It’s not something Larry Bucher likes to talk about. In the years since he survived the violent attack of a wounded leopard, Bucher has shunned repeated interview requests from safari hunting’s media luminaries. But his reluctance to talk had nothing to do with emotional scars or psychological trauma. It’s because he was embarrassed—genuinely embarrassed.
Embarrassed, the Dallas Safari Club life-member and convention regular explained, because he knew better. Embarrassed because he had already been on 28 African safaris. Embarrassed because he had successfully hunted every species on the continent, most many times over, and had survived an untold number of close brushes with dangerous game with nary a scratch for his troubles.
Truly, Bucher knows Africa and hunting the Dark Continent like few non-native men ever have. And if the worst-case scenario can play out for a man of such vast experience, all hunters should heed the warning.
In the bush, mistakes swarm quickly, putting lives at risk.
“It’s really interesting when you get to the point you think you know everything,” Bucher said. “That’s when Mother Nature has the last laugh and bad things happen.”
In search of heavy-tusked elephants in the Caprivi Strip region of Namibia, a slender strip of land sandwiched between the countries of Zambia, Botswana and Angola, Bucher arrived in country looking to fill two bull tags. With his first tag filled, he and members of his hunting party delivered elephant meat to protein-starved residents of the surrounding villages (a common practice wherein hunter harvests directly benefit local populations) when they were informed of a “problem leopard” in the area.
“It wasn’t a problem leopard in terms of being a man eater or a cattle killer,” Bucher said. “It had just been lurking around some camps making a nuisance of itself; swiping chickens and dogs or something.”
“Someone’s going to get hurt”
The first mistake, Bucher admitted, was made when he agreed to hunt the animal. Outfitted solely with his .416 Rigby and solid, deeper-penetrating rounds suitable for hunting giant pachyderms, Bucher was hesitant to take on the task. Leopard hunting, Bucher said, calls for a rifle of a smaller caliber, one that fires high-velocity projectiles that rapidly expand upon entry to knock down and quickly dispatch the dangerous cats. However, local trackers had already set a bait using remnants of an elephant trunk in a tree near a road where the cat’s tracks had been found, so time was of the essence, leaving Bucher little time to contemplate the situation. Little did he know that the trackers who set the bait had failed to effectively secure the meat in a spot that would expose the cat for a clean, broadside shot.
Without a designated blind position from which to wait for the cat (meaning he was also without a proper gun rest from which to take the important shot), Bucher returned to the area that evening to dispatch the troublesome leopard. After a short sit in a makeshift blind, Bucher noticed that the cat had been to the tree and moved the bait without being detected. It all seemed to be going awry.
Suddenly, a juvenile bull elephant stormed through the hunting area, trampling by dangerously close to the frustrated hunter.
“Elephants are very disruptive to a leopard hunt,” Bucher said. “My experience with troublesome bulls coming in is that they’ve ruined the bait. No leopards are going to come in after that. The elephant is the true King of the Jungle—not the lion.”
Despite all that was now working against Bucher, the big cat suddenly appeared in the tree with very little light remaining in the day. An accomplished marksman, Bucher, in accordance with leopard-hunting protocol, waited for the cat to pause its feeding before attempting what he knew would be a difficult shot as the predator was in a less-than-ideal position. As he squeezed the trigger of his .416 Rigby, the wary cat straightened its body, which altered the bullet’s access to the vital organs. Instead of a quick, clean kill, the bullet struck the leopard between the shoulders and the center of its body, the thunderous impact jolting the cat from the tree. Once on the ground, the wounded animal began a series of vocalizations that chill even veteran leopard hunters to the bone.
“Anytime you hear a leopard go whuff, whuff, whuff after the shot,” Bucher explained, “you’re in big trouble.”
With no leopard light to fend off the immediate darkness and no blood trail in the area of the baited tree, Bucher advised that the group leave the area and resume searching the following morning.
“Otherwise,” Bucher cautioned the group, “someone’s going to get hurt.”
A dangerous trail
The next morning, another outfitter in Bucher’s hunting camp left early to greet a group of new clients at an airport several hours away, but failed to unload from his vehicle the gear Bucher and his party would need to safely track the leopard, namely the lighter .375 H&H Magnum rifle Bucher would have preferred as a leopard gun, his professional hunter’s extra ammunition, and a medical supply kit. So with Bucher still loaded for elephant, and with the professional hunter having just two rounds of ammunition in his .500 Jeffery, the tracking party left camp.
