Flashback Friday – Jaws of Death

MarApr98coverEditor's note: On Friday we reach deep into the Safari Club archives and dust off a story from one of our past issues. This week we follow the story of a brave tracker, a wounded PH and are reminded why leopards can be the most dangerous of dangerous game. This story originally appeared in the March/April 1998 issue of Safari Magazine.

Aside from his rifle, patience and nerves worthy of an NFL place kicker, the African professional hunter's most valuable asset is a skilled tracker. For Rory Muil, a free-lance professional hunter from Kwekwe, Zimbabwe, tracker Tinosend James is valuable beyond measure. Muil took James under his wing as a teen-ager and taught him his craft. James responded with the ultimate thank you: He rescued his mentor from the jaws of death.

My husband, Dave, and I had hunted with Muil in August 1995 through Joe Wright's National Safaris. We were so impressed with his skill and professionalism and the effort he put forth for his hunters that we decided, on the spot, to book again for 1996. In a barely audible telephone conversation that winter, Muil said he'd been mauled by a leopard, but the connection was so bad no other information was forthcoming. We had to wait until later to hear the story ….

It happened on December 6, 1995, in the Dande Safari Area in northeastern Zimbabwe. Muil was doing a late-season leopard hunt with Richard Rodd, a South African client, for Ian Piercey's Zambesi Hunters. The rains came late that year, but they had begun in earnest by then, and the rocky hills were clothed in the faintest new green of emerging leaves and grasses. Muil and James hung baits and checked them until they established that a male leopard was feeding on one in a tree at the bottom of a small ravine. Behind it rose a substantial hill, dotted with small trees and rocks, now muddy from the rains and curious in its mixture of dried grasses from winter and spring's fresh newness. They constructed a classic leaf blind on the ground, and in this blind Muil and Rodd sat silently on the steamy evening of December 5. As darkness fell, rain threatened again.

huntforeverrightleopardtrees070314But such threats didn't deter the leopard. Soon after dark, it returned, and soon they heard it tearing at the bait high in the tree. Muil switched on his strong floodlight, Rodd found the cat in the sights of his .375 and fired – only to miss his target. The cat froze momentarily, staring into the light. Rodd stood, shot a second time and missed again. The leopard bailed out of the tree as Muil followed it with the light. It hesitated only long enough for Rodd to aim and fire one more shot. This time he hit it, and the leopard let out an angry half snarl, half-growl and disappeared. From the blind, they searched the bush with the light but saw nothing.

Now faced with the professional hunter's worst nightmare – wounded dangerous game – Muil chose to wait an hour in the blind. He had no idea how badly the leopard was hit. If it were mortally wounded, it would hopefully crawl off and die quickly. If it still were able to travel, going after it now would only chase it farther away. Giving it time to settle down would provide a better chance of tracking and finding it, and less chance of any people getting hurt.

The hour seemed endless. When it finally was up, Rodd and Muil, accompanied by James, walked to where the cat had jumped from the tree and been shot. They saw no blood, no trail, no clues for James. Few things are more dangerous than trying to track a wounded cat at night. Concerned mostly for his client, but also for himself and his tracker, Muil elected to abandon the search until first light.

huntforeverleopardintreeThat night, four inches of rain fell, washing away all tracks and blood. It still was raining at 7 the next morning when the anxious group arrived at the tree in the ravine. Muil and Rodd were supported by four trackers. James was there, of course, along with a tracker from the Dande camp and two of the area's game scouts. Though it already was around 75 degrees, everyone was dressed in raincoats or ponchos, trying to maintain some semblance of dryness.

The strategy was simple. Because there were no tracks or blood from the night before, the trackers would search for any signs they could find: broken branches, hair, the more-obvious fresh tracks or blood or, best of all, a dead leopard.

Fanning out along the rocky hillside, the trackers poked into every little cave and crevice and behind every bush, straining their eyes as they searched the slippery, muddy ground for signs of the cat. Everyone knew the danger: At any second, the angry animal could spring from a tree, a rock or a hillock, bent on destroying any human it encountered. Muil and Rodd carried their rifles at ready, rounds chambered. Muil's .458 Model 70 Winchester was loaded with Federal 510-grain soft-points. Each of the trackers had his own version of a weapon, some carrying no more than a big stick, because anything is better than nothing. When they left the truck at the tree that morning, in fact, Muil noticed that James had picked up his usual Batonga ax (see sidebar) but was knocking the blade out of it.

huntforeverrightleopardbait070314“Why are you taking that out?” Muil had asked James.

“It's better like this,” James replied. For 3-1/2 hours the six men continued up the hill, searching for any clues to the leopard's whereabouts. James and the trackers were becoming despondent, figuring the cat had either crawled off to hide and die or had managed to elude their weather-hampered efforts and escaped. But Muil would not let them quit. “We must carry on for a little while longer,” he told them.

Just moments later, one of the trackers whistled softly. A hand gesture indicated he'd found a fresh track. Muil rushed over. They were near the top of the hill now, in an area strewn with large rocks. As they looked in the direction the tracks were headed, another tracker spotted a dappled shape disappearing over the rocks at the top. The leopard!

Muil slipped the safety off his rifle and scrambled after it, with Rodd and the trackers following closely. As they came around a big rock at the crest, there lay the angry cat, now cornered under an overhanging rock in what was almost a little cave only 15 meters away. Muil stopped short. Rodd stood close beside him, to his right, beside a sharp, cliff-like drop.

