Articles

How we tracked the Killer Leopard of Kota Kota

Three African villages each reported a child mangled and slain. The hunter waited beside human bait as death stalked again in the night

GUY MULDOON November 1 1954
Articles

How we tracked the Killer Leopard of Kota Kota

Three African villages each reported a child mangled and slain. The hunter waited beside human bait as death stalked again in the night

GUY MULDOON November 1 1954

How we tracked the Killer Leopard of Kota Kota

Three African villages each reported a child mangled and slain. The hunter waited beside human bait as death stalked again in the night

GUY MULDOON

ONE NIGHT the people of Ungwe’s village in Nyasaland heard the coughing of a leopard. It sounded far off, down by the Onze River, but it was not a lucky sound and they all stopped talking and listened. But nothing happened.

It was the same the next night and after that for nine successive nights. By that time when the leopard began his coughing the people didn’t even bother to stop talking. Evidently the leopard was interested in some other village.

On the evening of the tenth night Headman Ungwe and his villagers were sitting eating around the small fires in front of their huts when they heard the leopard again. The children were playing a little way off near the fringe of the cassava garden waiting their turn, for it is not customary among Africans for youngsters to eat with the grownups.

All at once there was the soft rush of pads, followed by a child’s screams, then they all heard nearby the dull crackle of cassava stems being snapped and pushed aside. The screams went on, quickly becoming fainter. Then there was silence.

Women began to shout and the startled village was soon in an uproar. The men ran into their huts for spears and axes and bows and arrows, and rushed into the cassava garden.

It was already dark and growing darker, but they could see from the trail of broken cassava plants where the leopard had dragged its victim through the garden. At the end of the garden the path taken by the leopard became harder to follow. Some of the men ran back to the village and fetched bundles of dry grass, which they lit, and with these fiares they were able to pick up the trail again. A hundred yards farther on they came upon the victim, a boy of eight. The chase and noise had forced the leopard to give up its captive, but the child was already dead.

I heard of the incident next morning when the child’s father came into Kota Kota to buy six yards of white calico from the Indian store. He needed this to wrap the body for burial. On the way he stopped at the Game (’ontrol office and told me what happened.

I told him I would deal with the man-eater and asked whether he knew where it came from, or anything about its habits. He shook his head.

“But when you catch the leopard, I should like to be there,” he said, “I shall kill it with my own hands.”

“I’ll get him for you,” I said, and then regretted the words. Not so much because I did not mean it, but because boastfulness seldom brings luck.

My education in big-game hunting began when I was six. A pride of lions had slain five oxen belonging to a neighbor who farmed eight miles from my father’s six-thousand-acre cattle ranch in Northern Rhodesia. My father was asked to deal with the lions and took me along on the hunt, in spite of my mother’s protests. After that he often took me on hunting trips. Later, in the Union of South Africa, I worked for an English farmer who was also a keen hunter. He took me on

several trips to East Africa where we shot a lot of lions.

In 1944 I joined the Colonial Service as an agricultural assistant, stationed in the Hill Area of Kota Kota. Later I was appointed game control officer at Kota Kota, in charge of four thousand square miles of territory. More leopards are to he found in Nyasaland than anywhere else, and most of them are in the Kota Kota district.

It was soon after I joined the Colonial Service and was posted to Mwera Hill as an agricultural assistant that I realized how had the leopard menace was. Headmen came along to me almost every week to ask for assistance, as I was t he only white official for miles around. They told me that the leopards not only killed their calves and goats and sheep and dogs and fowl, hut were so bold that they broke into storerooms on the verandas of huts, tearing holes in the reed-and-mud walls with their claws to get at domestic pets or poultry. The same day I was told about the killer leopard in Ungwe’s village I set out to redeem my promise. I took along two of my askaris, Jairos and Mfumu, and my faithful assistant, Akin. We traveled by car for about nine miles and then left the vehicle under a tree and covered the remaining two miles on foot.

Both Headman Ungwe and the father of the dead child were on the lookout for us and came part of the way to meet us. They took us at once down to the cassava garden where the body was found in the long grass.

