Lioness Hunt in the Kalahari Desert

Posted On : Jun 6, 2015

Posted By : Anonomous

Lioness Hunt in the Kalahari Desert

Lioness Hunting in the Kalahari Desert

In March 2011 anti-hunting interests filed an emotionally packed petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the lion as a protected animal under the Endangered Species Act. The rhetoric of the petition ignored successful time-honored game management techniques and fostered the false pretense that the lion is going extinct. If they become successful in this quest, the importation of lion hunting trophies for American citizens would become difficult and may even cease. This action would in turn decimate the African lion hunting industry which is largely fueled by hunters from the United States.

In the past several decades the lion has genuinely had a reduction in traditional range areas due to loss of habitat by human encroachment. In these areas of encroachment, human inhabitants have initiated lion killing measures to curb lion attacks on livestock and people. The local residents see the lion as a lethal pest and they would pay no attention to decrees issued by Washington bureaucrats.

On the other hand, in hunting concessions, sport hunting has allowed lion numbers to remain stable. Some areas have even seen an increase in lion population. Due to the economic incentive to preserve the lion so that the hunter will introduce a much needed cash flow within the community, local government officials, professional hunters, and tribal leaders work in unison to tolerate the lions and to manage sustainable numbers of lions. . Africa has a saying, “If it pays, it stays.” Removing the hunter by U.S. regulations would also eliminate the monetary enticement to keep the lion. Eradication would follow.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has never been a bastion of reasonable thinking (see recent arbitrary bans on elephant trophies and a long history of seizing trophies through clerical errors). For me it was plain to see that the future of lion hunting was in jeopardy. I knew that the time had come. If I was going to conduct a lion safari it had to be done soon. 

My interest in lion hunting had already been on the increase. After several trips to Africa in pursuit of buffalo and elephant I was hankering to confront other dangerous game. Tales of fangs and claws in the literary works of Lions of Tsavo, Death in the Long Grass, and Horn of the Hunter kept me spellbound. Hollywood added fuel to the flame with lion charges on the big screen in Ghost and the Darkness, The Macomber Affair, and Out of Africa. I had to have lion hunting as a part of my life.

Lion hunting can be an extremely expensive endeavor. Top end hunts are in the $60,000+ range and must be booked along with a 21 day safari. Concluding a search for an affordable lion hunt led me to John Martins of Discount African Hunts. I informed John that I desired a challenging hunt by tracking instead of baiting and that I wanted to seal the deal with an open-sighted double rifle at close quarters. Hunts can be scheduled year-round but I wished to go in the dry months when the vegetation is not so thick. To meet my desires and budget, John booked me with a reputable outfitter for an August 2014 estate lioness five day hunt in the Kalahari region of South Africa’s Northwest Province.

“Estate” lion hunting means that the hunted lion/lioness was reared in captivity under the guidelines of the South African Predator Association and then released into a hunting area for pursuit by the hunter. The outfitter requires that the animal be mature upon release and that the hunt cannot be conducted within 60 days of the release. Lions are not supported after release and they must kill for their meals. Several properties are utilized by this outfitter for lion hunting with the smallest being 12,500 acres. The lion areas must also be high fenced with electrically charged wires to prevent the cats from causing havoc on neighboring properties. “Estate” hunts have been labeled by the anti-hunters as “canned”. They portray the hunts as just walking up to a caged tame animal and pulling the trigger. John assured me that this would be far from the case.

John’s description of a typical estate lion hunt: “Primarily these animals tend to display aggressive behavior toward man and will readily charge a human. Any representation you hear of them being tame or domesticated is baloney. Hunting from vehicles or over bait is prohibited. All hunts begin by early morning tracking of fresh spoor through the soft sands and dense bush of the Kalahari. Tracking hopefully catches up to the lion as it settles under a shady bush for one of its many daytime rests. At first the lion will be wary and will move away from the approaching hunters. The hunting party will pick up the tracks and follow to the next lion resting spot. The cat will again re-locate as the hunters approach. Sometimes the hunting party will catch a glimpse of a lion during initial tracking but most of the time the lion will stay well ahead and out-of-sight in the thick thorn and grass. These bump-and-go encounters will reoccur from three to six times before the lion becomes extremely agitated and then decides to make a stand against its pursuers.

The final stand will take place in the thickest of cover with the lion roaring and growling as the hunter approaches. Distances must be closed in order to gain line-of-sight in the thicket. The hunter will push up to thirty to fifty yards from the lion to get clear shots. From this distance the lion’s comfort zone will be violated and a charge is a distinct possibility. The hunter had better be prepared.” In addition John stated “Due to the varying dispositions of lions, some of these hunts can conclude in a half hour after 200 yards of tracking or the hunt can last for three hard-paced days and many miles of tracking.”

