2006 was to present an opportunity that, although it meant I had to sell my hounds, I am grateful I did not refuse - a position as a handler with a German Wild Boar pack made up of Deutsche Jagdterriers.
For 2 years I was involved in driven hunts in numerous locations throughout Central and Southern Germany that bestowed on me a better comprehension of the origins and cultures of European hunting. Good fortune also afforded me several occasions to hunt in France, Spain, Austria and Belgium.
The real prize however was the ease of accessibility I now had to the French houndsmen and their hounds. It became necessary to engage in a French language course in order to at least be able to comprehend some basic French writings on the topic of hounds and their training, especially those which regarded the hunting of the Wolf.
During this time I was keeping in contact with the developments in the hound hunting industry back home with the intent of later returning to pick up where I left off, this time with a breed I had discovered in France that possessed all the desirable characteristics for hunting Leopard – in spades! The Grand and Petit Gascon Saintongeois. I travelled and traded in France and Belgium, purchasing and collecting the foundation stock of 9 individuals from kennels that I judged to be breeding the correct type of Gascon-Saintongeois hound with suitable characteristics for introduction into the African arena.
My perspective on what is needed for efficiently tracking and baying a Leopard/Bushpig stipulates that the hound must:
- Primarily have a firm affliction for using his nose and be bred from stock that demonstrates the characteristic of detecting old scent tracks.
- Be built proportionately with long legs, a long neck, deep chest and a foot similar to the Wolf.
- Have a great voice.
- Be courageous and not easily intimidated, yet not be foolishly driven to attack the quarry.
- Possess a fine coat with exposed skin being dark.
- Be acutely connected to his master and not aggressive to other hounds.
- Have problem solving ability supported by intelligence.
Since returning to South Africa I have patiently and conscientiously trained up a pack of hounds exclusively for hunting the felines found in our bushveld namely; Caracal, Serval and Leopard and also another pack specific to the Bushpig. In line with the centuries old tradition I have implemented the principles and practices as defined by the Art of Hunting with Hounds – Venerie, which sets out a template for constructing and operating a pack of hounds with emphasis on aged scent tracking ability, identifying individual strengths, communication between hounds, discipline and target specificity. This coupled with some of the traits found in the American dry ground hound like persistence, heat tolerance, ‘treeing’ awareness and working endurance, have directed me to a course of breeding selection and pack composition that results in a complete team very capable of consistently tracking and bringing to bay the elusive quarry.
Add some unique South African hunting culture and enter into our wonderfully diverse habitats and the result is a superb hunting experience far and above the simple acquisition of a trophy.
My goal is to stay aligned with current Leopard conservation principles of harvesting the most ecological sound individual, which remains according to all current research, the large mature male.
For all these blessings that have steered my life path I am thankful to God.