Having known villagers to jump to wrong conclusions and blame leopards for damage done by lions, I asked to see the child for myself. One look at the wounds sat isfied me they were leopard’s work. The chest and back of the shoulders were lacerated from the claws. There were punctures in the shoulder caused by the leopard’s canine teeth while the child was being dragged away and there were marks on t he throat that had also come from the teeth.

All they could tell me about the leopard was that they had heard it. down at the river.

“It has never been in the village before,” the headman said.

I had brought along a couple of obsolete service rifles for use in traps, the barrels having been cut down to twelve inches. I now sent Jairos down to the river to look for leopard spoor. Jairos had done plenty of hunting on his own before joining the Game Department and could read spoor like a book. If there were any tracks to be found, he would find them.

“I am going down to the next village, in case they know anything about the leopard there,” I said.

The next village, that of Headman Bwana Feza, was about a mile away to the north. The leopard was no stranger to him. He told me, “Two nights ago it came here and was afraid of nothing.” He took me to a storeroom, built under the veranda of a hut, where the leopard broke in, stealing three chickens, one at a time.

“It took one and went out and ate it. Then it came for the second one. And then for the third. Look, here are the feathers,” Bwana Feza said.

The walls of the storeroom were made of tightly packed reeds. The leopard had ripped these apart with its claws, leaving a hole big enough to get through. The feathers were about fifteen yards from the hut. That was where the leopard had sat eating the chickens.

“What, about the owner?” I said. “Surely the owner must have been inside and heard it all?”

“Oh yes, the owner was there. He shouted and beat the wall and made a big noise. But what more could he do when the leopard took no notice?”

When I asked the headman if he knew anything of the leopard’s movements, he nodded. “I think I can help you,” he said and led the way along a footpath out of the village and turned down towards the river. Akin came with us. Where it joined another path, there were numerous leopard tracks.

“Our women saw these this morning on their way to fetch water,” Bwana Feza said. way L,() l((CI1 Wk1(~e[[, L)W~II(* 1~,.a "Where does this other path lead?"

“To the next village.”

I looked around. There was plenty of cover and it seemed a good place for a trap. I marked off a site and asked the headman to send back to his village for men to help with the work. At the same time I sent Akin to fetch my second askari, Mfumu.

They soon arrived and started at once building the trap. After making sure everything was going satisfactorily, I left Mfumu in charge and returned with Akin and Headman Bwana Feza to see how Jairos was getting on at Ungwe’s village.

Jairos was waiting for us. He was the only man there at the time, since almost everybody else had gone off to t he funeral of the child.

“I have found where the leopard has been,” Jairos said and we went down with him towards the river. He showed us leopard tracks that led into a thicket. He also marked a place for a trap and I looked at it and approved. Bwana Feza agreed to provide another working party from his village to build this trap also.

Since there was not much more that I could do myself for the time being, I decided to return to Kota Kota, leaving Jairos and Mfumu behind to protect t he villages. They were both experienced men armed with service rifles.

All night long I kept thinking about that leopard, wondering where it would Continued on page 'f2

The Killer Leopard of Kota Kota

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 27

strike next. It could pick the place and the time for its next raid and there was nothing much one could do about it beforehand.

After prowling through villages regularly without effective discouragement - most villagers are too scared to venture out of their huts—leopards lose all fear of humans. This, in my opinion, helps turn a number of them into man-eaters. The failure of villagers to finish off wounded leopards is I another factor. Sometimes a man with ! a shotgun will venture out and fire at a raiding leopard, and be quite satisfied merely to wound it.

While still feeling the effects of its wounds the leopard is compelled to concentrate on getting its food as easily as possible, and it will then attack children. Having tasted human flesh and realizing how easy it is to take humans unawares, it will continue to prey on them even after it has recovered from its wounds.

Although man-eating leopards seem to be on the increase in certain parts of Nyasaland, they rarely attack adults. I have not yet come across a case of an adult victim. Even children are not seized while actually standing upright; they have been taken only while sitting down or stooping.

Most victims have been seized at dusk while playing around the outskirts of villages. Villages with gardens of maize, millet and cassava growing between huts have suffered most. Mothers often leave their children behind in the gardens to scare off baboons and monkeys and birds, while they return to the huts to prepare the evening meal. That is the time the watchful man-eater has been waiting for.

