Close calls – part 4
Professional Hunter Derek Hurt of Robin Hurt Safaris recalls the day when he was mauled by a wounded leopard whilst on safari in western Tanzania.
October 15, 2014 is a date that I will never forget. We were two weeks into a 21-day safari, having arrived the day before from our Mlele concession – where we had spent the first 10 days of our safari – at our Luganzo Camp which overlooks the swamps of the Ugala River in western Tanzania, where we were hoping to hunt sitatunga and leopard. PH Oliver Barton and I had two clients between us, a father and son from Austria.
I was hunting with the father, and Oliver the son.
The day before, I had checked on a number of leopard baits we had hung and, as it turned out, one of them had been visited by what appeared to be a large leopard (it had eaten a huge amount of the buffalo hindquarter that we had strung up in the tree).
I immediately decided to build a blind in preparation for Oliver and his client who would begin their vigil early the following morning.
As planned, they set off from camp ahead of us in order to be in the blind at least 15 minutes before first light.
By coincidence, my client and I were glassing for sitatunga from a machan (hunting platform) only a couple of miles away from the blind when, at about 7am, we heard a shot ring out. We both acknowledged this and continued to glass for sitatunga.
However, about an hour later, I started to become concerned as I hadn’t heard from Oliver, who by that point should have driven past us.
I raised his car with the handheld radio, and was informed by Juma, the driver, that the leopard had in fact run off.
I told him to let Oliver know that I was on my way. By 8:30am, I had joined up with him.
Initially, there had been a lot of blood to follow but this was dissipating by the minute.
Knowing that following a wounded cat can be very dangerous, I asked both clients to wait at the trucks as Oliver and I would need to be 100 per cent focused on the task at hand.
Oliver and I, together with our four trackers, stayed on the leopard’s tracks as best we could.
As there was very little blood, it was hard-going, and soon a very tense atmosphere had settled over us, particularly as we passed by warthog holes and smaller patches of thicker scrub, places that a wounded leopard would be likely to take refuge.
Over the next hour or so, we followed the tracks through open Brachystegia or Miombo forest. Eventually, after about 1.5km, we found some tracks that indicated that the leopard had run directly towards a patch of very thick bush.
When we were about 30 yards away from the thicket, I got a fleeting glimpse of what I was sure was the rear-end and base of a leopard’s tail. We cautiously edged around this thicket hoping for a shot but saw nothing more.
On the other side of the thicket was an open field known locally as a mbuga, which was partially burnt.
Suddenly, our tracker Gordy spotted something on a termite mound about 50 to 60 yards away. It briefly looked at us and then disappeared.
Gordy wasn’t sure what he had seen, but we surmised that it could well have been a leopard, so we carefully made our way in that direction, stopping when we were about 20 yards off.
There was about an acre of tall (4–5ft) thatch grass on the far side of the termite mound which we scanned meticulously, hoping for a shot but, again, didn’t see anything.
Oliver then suggested that he stand on top of another large termite mound on the far side of the tall grass, from which he would be able to get a good view into the grass.
Knowing that we would have to go through the grass in order to reach the termite mound, I called up my truck with the handheld radio. I asked that only my driver Sareyo and game scout Ayubo come and that the rest of the party wait at the other truck.
When they arrived, Oliver and I discussed the situation with the government game scout.
The rules of the chase are clear – every effort and means must be used to end a wounded animal’s suffering.
So, after much discussion, and because of the long grass, it was unanimously decided to use the Land Cruiser as a mobile vantage point in order help to bring the hunt to a close.
The driver and game scout would sit in the cab with their windows firmly wound up – I would communicate with them through the open rear window – and my two trackers, Frank and Sinza, would join me in the back of the pickup and help me to look for the leopard.
I gave Sinza my loaded .375 H&H rifle, ensuring that the safety catch was on, while I carried my Manton .470 Nitro Express double with both barrels loaded with softs. With the safety catch off, I ensured that my muzzles were pointed in whichever direction
I looked so that I was ready to fire at a split second’s notice.
Going into this type of situation is always tense; one is on tenter hooks, extremely alert and in the full knowledge that things can so easily go wrong in the blink of an eye. I asked Sareyo to drive towards the thicket where I had initially got a fleeting glimpse of the leopard.
Standing on the rear seat of the pickup with both Frank and Sinza behind me and to my right, we approached with the thicket to our left, thereby ensuring that I would get a clear shot if the leopard presented itself. After about five or six minutes, we established that the cat had in fact left the thicket, but
I did notice an area of flattened grass where something had lain down. I hopped down from the truck and immediately found blood. This was all the confirmation we needed; what Gordy had seen on the termite mound had undoubtedly been the leopard.
We climbed back into the truck and resumed our positions. I asked Sareyo to approach the grass to the left-hand-side of the termite mound as there was a good chance that he was lying-up in there.
Again, Sareyo approached slowly, killing the engine every time I asked him to stop, which ensured that, in the event of a charge, he wouldn’t accidentally drop the clutch and throw me off balance. And it also allowed us to listen for any movement.
We stopped several times right on the edge of the grass, but saw nothing.
