Joe Coogan

In 1991, Joe Coogan made the decision to move halfway around the world, trading his career as a professional hunter in Botswana for a job as a writer and editor at Petersen Publishing Co. in Los Angeles. The change was even more dramatic than the thousands of miles separating California and Botswana indicated; it was a reassignment that might have involved moving from one planet to another. For Joe, the move meant trading in the wide, wild landscape of southern Africa for the crowded streets of a major city. The slow, steady, rhythm of life in the Okavango and the Kalahari were replaced by perpetual hustle and endless motion. The vast sea of stars that lit up the bush each night were lost in the glow of street lamps and traffic signals. Gone were the days of drinking beer in the pubs along the dusty streets in Maun, for having a drink in L.A. meant wading through the noise and crowds in the shimmer of the City of Angels.

For Joe Coogan, the trip to Los Angeles meant the opportunity to put his degree in journalism and mass communications to work at the largest special interest publishing house in the world. Joe used his decades in the bush as a foundation for his magazine work, and his writing drew in fans who appreciated Coogan’s style and tremendous depth of knowledge, myself included. During his tenure at Petersen’s Hunting, Coogan shared his many experiences in the bush, from that day along the Galana River in Kenya when he killed his first elephant to the years spent with Harry Selby hunting in Botswana and the adventures he shared with his favorite tracker Galabone and his many clients from around the world. Coogan’s articles held sway not only because of his ability to relay his message in clear and simple terms, but also because he had been there. He’d been the last line of defense between a petrified client and a wounded lion. He’d stopped a charge from a buffalo bull at seven feet, shooting the animal just under the horn boss with a .458 and dropping it in its tracks in time to save a client who, incidentally, was planning to hunt buffalo. The incident so effected the client that he passed on hunting his own buffalo, feeling like he’d experienced all the buffalo hunting he needed to with this particular incident. Coogan’s words rang with the pitch of someone who’d been on the front lines of dangerous game hunting.

For six years Coogan stayed at Petersen’s Hunting, serving as an editor and feature writer. Then, in 1997, his career changed again, and this time the road led to Arkansas where he managed a 14,000 acre duck hunting property not far from the famed town of Stuttgart, America’s duck hunting capital. In 2000 he was on the move again, this time Florida, where he began working as a freelance writer for a variety of outdoor publications and beginning work on his own book.

Perhaps Coogan thought his days working in Africa were over, but he was wrong.

“It was right around 2001 that I returned to Africa. Tommy Friedkin, who owned Safari South in Botswana and who I’d worked for when he amalgamated KDS with Safari South back in 1978, also owned Tanzania Game Tracker Safaris (TGTS) based out of Arusha,” Coogan said in an interview. “Charles Williams, who managed Safari South for Tommy in Botswana for many years was now spending more time in the US and was involved with the administrative details for TGTS. He and I kept in touch over the years and in 2001 he asked me if I might be interested in coming to Tanzania and do a few hunts for TGTS. I hunted in Tanzania for five seasons, which gave me a chance to show a few of my old clients a new part of Africa.”

In 2001, after a decade working in the United States, Joe was once more acting as a professional hunter in Africa. After becoming licensed in Tanzania, Joe began leading safaris for TGTS for four or five months each year. It was Joe’s first time acting as a licensed PH in the old colonial areas of British East Africa, though he’d hunted the vast game lands of Kenya as a boy. Tanzania was (and is still) one of the finest hunting countries on the continent, and TGTS controlled excellent hunting areas throughout the country. There were vast acacia plains in the semi-arid but game-rich territory around Lake Natron in the northeast, and in the western part of the country were the rivers, swamps, and plains of the Moyowosi and Malagarasi hunting areas, all rich with game and the perfect landscape for Coogan’s return to the African bush.

One of the aspects of returning to safari hunting in Tanzania, besides taking Coogan back to where it all began for him, was the chance for him to hunt leopards again in a traditional manner. For most of his time in Botswana leopards were difficult to hunt simply because baiting was prohibited. Chance encounters and tracking were the only methods available to those clients interested in bagging a leopard and neither way offered much chance for success.

Now that he was back in East Africa Coogan could again hunt leopards in a traditional manner, like he’d learned to originally. Even when baiting a leopard you were still basically matching wits with Mr. Spots in order to coax him out of the shadows during daylight hours, which is not easy to accomplish. Coogan remembers one particularly challenging hunt he had for leopard in Tanzania. It was getting late in the safari and the pressure and frustration was being felt by everyone in camp—Coogan, his trackers and his client, in particular.

