Chasing the Ghost Leopard in Matetsi Extended Area

 

After several days of inactive baits, Hudspeth (left) and Smythe (right) connected with this old leopard.

By Royce Hudspeth, Subscriber

Editor’s Note: Foiled on his first leopard hunt over two decades ago, subscriber Royce Hudspeth has been haunted by this spotted ghost ever since. Recent efforts by anti-hunters to have US Fish & Wildlife Service end leopard trophy imports prompted him to return to Africa last April with the intensely focused purpose of connecting with this elusive cat. His selected area? Matetsi, Zimbabwe. He explains here how he and his PH made it happen and his observations and advice about hunting this area.

Twenty-five years ago, I went on my first African safari to Omay, Zambia. It was for plains game and leopard. The plains game end of it went fine. But the leopard hunt was eight nights of frustration. Elephants came through one night. Female leopards came the next. Other times the wind betrayed us. The list of uncontrollable mishaps went on and on. I had not hunted for leopard since the Omay trip, although I so admired this cat and really wanted one, despite the frustrations of hunting it.

In 2016, lion and elephant closed to US importation, and rumors were that leopard may be next on the list. With that in mind, I started to research an affordable safari. I also wanted a sable and a Cape buffalo, but leopard was the focus. This would be my fourth African trip.

Zimbabwe was my country of choice. However, finding an area that had all three species and would fit within my budget proved problematic. After a good deal of research, I settled on the Matetsi Extended Conservation Area (ECA), which is a conservancy created by three game farms. There are no fences between them or the Matetsi Units 1 and 4, creating an extended conservation area of around 61,800 acres next door to Hwange National Park. The ECA allows hunting after dark for leopard and other nocturnal species.

Though Matetsi is not known for large leopards, it does have them. Of course, it is one of Zimbabwe’s premier areas for sable and also has buffalo at the right times of year. Most specially, Matetsi has lots of water. I selected ECA Units 2 and 5, which are directly adjoined to Matetsi Units 1 and 4 operated by Steven Meyer of Lowveld Hunters (sgmeyerph@gmail.com; www.lowveldhunter.com).

As I zeroed in on an area, I also thought about selecting the right PH. I met Phillip Smythe five to six years before and had kept up with him through his newsletter. Phillip owns Ivory Trails Safaris (263-772-413-618; http://ivorytrailsafaris.com/) and hunts with Zambesi Hunters in the Save Conservancy. I contacted him, and after a couple of weeks of communicating about my hunt, I agreed to have Phillip guide me in Matetsi.

We agreed to several requirements for my safari. We wanted an early season hunt and to be the first hunters in camp, so that the cats would not have been hunted or disturbed. We wanted camp exclusively for us and no other hunters. We wanted to hunt on a dark moon phase. Phillip and I agreed to prebait a couple of days prior to my arrival.

Overall the hunt was a series of tradeoffs. We were the second hunters in for the season, so the game was relatively calm. However, the area had received record rainfall, and the grass was extra tall and the vegetation lush. These units are dependent on migrations going to and from adjacent Hwange National Park, and with water being so plentiful, the game was scattered, and the vegetation made a plains game hunting challenging. We shot a zebra on day one and hung it for baits.

On day two we had the good fortune of seeing a day-time hyena. He almost gave us the slip but gave us a going-away shot, and I had an unexpected trophy!

This area is well known for producing quality sable. Surprisingly, we didn’t see the herds that we expected. Day five all changed as Phillip spotted a mature bull. After a short stalk, we had our sable. He had 10-inch bases and 40 inches in length. He was beautiful and truly one of Africa’s most wonderful trophies.

With the long grass in the area, Phillip felt the cats would be traveling the roads and avoiding the long grass. We hung 12 baits, however, we were not getting hit. We continued shooting impala and refreshing the baits as needed. We found a female that fed one time on one of the baits and never returned. Days were filled by checking and changing baits and lots of traveling over the two concessions. I wouldn’t say I was discouraged, but I was getting a bit concerned.

Then on day seven, we got a break. A light rain had fallen overnight, leading to cooler temperatures. In one of the concessions we noticed fresh lion tracks. Later we found a lion had fed on one of our baits. We hoped the leopards would be moving too. That proved to be the case, as one of our baits had been hit! Phillip could see that a female had fed on part of the bait, but larger bites had been taken on a different part of the bait. We could not find the tracks but were hoping that it was a male. Phillip put a trail camera in place that we would check in the following morning, and we put a fresh bait up. Phillip was optimistic a male had fed. Maybe this would be our break.