Once they resumed tracking, Bucher’s group soon found a substantial amount of blood where the leopard bedded for the night. They followed the trail to an area where a fallen tree provided the kind of cover Bucher thought the wounded cat might use to conceal itself. After a few short, tense moments of slowly walking around the tree to get better views of the area nearest to its trunk, the wounded leopard sprang from the shadows of the fallen timber and charged in the direction of the trackers.
“Leopards will react to a voice,” Bucher said, “so I yelled ‘Hey, cat!’”
The wounded leopard stopped its advance on the trackers’ position and turned towards the sound of Bucher, who happened to be concealed in the shadow of a thorn tree. At the same time, the professional hunter stepped into a patch of sunlight and became the prime target for the angry cat. The leopard charged down the length of the tree trunk, bearing down on the professional hunter, who fired his only two rounds and missed both times. Knowing that the professional hunter was now defenseless, Bucher leapt over the log into the direct path of the leopard, resulting in a man-feline collision Bucher described as “being hit by a freight train.”
But before being hit, Bucher managed to fire one, point-blank shot at the leopard, creasing the airborne cat’s face. The bullet travelled the length of the leopard’s body, eventually striking the cat near the hip. But with both man and beast on the ground, the enraged cat clamped its teeth onto Bucher’s shoulder and began to violently pound the hunter into the dirt. Freeing one of his arms, Bucher punched the leopard in the face, causing the big cat to clamp down with even more force and attack him with even more violence.
“I can still remember [the feel of] the pressure and the sounds of its teeth grating against my bones,” Bucher said. “I knew I was in trouble. Good thing it was not a well animal. I remember hearing someone screaming, and I thought to myself, ‘Why is someone screaming? I’m the one being attacked!’ But then I realized I was the one screaming.”
Out of ammunition, the professional hunter tried to come to Bucher’s aid, intent to club the cat with his now-empty rifle. But as the professional hunter approached, the cat let go of Bucher and became fixed on its new victim. The professional hunter kicked at the charging cat only to have his boot grabbed by the wounded leopard’s teeth. Bucher scrambled to his feet and loaded another round into his rifle, but the position of the leopard and professional hunter prohibited a quick-killing heart shot. The only option was another potentially dangerous shot into the midsection of the animal.
Bucher’s shot was true and the animal ceased its attack as the pair finished off the leopard by bludgeoning it with their rifle barrels.
Extraction and examination
Luckily, the professional hunter escaped the attack unscathed. Bucher, however, suffered substantial tissue damage to his shoulder and upper arm, leaving blood to pour off of his hand and soak his tattered shirt until it glistened red. The party feared that Bucher would soon go into shock. The professional hunter, a former veterinarian, along with the trackers, marched Bucher 40 minutes back to the truck to begin initial treatment of the wounds. However, the medical kit—like the firearms and other essential gear—were taken on the airport run earlier in the morning. Without other options, they bundled Bucher in extra shirts and other items and transported him back to camp.
Transported the following day to Windhoek, Namibia, the country’s capital (an eight-hour flight courtesy of a 16-year-old neophyte pilot who happened to respond to the hunting camp’s S.O.S. radio call), Bucher received treatment in a modern hospital where it was determined that the violent leopard attack had—luckily and surprisingly—not broken bones, torn cartilage or ligaments, nor severed any major arteries or blood vessels. Opting to stay in a nearby hotel instead of the modern hospital for matters of comfort as he convalesced, Bucher was on his way home one week later.
Physically scarred by the attack and lucky to be alive, Bucher’s harrowing adventure didn’t end there.
Referred by a friend to an accomplished California plastic surgeon, Bucher sought cosmetic surgery to fix his disfigured shoulder. The doctor, however, required the then-64-year-old adventurer to undergo a thorough physical exam before any operation could take place. The internist administering the exam discovered that Bucher was suffering from advanced rectal cancer. Without treatment, the doctor explained, Bucher would have died within six months.
The leopard, it seemed, had actually saved the man it had tried to kill. Bucher’s perceived embarrassment taught him a valuable lesson and delivered him a new lease on life.
“I probably screwed up 10 times or more in the whole thing. That’s why I’ve never really wanted to talk about it,” Bucher said. “I ended up with very few scars because the doctor did such a great job. So maybe I’ll have to go back and do it again and keep the scars this time—that way I can show people it’s really a true story.”