To prepare for the hunt and the possibility of having to direct accurate fire on a 350 pound charging lioness sporting four inch fangs and three inch claws, my father, Charlie McCombs, and I welded up a mobile target sled. A poster print of a charging lioness was attached to the four tire contraption. With the aid of an attached 100 foot rope the target was powered by my nephew and fellow Safari Club member, Chris Parks. A hitched Chris would stand behind me and take off running. Repeatedly he advanced the paper fury at me as I practiced launching both barrels on a moving cat. With each session confidence and shoulder bruising increased. I soon felt comfortable that I could deliver two well-placed rounds into an angry charging feline.

The safari started out at the outfitter’s main property which is just a five hour drive from Johannesburg. My plains game PH was a 25 year old professional hunter assigned to babysit me for the duration of the trip. We spent several days at the primary hunting ground biding our time by dragging ostrich, blesbok, and springbok to the skinning shed. This type of plains game hunting allows the PH to evaluate the hunter prior to the dangerous game endeavor. I passed my PH’s preliminary exams but he told me that he held back final judgment until after the first lion encounter as he had at times seen seasoned hunters come apart in the presence of a snarl, a growl, and a charge.

On the third afternoon of the hunt the younger PH and I accompanied their lion guru, a 28 year old professional hunter, on a three hour drive taking us to the “Tinashe” hunting property in the Kalahari which was within 30 kilometers of the Botswana border. This PH has personally been involved in hundreds of lion hunts and had just returned from a lion hunt with a Gulfport, Mississippi veterinarian. He and the doctor had tracked the lion for three days and finally took him with a 200 yard shot. My PH told me not to worry about us having to shoot distance with the double rifle. If we stayed on the lioness long enough a close shot would present itself.

During the drive my PH put me through a crash course on the nuances of lion hunting. “Ninety-five percent of my clients use scoped rifles and we try to make the shot at around a fifty yard set up. We will work hard to get you to the thirty yard range for the open sights of the double. In my experience about one in ten cats will charge. Of those lions that charge, ninety percent of them will give us adequate notice that a rush is coming. It is the “lion out of nowhere” that causes the greatest concern.”

We arrived at the Kalahari property too late in the afternoon to begin tracking and decided to just sightsee ride the sandy roads with a brush-top drag to wipe out old lion tracks. We were having a grand time busting up sable, wildebeest, gemsbok, honey badger, jackal and kudu when we came across a large lioness lying near a waterhole chewing on a carcass. From the vehicle we glassed her and determined that she was worthy of tomorrow’s chase. With the Toyota in reverse, we had a good kicking off point marked for the next morning.

At daybreak the three of us picked up the tracker, Modroo, to round out our four-man hunting party. My PH was brandishing a .416 bolt action Ruger pushing 400 grain Hornady DGX slugs and was also side-armed with a 40 caliber Glock for the comfort of being able to possibly toss a “Hail Mary” if all else failed. The younger PH carried a 375 H&H loaded with 300 grain Nosler Partitions housed in a well-worn Brno. I toted a 450 NE Sabatti double rifle stuffed with 480 grain Hornady DGX stovepipes to make a rug. The smiling Modroo was armed only with shooting sticks.

At the waterhole the five and one half inch wide tracks were in a mess. They told of the lioness chasing hoofed prey multiple times. We expanded our perimeter and picked up the lioness’ tracks crossing the road several hundred yards from the waterhole. Modroo’s long 34 year old legs immediately set out in quick paced tracking. Walking in the soft sand was difficult as much of your locomotion is lost with each foot’s push off. To complicate matters, the property was a thorn garden. The bush was thick and low slung. Constant bobbing and weaving was required to remain on track. Several bushes into the tracking had Modroo wearing a shredded shirt. Soon we had blood trails, our own. All of us were bleeding from thorn slashes to the faces, ears, arms, hands, and legs. It was evident that this was going to be a physically taxing exercise.

We were looking to find the lioness on her last night’s kill but the tracks showed that she was unsuccessful in taking down an antelope. Two hours into the trail we stopped to relieve ourselves. I politely faced away to conduct my business and halfway through the affair I spotted a tawny hide gliding noiselessly through the bush at thirty yards out. With the wrong rifle in hand I could only counter the movement with an exclaimed “There she is!” After frantic zipping, all we had time for was to see a black-tipped tail disappearing. The chase resumed.

An hour later we again stopped to re-group. Standing in a relaxed wad, we were all caught off guard when an explosion of grass movement and brush rustling erupted a mere fifteen yards to the side of us. My quail hunting instincts took hold causing me to snap the double rifle up to meet the noise. The lioness streaked out of the grass with a small wart hog scampering two steps ahead of her. The front bead readily found target but I did not pull the trigger adhering to the unspoken rule of not shooting until the PH gives the go ahead. The chase rapidly left our vicinity and Jacques was quite happy that we were not the subject of the rush. With a grin he said “It would have been alright if you had taken the shot. That was fun. Let’s try her again.”

