Roosevelt on Safari: A High-Stakes Leopard Hunt, from the Archives

“Down for a piece of cake,” said Frank Miller cheerfully, even before the reverberation of my shot had died away. His remark raised two questions. First, how could he know, having, as he did, a fine view of the sky and little else? Second, what was the origin of that expression? What was a piece of cake doing in this particular portion of East Africa, especially since it was well past tea time? Before I could ask either question — not that I was about to — Frank spoke again.

“If the brute goes on thrashing around, and you can see him,” he said, “you might clout him again, chum.”

I took a quick look behind me. Frank was still stretched out, head and shoulders resting comfortably against the rear incline of the small hollow in which we had built our blind. Though a double-barreled .500 lay ready at hand, his affable tone was that of a host urging his guest to have one more for the road. He looked not only relaxed but pleased, as he had reason to be. I was pleased too.

The rifle was already at my shoulder, the brute was still thrashing, and I could just barely make him out in the low brush. So I clouted him again. All thrashing ceased. It was a most satisfactory Fourth of July.

Kermit Roosevelt, smoking.
The author, the grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt.

This hunt really began three years previously. On July 4, 1960, my two oldest sons and I were just concluding a safari in the course of which we had retraced many of the African Game Trails covered by my grandfather, Theodore Roosevelt, and my father, his second son, Kermit, half a century earlier (see “A Rhino That Would Have Amused T. R.,” OUTDOOR LIFE, December, 1962). The only disappointment for me was that I had failed to get the one trophy I really wanted — a leopard. Kermit Jr. had bagged one, after an exciting moment when, on an earlier evening, the leopard had almost surprised him and hunter Terry Matthews in their blind. But the two leopards which showed up on my baits were both only half grown. I never saw the large, dark leopard Terry and Jonathan encountered which tore down and carried off the Grant’s gazelle which we had carefully hung for him in a sturdy acacia tree in the Northern Frontier District of Kenya.

When Jonathan returned with his bride, Jae, to teach in Moshi, Tanganyika, for a year, my wife and I determined to visit them, and my determination was spelled LEOPARD in large type. Jonathan was lucky enough to find that Frank Miller, one of the partners in Tanganyika Tours & Safaris, was able to take us at the only time we could come. Jonathan and Jae went out for several weeks with Frank’s brother-in-law, ‘Hannes Pretorius, before our arrival, and when Frank picked us up in Nairobi on July 1, they were waiting for us in camp near Loiborsoit, 80 miles south of Arusha in Tanganyika.*

As Frank drove us there, I asked him about our prospects. We would have only 11 days actual hunting time, as against 24 on the earlier safari, and I didn’t want to let my hopes rise too much. But Frank, a hearty, sturdy fellow with a fine, bushy moustache, was confident. He knew the Loiborsoit area well, there were lots of leopards, and he could practically guarantee that I would get one. Ever since, many years ago, I clambered up and down the Elburz Mountains of Iran, being assured in each valley that in the next there were many, many big boars, I have been skeptical of any assurances about wild animals. But Frank inspired confidence, and from all accounts there seemed to be many more leopards in Tanganyika than in Kenya.

An old photograph of Masai warriors.

Just a few weeks before on his own farm, Frank told us, a marauding leopard had been driven into a cave, and Frank’s big hound, half mastiff, half ridgeback lion hound, had followed it in and emerged torn but victorious. Frank didn’t feel inclined to crawl into the small cave to find out exactly what had happened, but the dog either killed the leopard or mauled it severely, as it didn’t come out.

Eight or 10 years ago, Frank himself was torn up by a leopard. He was out with a client and a young white hunter — who had only a provisional professional license — with his client. Late one afternoon when Frank and his client were resting in camp, the other pair came excitedly back asking Frank’s help. They had wounded a leopard — badly, they said-which had gone into thick cover. Would Frank come along and bring his shotgun? Frank and his client went.

When they reached the thicket where the leopard had last been seen, the other professional asked for Frank’s shotgun, which Frank foolishly gave him. They advanced upon the thicket, Frank unarmed in the center and slightly leading the neophyte pro, who was to the left with his client behind him and Frank’s client with Frank’s double-barreled 500 behind him.

When the leopard burst upon them, the young professional ran without even shooting, bowling over his client in the process. The leopard, which proved not to have been seriously wounded but only grazed in the flank, leaped upon Frank. Fortunately, Frank was able to grab him around the middle and keep his hind feet — which could have disemboweled a man in a second — on either side of his body and tying up the front paws. The leopard was gnawing away at Frank’s head when his client yelled to let go so he could get a shot. Frank did so, his client missed, and the leopard came back into Frank’s arms, this time getting his teeth firmly into Frank’s scalp. By the time his client put the second barrel into the leopard’s shoulder, more or less demolishing him, Frank’s scalp was half ripped off. Frank, however, felt himself to be a very lucky man, the more so because his client was a surgeon who stitched his scalp neatly back into place.