With only a few days left before the end of the safari, Coogan remembers being awakened before dawn one morning by a deep, raspy sound, like someone sawing wood. While on safari he’d often been awakened in the night by that unmistakable sound and he was always pleased to hear it. The rhythmic deep, throaty cadence continued intermittently until Coogan finally got up and dressed to go stand by the campfire. A little while later his client walked up to join him with a big smile. They both knew the sound signified the presence of a nearby leopard.

We drove out of camp at first light with the intention of collecting an impala or maybe a zebra or kongoni for freshening up a couple of our leopard baits,” Coogan remembers. “My client and I kept a sharp eye out for tracks and found what we looked for within a mile and a half from camp. ’There’s your sawyer,’ I said to my client, pointing to the pug marks of a big mature tom leopard, clearly visible in a dry sandy river bottom.”

The tracks confirmed, indeed, what Coogan suspected when he’d first heard the sawing sounds a few hours earlier—what they’d been hunting for all over the countryside had come knocking at their door.

“We were back in camp for lunch with a fine impala ram and a kongoni that would provide fresh meat for the table and for a couple of new baits to be hung near the leopard tracks we’d found that morning,” Coogan explained. “After lunch we searched for a suitable tree that was close to cover and water where we could hang the bait. Cover would allow the leopard to approach the bait tree unseen and nearby water would keep him close-by and eliminate the temptation for him to wander off in search of a drink.”

A leopard bait is normally secured to a horizontal limb and tied on with heavy rope. It is then covered with leafy branches and grass to keep vultures off of it. The last chore is to slit the stomach and drag the bait for a couple hundred yards to provide scent from the tree and then back to it where the remnants are then smeared and splattered on the base of the tree.

Leopard hunting in the countries where it’s allowed is as productive today as it ever was—in fact, better in many areas. This, in large part, is because of the ban placed on the commercial trade in leopard skins. In the fur trade’s heyday, leopard spots were considered the “cat’s meow” of fur coat fashion. It was purely a matter of numbers as indiscriminate trapping fed an insatiable and never-ending demand for leopard skins. Consider for a moment that it takes, on average, eight to ten skins from mature leopards to make a lady’s full-length coat. But where the numbers really add up comes with the difficulty of finding eight or more matching skins. To do so means trapping leopards indiscriminately where 50 or more leopards, including cubs and females, are killed in search of those few prime skins. Once pressure from the skin trade was halted, leopard numbers rebounded and, as a result, his status as an endangered species list was reclassified to threatened. You do still need a CITES permit, though, to legally import a sport-hunted leopard skin back into the U.S.

Leopards are hunted in a variety of ways, but baiting has always been the traditional and most acceptable method. The advantage of baiting is that it attracts a leopard to a given place where the cat can be judged as to suitability of size, maturity and sex (females are strictly protected in most countries). Matching wits with a leopard to attract him to a bait within daylight hours is one of hunting’s most exciting and sporting challenges, and one that will be forever etched in a hunter’s memory.

In sandy areas such as Botswana’s Kalahari Desert, it’s possible to track a leopard with the aid of bushman trackers who are capable of literally running the spotted cats to a standstill. The only problem is that leopards rarely came to a standstill, but rather reverse their direction to charge at the pursuers with the intent of biting everybody in the group, whether on the ground or standing in the back of a Land Cruiser. A few years ago, outfitters in Namibia and Zimbabwe began using packs of hounds to bay leopards, a somewhat controversial and still significantly risky method that not uncommonly ended with dogs and people suffering multiple bites and scratches.

“We hung a kongoni haunch in the afternoon, and the next day couldn’t come too soon to check whether the “camp” leopard had hit the bait. The next morning when I nosed the Land Cruiser around a patch of bush a couple hundred yards away from the bait tree, the haunch lay bare to indicate the leopard’s visit. Much of the kongoni leg was eaten, sign of a big cat, and was later confirmed by tracks we found at the base of the tree with large claw marks on the tree trunk.”

“We returned around mid-day to replenish the bait and hastily built a blind. While the gunbearers pulled another kongoni haunch into the tree, I stepped off 45 yards to a place with a clear view of the bait and outlined where the blind should be located. It would need to contain two of us and needed to be positioned in such a way as to allow the vehicle to drive up and pass close by the rear of it. This would enable us to drop off the vehicle and enter the blind unseen.”

“We cut several sapling-size poles to fashion the frame of the blind and collected bundles of grass that would form the walls of the blind. Tightly bunched grass is the best way to line the blind and prevent any movement inside the blind from being seen. After the blind was built we stacked cut-brush against the outside to blend in with the surroundings. If the leopard returned to feed that night, we planned to sit the following afternoon.”

