Hunters and springbok

Dan Baker, Boddington and Gladys Taggart with two beautiful Kalahari springboks, taken a few minutes apart in Kaokoland.

When Dan Baker and Gladys Taggart bid on Jamy Traut’s auction package at our 2019 Convention, they knew they would be hunting in Namibia. I’d agreed to go along, so I knew that as well, and I also knew Jamy would put on a great safari. None of us knew we’d be hunting in an unlimited expanse encompassing 1.6 million acres of wild Africa!

Namibia is always an awesome safari destination. Since I first hunted there 40 years ago, there are many reasons why this once-sleepy backwater has emerged as Africa’s second-largest safari destination. I’ve been there many times and look forward to more, but hunting areas in Namibia are rarely described as “wild” or “unlimited.”

The most common Namibian safari is for plains game on private land, productive hunting in gorgeous country on large properties, but except for the far north, most of Namibia is not “dangerous game country.” Then there’s Caprivi, where the buffaloes and elephants roam. Caprivi, formally the “Zambezi Region,” is now one of the continent’s top spots for elephant. Caprivi is wild, with constant elephant traffic between Angola to the north and Botswana to the south, and lions are often heard roaring at night. Realistically, however, Caprivi is a narrow strip; hunting areas in Caprivi are not huge and certainly not unlimited.

Over the years I thought I’d seen most of Namibia…but I’d missed Kaokoland! The northwestern corner of Namibia is a huge and mostly vacant quadrant of rocky ridges, steep mountains and broad valleys. The region is home to several pastoral peoples who have pooled their land into conservancies. Jamy Traut’s Kaokoland concession extends across multiple conservancies and covers, literally, 1.6 million acres, extending from the westernmost extension of Etosha most of the way to the Atlantic. He freely admits there’s much of it he’s never seen…and it’s unlikely he’ll ever know it all.

It’s an interesting area! Kaokoland is “below the red line,” a long deteriorated and now-porous fence intended to exclude buffalo (and their bovine diseases) from cattle country. With or without the “red line” Kaokoland is too dry for buffalo so none are present. Instead there’s a permanent population of several hundred elephants that follow scarce hidden springs, with more coming and going seasonally from Etosha.

There is also a permanent population of lions! We saw fresh tracks daily and heard lions roaring from camp several nights. One morning, when we least needed help from lions, we checked an active leopard bait only to discover lions had managed to climb the tree, devour the bait and, of course, chase our leopard off in the process. Such things are normal in Tanzania or the Zambezi Valley…they are not expected in Namibia.

Perhaps the most amazing thing: Kaokoland has a breeding population of black rhinos, very possibly the last completely free-ranging black rhinos on the African continent. We saw fresh tracks near a spring one morning, so their presence is genuine. Black rhinos are very tough, naturally able to thrive in rugged, arid habitat. Kaokoland reminded me of the harsh, stony Samburu country in northern Kenya, once famous for black rhino.

Kaokoland is rocky and dry, with just a few widely scattered natural springs. This year we caught the serious drought conditions that are plaguing most of Namibia, with hardly a blade of grass anywhere. There’s a broad, open valley with scattered scrub mopane trees they call “Little Serengeti,” usually lush with tall grass. This year “Little Sahara” would be more apt! Even so, at least in June the animals were mostly in good shape, and I was impressed by the quality, quantity and variety.

Springbok roamed in big herds and rams were huge. Black-faced impala were plentiful, and the hills held major concentrations of the beautiful Hartmann’s mountain zebra. Giraffes were everywhere, sometimes in large herds. Kudu were widely scattered, but we saw mature bulls almost every day, and Gladys took an exceptional bull with a fast shot through a small window on a brushy hillside.

Gemsbok were also widely scattered, but the area is known for long-horned oryx, and we had occasional sightings of eland and hartebeest. In such big, arid country game is widely dispersed. We had to cover ground and glass, but on most outings we’d see a half-dozen different species, and, adding in steenbok and klipspringer, some days we’d get up to nine or ten.

Our primary purpose was to get Dan a leopard, so that focused our efforts: Much time was spent looking for tracks, hanging baits, dragging and building blinds. Finding tracks was simply not a problem; most rocky watercourses held leopard spoor, and in the course of the hunt I saw a couple of leopard pug marks as big as any I’ve ever seen. Getting the cats to take and remain on bait proved difficult, with some tracks passing by our succulent baits; other cats hitting once and not returning. The likely conclusion is effects of the drought, with some animals already weakened and offering easy prey.

As the hunt progressed it was frustrating, as leopard hunting often is, but Jamy’s main camp was exceptionally comfortable, and the skinners were kept busy. On most days one or another animal was taken, but leopard prospects weren’t favorable. Just past the midpoint we moved to a “fly camp” off to the west, actually a wonderfully complete and comfortable tented camp in the middle of nowhere. It was here that we heard lions roaring, and the leopard business started coming together. We had two big toms feeding on widely separate baits…and we actually saw both of them in broad daylight.

The first, not far from camp, approached the bait before sundown, but instead of jumping into the tree as he was supposed to, he made a beeline for the blind and sat down, staring, at just ten yards. It was impossible to depress Dan’s .275 Rigby from its rest for a shot, so the stalemate continued for long seconds until the cat, sensing something amiss, wandered away…and then it grew dark.

The second, horrors, was on the bait when we approached in late morning to check. This was a very big tom, seen clearly as he crossed a dry wash, climbed the opposite bank, and then stopped for a few seconds, an amazing sight. No shot was possible, but this cat had just discovered the bait and we thought he’d come back. He did, and fed greedily. We brought him fresh zebra and set up a perfect blind…but it was this bait that was stolen by lions!

We figured the lions had messed up any chance for this leopard, so we concentrated on the tom near camp. In accordance with local rules we were committed to a daylight shot, which complicates things. This cat had been on and off the bait site for some time, but was an irregular feeder, sometimes in the dead of night (which did us no good), but sometimes, per trail camera, in the morning…and he’d discovered our first blind in late afternoon. We built a new blind in the rocks above, changing the angle, and the cat quickly returned.

He was so habituated to this bait that I truly thought we would get him, just a matter of time…but time was growing short. At this stage any leopard hunt becomes tense and tiring, with long hours in the blind staring at nothing. Will the cat come? And will there be enough light for a shot? He came at dusk on Dan’s last evening, visible, the sounds of tearing meat and crunching bones audible. There just wasn’t enough light for a safe and confident shot, a heart-breaking conclusion to a fine safari in fascinating country. Sometimes that’s the way of it with leopard hunting. There are no guarantees, but this one was so close and yet so far. We’ll just have to try it again!–Craig Boddington

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