Lion lessons

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By Don Heath

There has been a human fascination with lion that goes back as far as the time that man could communicate his thoughts in written or artistic form. From the San paintings on the granite outcrops of Southern Africa, to the stupendous image of the Sphinx, man has paid homage to the King of the Beasts - Panthera leo - the epitome of regal bearing and physical strength. The advent of television and filmed documentaries have brought the lion into many people's lives and heightened the awareness further. No longer images of the tired, over-weight 200 lion or circus performers dominate. The lion is there as large as life in our living rooms, doing all the things that lion do in the wild- stalking and killing prey, raising litters of cubs and reclining in the shade of the acacia trees on the rolling plains of Africa.

Perspective and perceptions change, however, when you undertake to get out in the wild to hunt the big cat on his own turf. Over the years, I have had been fortunate enough to have hunted lion in varied circumstances by many methods and with a bit of luck, I have survived the experience with no ill-effects, but a healthy respect for the power and savagery that a large lion can display when aroused. A respect that is kindled when you stand rifle in hand, in the open and a lion that you have been tracking is growling at you from short range completely concealed behind a few tufts of grass. The knowledge that the hunter can also become the hunted focuses the senses wonderfully, the hair prickles, the hands moisten, the mouth dries and you are suddenly as physically and mentally aware as you have ever been in your life. A sudden move or even a blink of the eye and, you can be called upon to focus, aim and shoot at 200 metres of angry cat, coming at you at blinding speed. To have done it several times and accomplished, it has not made the experience any easier to deal with, and hopefully those that wish to take in a hunt for one of Africa's greatest trophies will not have to face down a charge if the preparation of the hunt goes according to plan.

Dealing with problem lion during my National Parks career, we were able to utilise whatever means we could to deal with the culprits. Some were tracked and shot in classical hunting style, but all too often, we were called out when attempts made by local officials or farmers had failed. You now had to deal with a lion that had been educated to pursuit but was also addicted to best quality beef or lamb!

One of them that tested me to the full had arrived in the Doma farming area following the Rikuti river up from the Zambezi Valley. He had been part of a pride that had wreaked havoc on the cattle in the area, the lioness teaching the young to kill the unsuspecting and docile cattle, the lion having his fill and also the male was left by the time I was called in, and during the next three weeks, I tried everything I could to put an end to his marauding ways.

I tracked him all over the farms, through the reed beds of the Rikuti river, parting the reeds with my .577 barrels and coming across patches in the sand where his body heat was still very much in evidence. I used poison on a cow carcass, he ate and regurgitated the meat, he lay low for a couple of days and then we found another kill. Trap guns were set up around the carcass to cover his entry, but he never returned to the kill, the result of his stomach ache made him kill and eat, never to return. In desperation, I recalled Jim Corbett's tales and obtaining a young goat, penned it and made a rough platform in a tree nearby. Apart from raining during the night, the goat never uttered a bleat. I suffered a severe cramp in my nether limbs and the lion roamed free.

I had established that he had taken to using a particular track leading up from the Rikuti valley and rigged a trio of trap guns. There were 12ga Greener single shots loaded with SPSG. Tied to a tree or a steel fence standard hammered into the ground, the trip mechanism was a length of copper wire from the windings of an electric motor. Care was taken to set the wire at the right height and the amount of "give" in the wire judged so that the shot when fired, would hit the lion behind the shoulder. The local people were warned not to go near the area - not that too many were out and about after dark with the cattle raider at large!

After a couple of nights of setting the guns and de-activating them in the morning with no results, I headed off to the Parks and Wildlife Provincial Headquarters in Chinhoyi to fetch the large Canadian bear traps which was about the last shot left in the armoury. As it happened, I was greeted with the devastating news that my boss and mentor from Binga station, Len Harvey had been killed and Willem de Beer severely mauled by a lioness in Hwange. So it was late when I returned to the farm and sought the help of Hugh Jackson, the farmer, to help me set the trap guns for the night.

I was setting the last in the line aided by the lights of the Land Rover when I heard a report followed by a sighing grunt. As it was now fully dark, I loaded my rifle and walked gingerly down the track in the lights of the Land Rover, the vehicle's bumper a scant metre behind me. I had to de-activate the second gun and then there, in the track, at the first site, lay the lion, stone dead. The charge of SPSG pellets had taken him perfectly behind the shoulder, a pattern the size of a tea-cup in the skin. Although huge in body, tipping the scale at 465 lbs, he had little mane while the layer of fat under his skin testified to his rich diet of the last few weeks. A conventional lion hunt would not resort to the sort of methods described above, certainly not within a Parks Safari area or with a reputable operator. Apart from chance sightings or encounters (which are not as rare as it would seem), to hunt a lion effectively in Zimbabwean conditions, the method would invariably involve baiting a suitable location.

Others have discussed the ethics and merits of the conventional techniques of hunting lion and having tried all of them at one time or another, I believe that the baiting of cats with a natural light limitation is the best and most ethical method available.

Tracking lion over most terrain is normally a very difficult operation, as despite their large paws and considerable weight, they are after all, a cat, and thus light-footed as well as unpredictable. Without a really good tracker it is not really a viable option for most hunters.

Lion are transient creatures, often following large herds of buffalo for considerable periods while cutting out and taking their requirements from the herd. On one occasion along the Zambezi below Mpata Gorge in Chewore, lion reduced a herd of buffalo by almost half before the buffalo took off for safer, greener pastures. There was a buffalo carcass nearly every 300 - 400 metres of river bank for several kilometres from the gorge to the Red Cliffs. This lasted about six weeks, with the lion taking a buffalo every three to four days.