Next day we returned to the bait. Something had fed overnight. Phillip got the sim card from the camera and started checking pictures. The female had come in late afternoon of the previous day and had fed four times that night. The pics revealed a large male had fed at 9 am, one hour prior to our arrival. We quickly changed baits and put up a fresh impala. Phillip said the male and female probably were mating, and he was very optimistic that they would return. We went back to the camp as there was much work to do. The crew gathered a pop-up tent, chairs, blankets, shooting tripod, food and drinks and we headed back to setup. Phillip had the blind placed about 60 yards from the tree at an angle that would allow him to confirm the sex of the animal and provide me a good angle for the shot.

At 4 pm, we return to the blind and settled in, prepared to stay the night if necessary. Before dark, we heard a lion roar and a leopard saw. At 7 pm, Philip startled me with a tap on the knee, signaling a leopard was nearby. Then he gave the second signal and turned on the light to identify the sex and let me get on my scope and adjust the power. I saw the leopard eating. Philip had warned me that he would appear “white like.” I was stunned to see that he was right! The leopard was an eerie ghost-like white. Philip gave me the signal to shoot, and I squeezed off the round.

With a 16-inch skull Hudspeth’s leopard is a large trophy for the Matetsi area.

According to Philip the leopard stood straight up and fell out of the tree. We waited 15 minutes to give it some time, and Phillip radioed for the crew to drive the truck to the tree. I sat in the dark shivering from the adrenaline. It had all happened so quickly. I was excited but still wanted to see that the leopard was dead. When we approached the tree, the leopard was not there. After the crew arrived, Phillip and the head tracker found him 25 yards away.

Twenty-five years after my initial leopard hunt, the journey was now complete. I had my leopard! He is an old guy, possibly seven-years-old, according to the PH, beautiful and with a massive head. Phillip said he had been mating so hard that he had lost weight, but he still weighed about 150 pounds. Later, after drying, the skull measured 16 inches – a trophy anywhere, but a very large leopard for Matetsi!

That night the trackers and crew sang and danced with such joy. It was a very happy occasion. They sang, “The leopard is dead, he didn’t eat me, but I will eat him!” And they did eat him! What a great night, one I’ll never forget.

I also tried for buffalo while there. I had taken two buffalo on a previous trip to the Selous. So, I wanted something 38 inches or larger. We hunted hard, found a couple of herds and made two or three stalks, getting very close. On the first herd we were 25 yards or so from a cow. We saw a young, 38-inch bull and at least one in the 36-inch range. Just nothing that I was interested in. Still, it is exciting to get that close! The last day of the hunt we cut tracks that were from the night before and decided to give it a go. After two hours or so, we caught the herd and found quite a few to look over. Here again we saw young bulls with soft bosses or older bulls that were 36 inches or smaller. After busting them twice the herd crossed over into another area, and the hunt was over.

I think that later in the year there are some good buffalo to be had in Units 2 and 5. The area has plenty of water, and we heard the buffalo come out of the park to water and graze. We just didn’t see them in big numbers, and strangely, we did not cut tracks for singles or small bachelor groups.

Overall, I enjoyed my time in Matetsi. Nothing came easy, and everything was earned. I would hunt leopard there again in the early season. We were very fortunate to shoot a large old leopard. I would hunt buffalo there again but later in the season. Same with sable. We saw elephants there and lots of lion sign and heard the roaring. It would be a good place to go for a giraffe, as they were somewhat plentiful. Lots of hyenas in the area, and I think you could have a good night time hunt. Though kudu wasn’t on my list, we saw a very nice bull in the low 50s. I think you could shoot a good kudu here. Waterbuck also seemed to be in decent numbers. We found zebra and impala. The impala are short horned but seem to have good mass. We spent the last day in Vic Falls, seeing the falls and shopping. It was a wonderful way to end the safari!

I was so blessed to hunt with an amazing guy like Phillip Smythe. I have probably been on 50 guided hunts or fishing trips in my life. Phillip Smythe is absolutely the best guide that I have been with. First, he is a wonderful human being. He is an excellent companion. He always wants the very best. He has high standards and will not settle for less. He is a particularly good cat man. He knows and loves leopard hunting. Through the early to mid-stages of the hunt we were having little to no success. His spirits remained high, and he remained diligent. In the end, he picked out the tree and a setting where he thought a tom would appear, and I was the beneficiary. I give him an unqualified recommendation and plan to hunt the Save Conservancy with him soon.

I loved that the camp and hunting area were so close to Victoria Falls – less than 45 minutes. The camp was situated on a bluff overlooking a manmade lake. The camp was permanent and comfortable, although it could have used a little updating. It did have running water and electricity, so that was good. The grounds were immaculate and well groomed. The food was excellent! In fact, it was the best food I have had in my African travels. If a chef named Lucky is your chef at this camp, you will eat very well!