The Punishment Killed Her

In the morning Akin returned with nothing much to report. But I had the feeling there was plenty of trouble in store. My misgivings were well founded, for later in the morning a headman named Moyo turned up to report that a little girl had been seized during the night at his village, about two miles north of Bwana Feza’s. It was near the confluence of the Chimkoma and the Onze Rivers.

I asked Moyo how it had happened. He told me his people had spent the previous afternoon preparing new casj sava gardens in a rich pocket of soil in the elbow formed by the two rivers, i about half a mile from the village. When they returned to their huts just before sunset, one of the women found that her child, a girl of nine, had left a I hoe behind.

As punishment for this forgetfulness the mother told the child she would have to go back for the hoe at once. The child wanted another girl to accompany her, hut the mother would not allow this.

“You are the one who has been so careless,” she told the child. “Therefore you go alone.”

The sun had already set when the child left and she did not return. The mother, worried now, went to the headman. It was by then too late to search, and he told the mother nothing could be done until morning.

At dawn a search party went out and soon found leopard tracks among the cassava plants. Marks on the ground showed where some object had been dragged by the leopard. The villagers did not need to be told what had happened but they decided to follow the

spoor. Entering the more than headhigh elephant grass a little distance away, they came on the remains of the child.

I asked Headman Moyo whether the body had been moved.

“Yes,” he said.

Normally if a leopard is not disturbed at its kill it will return the next night to finish off the remains of the carcass. It is therefore helpful to a hunter if he can locate the leopard’s kill for he can then wait near it with some certainty that the leopard will return.

Now 1 told Moyo I would go out as soon as possible and camp in the area until we got the leopard.

Eight porters loaded all the necessary equipment into a truck and I set out with Akin and another native hunter named Tribe. Again we traveled nine miles by vehicle before having to strike across country. I sent Akin and the porters ahead to set up camp in Moyo’s village, where I was to meet him, and Tribe and I headed for Ungwe’s village, where the leopard had seized its first victim.

Jairos had nothing more to report. The trap he had set was empty and there was no fresh spoor in the vicinity. 1 decided it would merely be wasting a man to keep him there and told Jairos to dismantle the trap gun. The leopard had moved his hunting ground north and that was now our best bet. We now went along to Bwana Feza’s village.

There Mfumu, my askari, also had nothing to report. But as Headman Moyo’s village, where the leopard had carried out its latest killing, was only a few miles away, I thought it best to let Mfumu remain where he was. There was just a chance that the killer might backtrack.

All that night and the next two nights I waited in Moyo’s village for the leopard to show up, but saw no sign of it. During the day we visited the neighboring villages in case the leopard extended its activities, but there was no helpful news there either.

This lack of information was worrisome. The leopard was still calling the play. It was impossible to tell what its next move would be.

On the morning of the fourth day, Headman Chumo, whose village was about five miles north of Moyo’s, arrived with a serious face and told us that the leopard had just killed a lad of thirteen. The attack occurred the evening before, but the remains were found only that morning.

“Knowing you were here, I came at once,” the headman said.

I asked him, more as a routine question, than in the hope of hearing anything helpful, whether the child’s body had been moved. When he told me everything was still, on his express orders, just exactly as his people had found it, 1 nearly let out a whoop. It was a rather grim thing to exult about, hut I had a plan in mind and now here was a fair chance of bringing the hunt to an end. I asked Headman Chumo if he was certain no one would move the body in the meantime.

“No, no. I have left men on guard to see nothing is touched. We first want the Bwana to come and see everything for himself.”

I clapped the headman on the shoulder and congratulated him on his foresight. Then I told him to go back at once to take charge personally, since I did not want to risk any mischance. “And hurry!” 1 said to him, and gave orders for the camp to he struck at once. Everything was to be moved to Headman Chumo’s village.

When we arrived there a little later we were given the details of the tragedy. The youngster had the day before accompanied his father and a neighbor, both fishermen, to the river

to watch them emptying the nets and traps.

It was the time of the year when the fish were moving in great numbers out of Lake Nyasa and up the rivers to spawn. The villagers had thrown barriers of reed and bamboo across the stream and in these barriers openings were left for the fish to pass through. Back of the openings were the traps in which the fish were caught and it was necessary every day, usually in the late afternoon, for these traps to be emptied.