We found Jonathan and Jae awaiting us in a lovely camp in a broad, dry river bed under dark-green, wild fig trees and pale-yellow acacias. ‘Hannes had left them to join another client, but before his departure he and Jonathan had put up eight leopard baits — portions of zebra and kongoni (hartebeest) and halves of a Grant’s gazelle.

A boy climbs down from a tree holding a leopard bait.
The original caption read, “Boy comes down tree after having hung hindquarters of a hartebeest for bait”

That evening, July 2, it was too late to check the baits. When we did so next morning, however, we found seven untouched and one gone, the leopard having broken the rope attaching it to the tree. Frank decided against using four of the sites ‘Hannes had selected; we cut down two baits and left them. Another bait we moved to the tree from which the bait had been taken and chained it firmly into place. Frank carefully placed still another in a spot of his own choosing, first slicing off stinking morsels of kongoni (this was the nether half) to leave near a donga where he had often found leopards and dragging the remains behind his hunting car half a mile along the river bed. He hung it a good 30 feet up in a thorn tree on the edge of one bank. On the other side of the dry gully, here close to 40 yards wide, there was a small but three-foot-deep depression in which he planned to set up our blind if a leopard started feeding. That left six baits.

We spent the rest of that day and the next morning searching vainly for lesser kudu in nearby hills. In the early afternoon, Jonathan and I took his Landrover and checked the baits to the north of camp. These included the chained one, but it, as well as the others, was untouched. Meanwhile, Frank was having more success. On our return to camp after potting a kongoni for our table, we were greeted with the cheering news that two of the other baits had attracted customers. One was just above a Masai cattle crossing on the same river as our camp. The other was Frank’s own selection, and here he had found signs of two leopards. Blinds had been prepared in both places, and we decided to cover both that evening. Jonathan, with his 7 x 64 Mannlicher, would watch the bait near the cattle crossing and be accompanied by Frank’s very reliable gun boy, Noi, who would be armed with Frank’s .458 Mauser. Regretting that I had not brought my favorite, a Model 70 Winchester .264, I had borrowed from Tanganyika Tours & Safaris a Remington .30/06, Model 30. My ammunition was Peters 180-grain, high-velocity, Protected Point Expanding. Frank and his .500 would keep me company in the small pit.

Kermit Roosevelt shaves

At 4:30 p.m. we left Jonathan’s car half a mile from his bait and took him and Noi to their blind. Frank and I were halfway to our own spot when I brightly discovered that my rifle had not been put in the rack behind the driver, as it usually was. We hurried back to camp to get it and were still able to reach our blind by 5:10. That was cutting things a bit close, for a leopard might show up at any minute. Theoretically, the light would be good enough for shooting until about 7, but actually, in our location, it would be hard to see anything from 6:45 on.

We settled in with rather more equipment than usual, for both Frank and I had been coughing all day, and, to preserve the necessary total silence, we came supplied with antibiotic throat lozenges, barley drops, and water. We also had paperback books to keep us awake. There was a fine opening in the blind, small but adequate, for my rifle. The blind was largely straw, however, and considerable straw had been left in the bottom, which meant that any move we made was likely to be noisy. Of course, the first thing I did was drop a pill bottle, which made a small but surely, to a leopard, foreign and sinister sound. Silently cursing, I reassembled the pills and lined them up so I could consume them without further noise. Then I put the muzzle of the rifle through the aperture, resting the butt on my knee so I would make as little movement as possible if the leopard should appear. It was not exactly a comfortable position, but I thought I could hold it. I started to read.

A This happened to me comic
The “This Happened to Me” the author references about a leopard hunt his son (also named Kermit) experienced.

After about 10 minutes, I noticed distinctive bird calls and remembered that after the leopard showed up on the edge of Kermit’s blind, Terry Matthews criticized himself for not having been more suspicious because of the stickler birds (see “This Happened to Me,” OUTDOOR LIFE, January, 1963). I glanced at Frank and raised my eyebrows questioningly. His only response was to hold a finger to his lips, which was not particularly informative since he did this every time I looked at him. There was a light wind blowing across the donga toward us, and there were various kinds of grassy and bushy rustlings with every now and then a more solid, animallike, slithering sound. Once, instead of putting his finger to his lips, Frank pointed downward, beyond where the bank dropped sharply for a dozen feet ahead of us. I wanted to ask if he saw anything, though I didn’t see how he could. The slithering had become scuffling, and now I could almost believe I heard purring sounds — at any rate, heavy breathing. Moving his lips elaborately but almost silently, Frank mouthed the words, “Leopard serving his mate”.

“I hope it makes him hungry,” I muttered back, but Frank couldn’t hear me.