We continued around the edge of the termite mound before stopping once again to scan the grass. Everywhere I looked, the barrels of my .470 NE pointed. By this point, I felt extremely tense – we all did.
Suddenly, from about five yards to my left, the grass exploded into a growling, snarling blur of teeth, spots and whiskers. I instinctively swung around, corrected my position and pointed the rifle at the charging leopard.
Strangely, I distinctly recall that his ears were flattened against his head.
He came straight at me like a streak of lightning. I fired and immediately realised that I had missed! The next thing I knew, and before I could get a second shot off, the leopard was in the back of the truck and on top of me, knocking my rifle from my arms.
I must have instinctively brought my right arm up to protect my face as the leopard latched onto my elbow and crunched down with incredible force.
In horror, I realised that my arm was no longer any use to me as the bone snapped with an audible crack. At the same time, the leopard tried to claw me on the head with his left paw. I think my densely-woven canvas hat helped a little as, in retrospect, the scratches on my forehead could and should have been a lot worse.
I distinctly remember holding him off with my left arm whilst kicking as hard as I could. Apparently, from what Oliver told me afterwards, I was shouting “piga, piga, piga!” a desperate bid in Kiswahili for Frank and Sinza to hit him.
Suddenly the leopard let go and, momentarily, I thought he was merely pausing before really climbing into me.
To my relief, however, he turned around and took off in Oliver’s direction.
I shouted to Oliver as loudly as I could that he was heading his way. It is not uncommon for a wounded leopard to maul several people in the space of a few seconds.
Oliver was probably 60–80 yards away and almost immediately I heard one shot and then another. He bowled the leopard over with both barrels of his .470 NE, killing it instantly.
The charge itself must have lasted less than a second, and our little tangle in the back of the truck probably lasted no more than another two or three.
It really is amazing just how fast these animals are, and how incredibly brave they are.
As soon as I heard Oliver’s shots, I became aware that I was bleeding heavily. I immediately jumped out of the truck whilst clenching my armpit to curb the flow of blood.
The men were all with me in an instant. I asked Sareyo to bring the first aid bag and locate a tourniquet, but in the confusion, Frank, bless his heart, produced a piece of sisal twine! I remember thinking this was quite amusing.
Still clenching my armpit, I had one of the other trackers pour bottled drinking water into my wounds whilst Gordy washed them out. By this time Oliver had arrived on the scene, and I could feel shock beginning to set in.
I asked him to supervise the clean-up and dressing, which he kindly did. I also asked the other trackers to bring the leopard over as I was uncomfortable with it being left unattended 80 yards away. Besides, I wanted to see it.
It turned out that the original shot, which had passed through the brisket just below the heart, had severely injured the leopard’s chest. Judging by the injury, I imagine that he wouldn’t have lasted much longer. To this day, I am glad that we were able to find him and put a swift end to his suffering.
By this time, the rest of the hunting party had joined us. I asked George (who was helping out for the season) to please check that all the rifles were unloaded as I knew my .470 still had a round in it and the safety would still be off.
Oliver called Jonathan Howells who manages our Tanzania company and office, and asked him to make preparations for my evacuation.
Jonathan immediately telephoned David Markham, our CEO who is based in Kenya. David contacted the AMREF Flying Doctors, who were airborne within an hour. Being close by, we had enough time to go to camp, have a bite to eat, and pack a bag. I knew I would be going to hospital.
From camp I was able to call my wife and assure her that I was okay.
The King Air landed on our Luganzo airfield at about 3pm and the AMREF crew immediately cleaned and dressed my wounds on the airfield before flying me to Nairobi where an ambulance was waiting.
By 7pm that evening I was in Nairobi Hospital. That evening I had my first session in surgery, which was basically a major clean-up.
To this day, I am immensely grateful for the smooth evacuation process organised by David and Jonathan, and indebted to AMREF for their total professionalism, and to my family for all the support I received on that day and subsequently.
Over the next 15 days in hospital I had four operations under the excellent care of Dr. Mutiso, an orthopaedic surgeon, Prof Khainga, a plastic surgeon, and Dr. Saio, a specialist in tropical diseases.
The scratches on my head were stitched up during the second operation, but the major wounds were kept open under sealed vacuum until the final surgery. My elbow was broken in two places having been split by the leopard’s teeth. They were screwed into place during the third operation.
I had to stay in Nairobi for another 10 days after leaving hospital, finally returning home to join my wife Belinda and our two boys in Arusha nearly three and a half weeks after the incident.
In hindsight, it could have been much worse. The leopard was an enormous specimen and he could easily have done me a lot more harm than he did. I was lucky.
I’ve had many close encounters with dangerous game during the 20+ years of my hunting career so far, and until that point, I had managed to avoid getting into
a tangle. October 15 was simply my turn to join what my father Robin refers to as the “Chewed by a Chui Club”!
We all consider this sort of hunting incident to be an occupational hazard – it comes with the territory.
I’m not the first and by no means will I be the last. Indeed my father joined the club himself about 25 years ago (as featured HERE).
Perhaps we are the first ever father and son members of this exclusive club?