There was room for only two in the small canoe. While the men navigated it with poles towards the traps, the youngster was left behind on the bank. The attention of the two men in the canoe was occupied not only in getting the fish out of the traps but also in watching for crocodiles that usually followed the fish up the river and fed on them. They were a constant danger.

It took the men about three quarters of an hour to finish their task. When they returned to the bank, there was no sign of the youngster.

“He must have tired of waiting,” the neighbor said.

“Yes,” said the father. “He will be home by now.”

Blood on the River Grass

The men were not in any hurry, for there was no special reason for them to suspect that anything was amiss. They put the canoe away in the reeds, took out the fish they had caught and made their way back to the village. The father stopped and chatted with neighbors. It was dark by the time he reached his own hut.

He was surprised when his wife asked him where their son was.

“Are you joking, woman?” he asked.

When she shook her head he grew alarmed and made a quick round of the neighboring huts. There was no news of his son. He went along to the headman.

By then it was too dark to carry out a search, but next morning a party of armed men went down to the river. One of them noticed blood on the grass. Four hundred yards farther on they came to a clump of reeds near the water’s edge. Here there were many marks of leopard. Inside the reeds they found the remains of the boy.

When I arrived the mutilated body

was still there, guarded by men with spears and axes. I could see at once that it was the work of a leopard. I called Headman Chumo to one side.

I had long ago made up my mind that the best way to catch this leopard was to wait over one of its kills. I had never before sat over the remains of a human being, and I did not feel so good about it. But here was the chance that would probably not come again for a long time.

“Listen,” I said to the headman. “Leopards usually come back to their kill. That is why it should not be removed if we are to catch this leopard.”

Chumo’s eyes widened as he realized what I meant.

“No,” he said. “No.”

“There is no other way.”

“But what you ask is impossible.”

“As long as that leopard is free, it will kill more. If I wait here at the body, I can catch it.”

“Look how the leopard has already eaten thin child,” the headman said. “Is that not bad enough? How can we do such a thing as to leave it to be completely eaten?”

I said to him, “I give you my personal promise that the leopard will not touch the child.”

That reassured him somewhat.

“I shall speak to the father,” he said. “I do not know what he will say, nor do I like asking him.”

The father proved difficult and took a lot of persuading. He finally agreed reluctantly.

“Nothing will happen to your son,” I promised, and got busy making preparations.

First I had a strong open framework of bamboo erected around three sides of the corpse. These three sides and the top were covered with thorn branches. That left only one side by which the leopard could get at the corpse.

Opposite the open side and only ten yards away, I had a pit dug, eight feet long, five feet wide and six and a half feet deep. I lined its sides with reed mats, keeping them in position with bamboo stakes. Then I had more bamboo stakes cut long enough to span the top of the pit. These were spaced six inches apart and covered with mats, and then these mats were covered with tufts of grass that had been pulled out roots and all.

A step was cut at the bottom of the

pit at the end nearest the corpse and the roof raised slightly at this end, so that when I stood on the step the corpse was clearly in view. Nothing could get at it without my seeing it. From the step I could also take aim with the gun at the shoulder.

An hour before sunset I let myself down into the pit. Akin followed me. Tribe and the villagers then sealed up the gap through which we had entered. I told Tribe I would fire three shots in quick succession if I needed help.

I had brought a groundsheet for the floor of the pit, and a flask of tea, two rifles and ammunition. It was already quite dark inside the pit. Soon it grew dark outside as well.

Akin and I took it in turns standing I on the step to keep a lookout half an hour at a time. At first there were many noises that kept alerting me. Even the 1 stirring of the grass in the slight night breeze sounded like a stealthy rustle. But after a while I grew more accustomed to the sounds from the river, from the trees and from the grass, and we learned to identify them.

All the same it was not pleasant sitting there guarding a human corpse.

1 hoped fervently that the leopard would not be long in coming.

We waited about two hours and still nothing happened. I was standing on the step looking towards the corpse, which 1 could see clearly in spite of the darkness, when all of a sudden there was this coughing sound. I knew it was the leopard. It. sounded a little wav off.