“Whatever you do,” Muil remembers saying to Rodd, “don't run to the right.”

Muil made eye contact with the cat, which was broadside to him, but – due to the rain – the visibility was so poor that he could tell little else. Both men's rifles were at their shoulders. As his stare held the cat's desperate yellow eyes, Muil quickly analyzed the situation. He had expected the cat to charge when they made eye contact. Since it didn't, he knew it would at the first shot, unless the shot was dead on. So, feeling it would be safer for him to be in the best position for a second shot, Muil asked Rodd to shoot first.

africanlionlocalhuntersleopardhuntforever011014Rodd fired. But his shot hit too high behind the shoulder blade. As Muil expected, the cat charged – straight at him in a full run – and emitted a blood-chilling growl. The group scattered, but Muil stood his ground, waiting until the cat was halfway to him. His shot entered low in the right portion of the leopard's chest. The only result: The growling stopped. The cat kept coming. Muil frantically worked the bolt of his rifle to get off another shot, but just as he was closing the bolt, the cat leaped at his throat.

Instinctively, Muil raised his rifle in front of his face with both arms as the leopard slammed into him. It clamped onto his right forearm with its strong jaw, dug its rear claws into his left knee and threw one front paw around the back of his neck. The force of the hit jammed Muir s rifle into his lower neck, and the rear sight cut deeply into the left side of his chin. The blow knocked him backward, but he used the momentum to throw the rifle over his head – and the cat with it. Momentarily, the cat was gone, but Muil had no idea where. He rolled over and began crawling through the mud toward his rifle, now several yards behind him. As he grabbed it, he checked to be sure he had the bolt closed for another shot.

Suddenly, the enraged animal was on top of him again, this time from behind, sinking its teeth into the back of his right ear and neck and the base of his skull. Its left front paw reached around Muir s chest, pulling his body closer to its jaws. Rodd's third shot, the first that had hit the leopard, had struck it in the right front paw, leaving it useless. Muil tried to swing his rifle around and point it behind him to get another shot into his determined attacker. The 145-pound cat clung to him heavily, gnawing on his neck and skull in a frenzied attempt to kill him. Muil said it sounded just as it had when it chewed on the bait in the tree, only now he was the meat.

huntforeverleopardlyingdownHe felt no pain, only the terrible awareness that the animal was ripping him apart. He knew his right arm already was badly damaged – torn open as he threw the animal over his head. He couldn't feel the fingers on his right hand. He also knew he had to either get his rifle around to shoot the cat or dislodge it somehow before it clawed and chewed its way to his face and throat. Once such a death-bent predator finds the throat, the fight is over. Suffocation follows.

As the struggle dragged on, it became clear that if he were to survive, Muil would need help – and fast. The trackers, he knew, were basically unarmed and hiding. But where was Rodd with his rifle?

“Rodd,” he yelled. “Come shoot this thing before it kills me!” But Rodd did not appear, and the leopard kept tearing at him.

Then, suddenly, it was over. Muil felt the leopard roll from his back and land silently beside him. He jumped up to shoot – and there stood James with his ax handle, his eyes wide and jaw set. Muil looked down at the now motionless cat.

“Did you hit it?” he asked his tracker. “Yes,” said James. “I hit it with the ax.” James said he had struck the cat five times while trying to knock it from Muil's back. He had clubbed it to death, saving Muir‚Äôs life.

Rodd, meanwhile, scrambled up from the cliff, where he had jumped in his rush to escape the leopard's charge. Luckily, he hadn't fallen all the way down the cliff but had landed on a rocky prominence, and while the leopard was mauling Muil, he was trying to come to his aid. Soon, the other trackers sheepishly appeared from their hiding places and stood quietly, observing the aftermath.

Muil was aware of the immense respect he was feeling for James and the bravery he had shown. By attacking the cat, James had placed his own life in jeopardy. Once begun, the job had to be finished completely.

The final effort was to get Muil off the mountain and to proper medical help. As he handed his rifle to James, Muil told him if he passed out walking down the mountain to pick him up and get him to the truck. James then asked the other trackers to try to carry the leopard down with them, but if they weren't there by the time he, Rodd and Muil arrived at the truck, they would have to leave without them. Somehow, everyone – the six men and the cat – arrived at the truck together.

Muil did not pass out during the half hour descent, though his right arm was swelling to the size of his thigh. His right ear hung from a strange angle and the rain made an annoying noise when it splattered on it.

Rodd drove the truck back to camp, with the battered Muil in front and the four wet and shaken trackers with the dead leopard in the back. They radioed Ian Piercey in Harare and he immediately arranged for a plane to pickup Muil.

leopardquestfeedinghuntforever010914As they waited the 3 hours for the plane to arrive, They cut off Muil’s raincoat and shirt and bathed his wounds in iodine from buckets. The biggest danger from cat wounds is infection. Leopards eat so much rotten meat that there is are always lethal bacteria in their claws and teeth.

An ambulance met Muil’s plane in Harare and took him to the hospital. After many sutures, surgery to close the massive rips in his arms and antibiotics, ten days later Muil was released.

Strangely enough, Muil and James have never discussed the incident. It was about two weeks before they saw each other again. After Muil was flown to the hospital, James stayed on at the camp to track for the new professional hunter that finished Rodd’s safari.

Today James still works full time for Muil. Though the two men have never expressed it, they share a deep bond of trust, respect and mutual dependence – a bond as valuable as life itself.–Patricia Goodman

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