Although lion are classified as Dangerous Game, it is a distinction that is arrived at from the point of view that he is dangerous to the hunter and not that he is hard to kill. On the basis of ability to absorb the hunter's best efforts and still came on to cause damage, the buffalo reigns supreme. Not that lion should be taken lightly, his speed, strength and armament make up for his vulnerability. A well placed bullet from a medium calibre rifle say a .300, will kill him and if it is not so well-placed, will cause him to lose interest in the proceedings. This of course leads to having a wounded lion that you have to hunt, and deal with, a situation that noone wants to have to encounter.

My personal feelings are that it is better to over-gun oneself slightly in any situation. For lion, I would put the minimum calibre at .375 Magnum loaded with a good expanding bullet that will hold together and preferably remain in the body of the animal. Bear in mind that although soft-skinned, the lion has massive musculature and substantial bones in his shoulder area. On almost all animals, my target area is aligned with the foreleg and about a third of the way up the chest cavity. This shot invariably causes severe damage to the organs between the shoulders and renders the animal immobile.

Shooting from the blind in what may be uncertain light, a telescopic sight is essential to ensure a good clear target mixture and precise bullet placement. I prefer a single post with a cross hair, but the main thing is to have a good light gathering potential and clarity. Make sure that you are zeroed in at the precise range required and if you have a variable scope that it is set on the correct magnification, the less you have to do when your quarry appears at the bait the better.

Once establishing that the lion are going to be in the area for a while, a large antelope or buffalo carcass can be used to attract and hold them. Any tree with a suitable branch to hang the bait will do, unlike the search for an ideal "leopard" tree. The bait must be positioned so that it is only available to a lion standing on his hind legs and certainly out of the reach of hyena. I have seen hyena take a run and leap to considerable heights to bite into a bait and then hang there hoping that something would give way resulting in a meal for the effort.

Chain is the best method of securing the bait to the tree, wire cables and rope can be used but have their disadvantages. The blind or in some cases a platform in a nearby tree need to be sited with several objectives in mind.

Firstly, the approach and blind, or hide, must be down-wind of the bait. While this may result in you being subjected to the aroma of a decaying carcass, it will ensure that the intended victim is unaware of your presence. In the selection of your bait tree and blind, it is impossible to cover all eventualities as you are dealing with a cat and a wild one at that, which is completely unaware of your intentions and plans.

The second aspect of a successful bait and wait programme, is to have a secure comfortable hide with a good approach and once in position, a good view and field of fire is required. To get into a blind unobserved and quietly on a pitch block early morning, can be as nerve-wracking as any experience in the hunting field.

Moving across open ground near the Zambezi by starlight, I saw a large body loom up and whispered to my client "Hippo". Hardly had the word passed my lips when I heard the unmistakeable snort of a black rhino, which proceeded to lumber off, thankfully, in the opposite direction.

Your hide needs be well built to screen the occupants from scrutiny by eyes that are as keen as any eagle, and to afford a certain amount of comfort for the long vigils that may be necessary. A screen wall of long grass is excellent if available but a length of hessian suitably camouflaged with brush and leaves is as good as anything. With a folding chair, a stout rifle-rest, rifle loaded and on safe, you can settle down to wait for the action.

With the hunting gods smiling or a combination of good preparation with a dash of luck, you hear the bait move before anything else and looking through your peep hole, there will be a large maned lion feeding from your carefully placed bait. A deliberate move to align the weapon and attain the correct target picture (through the shoulder preferably broadside on), followed by a well placed shot and you have your trophy.

That is the way it should and sometimes does happen. Hunting however, is by its nature, an inexact science and you should always be prepared for the unexpected. The following incident will illustrate what I mean.

Hunting in the Matetsi area, I was looking for a lion for my American client with little success. Tracks were found, followed and lost. The skies were scanned for vultures heralding a kill. We followed herds of buffalo hoping that we might find lion in the vicinity. All to no avail until driving back to camp for lunch. We spotted tracks in the road and nearby an eagle eyeing something under his tree.

We walked along the spoor and there lay a kudu bull freshly killed and not fed upon. Obviously, the lion, a pair of large males from the spoor, had been startled by our appearance and had left the scene immediately.

A slight rise some fifty metres away, was the obvious choice as a vantage point, so a screen of bushes was built up against a fallen tree and voila a bait, blind and good approach was in place within minutes. Feeling that little glow of satisfaction that comes when your predictions of success are about to be fulfilled, I suggested a quick lunch and we headed off to camp.

On our return, I stopped the vehicle a good two kilometres away from the blind and we checked our weapons and set off along the track. All was quiet and we crawled the final few yards up the slope to our screen of bushes. A cautious look and double take, no kudu, no lion, bare earth. Cautiously leaving the blind, we walked over and there was a drag mark leading up the hill. It was easy to follow and as we neared the crest, I saw a long tail flick up out of the short grass in the shade of a large teak tree. Looking through my binoculars, I could see the two lion lying like bookend in the shade. Motioning the client forward, I pointed them out about twenty-five or thirty metres ahead.

He breathed in my ear, "Which one?" I looked again, and as is the case, the two were nearly identical. I motioned to him to take the right hand lion and raised my rifle to back him up if it was necessary. He shot and, both lions leapt to their feet. One vanished behind the teak tree while the other, the left hand one, came towards us at speed flat to the ground and running like a greyhound. The client shot a split second before a .577 bullet from my Double broke the lion's neck and he crashed to a standstill less than ten metres from us.

I was less than courteous when I enquired what had gone wrong with the first shot. "Oh, I shot into the tree to make them stand up so that I could see which was the better trophy!", came the reply. Lost for words, we loaded the lion into the Land Rover and headed for camp.