At 11:30am we had another brief sighting of her through a brush opening at 120 yards out. Modroo broke into a trot and urged us along to see if we could close the distance. Ten minutes of wheezing and puffing did not improve our position. The younger PH educated me that a lion’s normal walking pace was at the same speed as a man’s very fast walking pace and that it is very difficult to overcome a lion that has not stopped to rest. With five miles worth of tracking behind us we called the morning hunt off hoping that we could get back on track after lunch and maybe ease along to catch the lioness as she settled down for an afternoon nap.

Refreshed with full bellies, we picked up the track and worked a little slower. We intensely scanned the bush shadows looking for a dozing lioness. When we found an empty bedding spot we knew the reverse cat-n-mouse game was back on. Several times we found where she had again futilely chased wart hogs. A couple of hours later Modroo saw a flock of small birds rise suddenly out of the bush eighty yards ahead of us. He threw up the shooting sticks and for a few seconds I had sights on the lioness but she was well beyond effective range.

As the afternoon progressed it became obvious that she was heading for a distant pumped waterhole. We had pushed her all day and her thirst was now also driving her. Approaching the waterhole, we thought that her pause to drink would allow us to close up. The tracks turned away from the waterhole as she neared it, probably due to our pressure. Our tracking led away from the waterhole and we followed paw prints onto a long straight sandy road. Down the road 250 yards distant we saw our quarry strolling away from us. In an effort to remain unseen we ran through the thorns parallel to the road. When we emerged back onto the road the tracks were discovered to have returned to the bush. Since lunch we had been in hot pursuit for more than eight miles and exhaustion was besieging us. With me having twenty plus years on the younger members of the hunting party, I was somewhat relieved that they appeared to be whooped too. We took a ten minute break and anticipated that our gal would do the same.

After the break, more circuitous trailing put us again on the straight road. Looking down the road we saw the cat 300 yards away walking back to the waterhole. More of the fast paced stalking got us to a point in the tracks where for the second time she turned from the water. Sundown was rapidly coming upon us and it was decided to halt the chase and pick back up in the morning. A radio call soon had us headed back to our Toyota in the open bed of a worker’s truck.

A quarter of a mile past the waterhole we slowed to gawk at a tremendous sable bull standing to the side of the road. All eyes were on the bull when my attention was drawn to movement in the grass near the sable. Our cat was in a full creep stalk to kill the black antelope. The bull bolted and the disgusted feline spun and headed back toward the water. We bailed from the truck bed and took a trot behind her. Denied water all day she was done with our pestering ways and she made her stand in a thicket beside the waterhole.

Modroo set the sticks 35 yards from the thicket and I quickly cradled in the Sabatti for a shot. Our lioness would not remain still and began pacing back and forth. The pacing route kept her in the thicket and a clear shot was obscured. I stayed on the sticks for fifteen minutes waiting to fire. She finally tired of pacing and laid down in the thicket. With binoculars we could pick her out as she snarled and growled. Altering tactics, we circled the thicket to find an open target. From our new position the sun was directly on the horizon behind her and the shot was blinded. We moved back to the original set up and then advanced five yards closer in order to provoke her to exit through one of the two open areas adjacent to the thicket.  

I was back on the shooting sticks covering the right opening from thirty yards out when she arose. Initially she moved toward the right side exit but suddenly she turned our way. The PH hastily instructed “She’s coming. Shoot!” The first 480 grain Hornady slug struck her in the left chest as she quartered toward us. The lioness lurched at the shot and started to charge but then wheeled to run across the right opening. This allowed me to strike her broadside with the second barrel. The cat hit the ground thrashing and empty brass dinged through the air as I popped the double open. Before the breech closed on fresh rounds it was apparent that no more shooting was necessary.

An immense feeling of satisfaction enveloped me. Deep in the soul of the hunter there exists a primal call to face and slay the lion. Modern existence has yet to erase the DNA passed from the hunting ancestors that causes contemporary man to pursue a beast that he knows can also kill him. As the excitement subsided and the adrenaline dry-mouth hit, I knew John Martins was absolutely right. There is no way this hunt can be labeled “canned.”

Footnote: I am fortunate that lion hunting was available for me and I hope that future hunters are allowed the same opportunity. Like the anti-hunting groups, I have a strong desire to see the lion preserved for the future. I think this preservation can be more readily accomplished with hunter funding involved. SCI Foundation’s “Fighting for Lions” campaign began in January 2014 in an effort to save lions with science. The organization supports lion research projects, assists in anti-poaching programs, and provides public education on lion conservation. Join in.