Where Was the Leopard?

A leopard generally announces its coming by coughing. It has a peculiar cough, low and throaty, at first two or three short coughs, then an interval of silence and after that the same kind of coughing again. Only when it draws near to its kill does the leopard stop coughing.

Akin came and stood behind me. I did not hear him but I could feel him standing there. I waited for the sound again, and then when it came it seemed j only thirty yards away.

Now I suddenly realized how rickety the roof was. I thought to myself, what a fine thing if the leopard were to step j on the roof and crash through to us in the dark of the pit. 1 knew what a leopard could do with fang and claw at close quarters.

But now where was this leopard? It seemed suddenly a long time since I last heard it. Had it gone? Had it sensed that we were there?

Akin touched me on the shoulder. From close behind me he pointed towards the left. It was the leopard. I had to look up to see it standing only a few feet away in front of the opening, broadside to us and so close that I tried to hold my breath in case it heard us. j There was also the peculiar sour body j smell that comes from leopard.

I was holding the rifle in front of me clear of the ground with the muzzle ; just in front of the opening. It was a problem to figure out how best to take I aim. If I extended the rifle at arm’s length I could have touched the leopj ard. I was afraid to bring the rifle back to my shoulder because there was the chance I would make a slight, noise and scare the leopard. And if it turned its head and saw the gun moving, that also would be bad.

Finally, holding the rifle in both hands so that it was clear of the ground, I pushed it slowly through the narrow opening. The butt of the rifle was about six inches away from my shoulder and the muzzle about a foot from the leopard, when 1 aimed twelve inches up from the bottom of the leopard’s chest I and a little back of the line of the I shoulder, and squeezed the trigger.

The recoil slapped the gun hard into my shoulder and sent me reeling into Akin. The flash from the gun blinded me for a fraction of a second and the report in such a confined space started in my ears a ringing that did not stop for another hour.

When I could see again, the leopard was stretched out on the ground. Lying with its paws towards us, it was not dead but trying to raise its head and was making a rasping sound. I aimed at its chest and fired again. The shot slewed the leopard around slightly and after that it did not move.

I was using a Vickers .404 boltaction rifle with solid 400-grain bullets, the noses of which had been filed just deep enough to expose the soft metal. I handed this gun now to Akin and took from him my 9.5 mm. Mannlicher. I waited a little while, still suspicious that the leopard might be playing possum. But it did not show any sign of life. Then I put the muzzle of the gun through the opening and fired three quick shots.

Ina little while we heard voices. At first they sounded a long way off and then they came closer and I recognized Tribe’s voice. He was shouting to Akin, wanting to know whether it was safe to approach.

“The leopard is dead,” Akin sang out and they ran forward shouting and cheering, then pulled the roof off the pit to let us out.

The headman came up and shook me by the hand and then came his counselors. We all shook hands. Everybody was very pleased.

Now the father of the dead child came up. He stopped a little way from us and then he came up and we shook hands. He did not say anything hut turned and went over to the body of his child. Somebody brought along a bamboo stretcher and the corpse was placed on this and carried away.

Soon we were all back at the village. The dead leopard was brought along hanging upside down from a thick pole carried on the shoulders of several men. It was late, a time when all in the village would normally be fast asleep. But even the women were awake now.

They came out of their huts and stood in front of my tent and looked at the leopard. There was no cheering or joy. Two grey-haired old women came forward and solemnly shook my hand.

“You must come and live here,” one of them said, “then things like this will never happen again.”

A woman began to wail and she turned and began moving slowly toward the hut where the child had been taken. Others took it up and the wailing went on and on right through the night. I was glad when at last the dawn came and I could get ready to go.

1 don’t think anybody had a wink of sleep that night. ★

This article is an excerpt from the. book, leopards in the Night, to be published next year by Appleton-CenturyCrofts, New York.

CHANGING YOUR ADDRESS?

Be sure to notify us at least six weeks in advance, otherwise you will likely miss copies. Give us both old and new addresses — attach one of your present address labels if convenient.

Write to:

Manager, Subscription Department, MACLEAN'S MAGAZINE 481 University Ave., Toronto 2, Ontario