Shortly the scuffling ceased, and somewhat later the bird calls were resumed. I could picture the leopards going as silently as they had come. I gave Frank a gloomy look, but his finger was over his lips again, and I gathered he thought the leopards were still nearby. I consumed throat lozenges one after another, unable to face my book. Frank read fitfully, occasionally taking a cautious sip of water. After about 20 minutes, there were more scuffling and mewing sounds, then another period of silence. As 6 o’clock came and went, I began to worry about the light, which was already fading in our hollow. Then, at 6:10, we heard a leopard coughing and moving about directly ahead of and below us.

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Each time I heard leopard noises, my breathing would speed up and my hands would perspire. Each time I would hope that the next time would be different, that I would not be trembling when the moment came to raise the rifle. But when the leopard coughed, I not only perspired but had to stifle a sympathetic cough in reply.

There were more silent minutes. Then, though I had not heard anything, I peered through the rifle opening and, in the crotch of the tree halfway up toward the bait, I saw what looked to me like the father of all leopards. Staring with suspicious malevolence straight in my direction, he was huge and bunched and powerful. Very, very slowly I reached back and touched Frank’s knee. He raised his eyes from his book, and, though he could not see the leopard from his position, my expression told him the story. He signaled me to keep still.

For a time that seemed like all of history, the leopard crouched in the tree, peering carefully in every direction. Actually, by Frank’s watch, this process went on for just under four minutes, which is a long time. Eventually the animal seemed to relax just a trifle, and he turned slightly to look up the riverbank to my right. In doing so, he gave me a square shot at his right shoulder.

The April 1964 cover of Outdoor Life.
This story first ran in the April 1964 issue of Outdoor Life.

While I was mentally debating whether I should wait till he went farther up the tree and started feeding, I found I was also cautiously lifting the .30/06 to my shoulder. By some miracle, there was no rustling of straw, and I didn’t seem to be shaking uncontrollably. I had been telling myself over and over not to hurry, to be sure to take my time, that this was one shot to be sure not to botch. If a leopard went wounded into the thick cover that lined the riverbanks, we would be in real trouble.

But the dot in the scope sight came to rest squarely on the animal’s shoulder. I aimed just a little back so the bullet would go on through the vital cavity, held my breath, and squeezed. The leopard exploded into the air and, his four feet wide apart above him, crashed heavily to the ground on his back. Landing with a loud thump, he rolled, thrashing, down the river bed in the direction he had been looking.

An old black and white photo of a leopard.

I jumped to my feet, but Frank remained stretched out where he was. The conversation I quoted at the beginning of this story now took place. When Frank suggested I shoot again, I aimed at the center of what spotted yellow skin I could see. At my shot, the leopard twitched and then lay still. Frank got up, shook me cordially by the hand, and, very matter-of-factly, went out into the open behind our blind and fired his .500 in case the boys waiting half a mile away in his hunting car had not heard my shots. His posture was somewhat marred by the .500, which not only tore a large chunk out of the anthill he aimed at but rocked him back on his heels and almost over. He grinned, rubbed his shoulder, and remarked that if he wasn’t shooting at the big game the .500 jarred him every time.

Then, with Frank in the lead, we clambered cautiously down bank to inspect the leopard. He still looked big, and he was very dead. My first shot had gone through both shoulders. The second, though it seemed to end his movement, was not very damaging. He had evidently been down with his front toward me, for the bullet entered low in the ribs on the left side and came out six inches farther up on the same side. Frank generously estimated him, after stepping out his length, at seven feet three inches. But later Jonathan, producing a literal-minded tape measure, knocked six inches off Frank’s figure.

A story by Kermit Roosevelt about leopard hunting.
The two-page magazine spread of the original story.

It was pitch dark when we got back to camp, and Jonathan was already there. I wanted to keep our news quiet until we heard his, but Soai, Frank’s second gun boy, started shouting “chui!” — Swahili for leopard — at the top of his lungs as we drove in, so the celebration had started before we could hear the disappointing word that Jonathan had seen only hyenas near his bait. The next night he shot the mate of my leopard from the same blind.

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Now the problem was to get a picture, for the leopard had to be skinned that night lest the fur come loose. We had no flash equipment, but with the headlights of our two vehicles and some lanterns, we managed to make do. The girls had prettied up the mess tent with flowers and tiny American flags, and as we sat by the fire with our pre-dinner drinks, Jonathan and Jae produced Roman candles and Chinese firecrackers, much to the joy of our African crew. But for me, the fireworks had gone off an hour earlier, for the grandest Fourth of July in my life.

*Tanganyika was a colonial territory of the United Kingdom from 1916 to 1961 and a sovereign state from 1961 to 1964. The author’s hunt took place in what is now modern Tanzania. This story, “Leopard in Large Type,” first appeared in the April 1964 issue of Outdoor Life.

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