“The next morning we checked the bait and saw the leopard had indeed fed—we would sit for him that afternoon. At 4:30, we pulled up to the blind where we slipped through the rear entrance and sat down to wait. A late-afternoon quiet settled over the bush, and we listened to the occasional small chatter of birds and squirrels. Around 5:30 the squirrels and a few francolin began chattering and squawking. I hoped it indicated the leopard’s approach. Ten minutes later, I heard the sound of something scrambling up the tree. I peeked through the peephole to see the leopard climbing up and jumping onto the bait branch, heading straight for the meat. He quickly began pulling and tugging at it, and our hearts raced with excitement as we watched and listened to him rip meat from the haunch.”

“Without warning, he stopped and looked around as if suddenly becoming aware of us watching him. I held my breath and the seconds dragged by as the leopard unhurriedly surveyed his surroundings, seeming to direct most of his attention at the blind.  Then, just as suddenly, he turned back to the meat and began feeding again. It was time to shoot.”

“Wait until he stops moving and shoot when you’re ready,” Coogan whispered to his client.

“The leopard stood broadside and from the corner of my eye I saw that my client was on the verge of squeezing the trigger. At the sound of the shot echoing across the plains, the leopard leapt from the branch and dove into the dry riverbed below. We waited and listened in the aftermath of quiet stillness. “

“Within a few minutes, my vehicle arrived and the gunbearers eagerly looked at me for a sign that the leopard was dead. My expression let them know that our work was not yet over. I described what happened with the shot and how the leopard reacted. If a leopard has an ounce of life left in him, you can count on him making every effort to retaliate with a supreme effort to inflict injury.”

“I carried my rifle, a Lon Paul custom BRNO M602 chambered in .416 Rigby, and walked to the edge of the high bank, clammering down into the sandy riverbed to find splatters of blood leading into thick bush. The blood sign was easy to follow and I was encouraged by the amount of blood on the ground and bushes.”

“But still, tension gripped all of us as we crept slowly forward. Parting grass and bush with my rifle barrel, I strained to peer into the shadowed undergrowth. But the spoor turned back toward the sandy riverbed and I looked ahead to see spots. The leopard lay on bare sandy ground without moving, and was long past caring when one of the gunbearers threw a stick that bounced off his body. The 270-grain .375 bullet had taken him squarely through the shoulders taking out the top part of his heart. But even with that he’d provided a few uncomfortable moments as we followed the blood through thick brush.”

“Well, you’ve got yourself a fine leopard,” Coogan said, congratulating his client.

“The leopard was not only a mature tom, but his skin exhibited bold black-bordered rosettes that formed a distinctive pattern against a beautiful gold color. We carried the leopard to the Land Cruiser, the front of which the gunbearers festooned with fresh-cut, green leafy branches to signify that we returned to camp with the leopard. Nearing camp the rhythmic chant of a leopard song began from the back of the Land Cruiser, causing the camp to explode with excitement. By the time we pulled up in front of the mess tent, the crew was singing, shouting and dancing about as if the devil himself had been brought to justice. They gathered around to see and touch the leopard lying in the back of the Land Cruiser and were elated by the sight.”

“In today’s Africa, leopards thrive in areas where money from hunting licenses affords them protection through good game management practices,” Coogan says. “That evening we toasted not only to the leopard, but also to the conservation efforts to which hunting contributes, and which hopefully will ensure the future of all of Africa’s big cats.”

Every safari must come to an end. Every campfire eventually burns to ash, and the last red glimmer of sunset fades at last into darkness. Coogan’s career as a professional hunter ended in 2005, when he made the move back to the United States and began work for Benelli USA, a company with which he is currently employed. His work with the Italian shotgun brand hasn’t kept Coogan away from Africa; he has returned on multiple occasions, once to the Galana River to field test some new shotguns in the same tract of land where he killed that big elephant so many years before. His return to the exact spot where that event happened was even featured on an episode of Benelli On Assignment, the TV show he hosted,  And, like most everyone else that has ever traveled to the Dark Continent on safari, a piece of Africa remains with Joe Coogan wherever he goes. Call it good luck or good fortune or just pure determination, Coogan managed to hunt in some of the greatest game fields of Africa, and he managed to earn a professional hunter’s license as a non-citizen in an era when such a thing was thought impossible. And, best of all for us, he took the time to write down some of his adventures for the rest of us to enjoy.

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