Africa: Lion- Ghost of the Kalahari, an adventure by J.C. Bell

By Ken Kempa

Posted on 2015-03-30 18:49:07

In late May, I was staying as a guest at the northeastern Michigan Muy Grande Ranch- one of the Signature Series Resorts of Perry and Paulette Heleski. Another guest, the noted hunting and outdoor writer Craig Boddington, received an urgent e-mail from the southwestern African country of Namibia. It seemed a large lion had moved into a region where both Botswana and South Africa all meet on the Namibian eastern border. The solitary lion had begun feeding on native cattle, but was not taking one and returning to feed on it for several days. Instead, it preferred to make a fresh kill, eating some, but then not returning to fully consume its domestic prey.

A photo was attached with the e-mail, and it showed a fully mature, black maned male lion in his prime. The fact that only a cell phone had been used at close range to photograph this fine specimen was further proof that it had apparently lost most of its fear of people. The combination of no longer being afraid of man and frequently taking fresh cattle had resulted in the Namibian government classifying it as a PAC- Problem Animal Control situation… and could Craig possibly come and end the lion’s reign of financial hardship and domestic terror? As his schedule was fully booked for several months, Craig graciously asked if I would be interested in helping out. Would I be interested?

I immediately placed a call to my secretary and asked her to line up all of my flights to begin as soon as I returned to Georgia. As a bonus, due to the urgency and the impact the lion was having of the local area, and realizing the great cost I would incur, the Namibian government issued not only a permit to harvest the livestock killer, but also a CITES permit that would allow me to import the trophy into America..

Two rifles I had come to trust would go with me, both having been made by A-Square. One, in .375 H&H, should a longer range shot have to be taken. However, my main gun would be the crushing .500 A-Square, with which I had already very convincingly y taken several buffalo. Both were shooting the unique Cutting Edge Bullets Safari Raptor, which had proven again and again to deliver a devastating blow on soft or heavy skinned game. Constructed of brass, it has an oversize hex cavity engineered to blow after ~1.5-2 inches of penetration. The six blades shear off and radiate out in a star pattern, cutting and tearing tissue, while the sharp-edged, non-deforming blunt base...

continues on for almost certain complete penetration. Uniquely, Safari Raptors provide both extensive trauma and deep penetration. Appropriate Leupold illuminated reticle scopes topped each rifle, and I had extreme confidence in both of these weapons, a necessary requirement for the task at hand.

Chapter 1: The Start of the Journey

As we neared the lodge, we circled a few times to get a view of the area.

I flew non-stop from Atlanta to Johannesburg, South Africa (a 15 to 16 hour flight, depending on winds), and was pleased to again have the assistance of Air 2000 (, a local concierge service to ensure hunters a stress free arrival in South Africa. Hunters are welcomed with a personalized name board at arrival at the Johannesburg OR Tambo International Airport. They assist with immigration, baggage collection, identification of firearms and/or bows before going through customs. Once formalities are completed, the next step is to be taken either to the charter aircraft (another service they provide), onward to a scheduled commercial flight, or a hotel if arriving late and need to catch a flight the next day. Late that afternoon, I checked into the Intercontinental Hotel at the airport, an outstanding hotel that is regularly my first night’s resting place when flying to that city.

The next morning, another facilitator with Air 2000 helped me and my rifles through outbound customs, and a short two hour flight on Air Namibia had me in Windhoek, the capital city of Namibia. There, Marnus van Zyl, co-owner of Desert Air Charter (, met me at the airport. It was only about an hour’s flight in the light plane, flying east/southeast to the Buitepos Hunting Safaris with its 40,000 acre huntable ranch, which the lion was now frequenting (where Marnus is also co-owner).

This first day was just spent looking for signs of the lion, his tracks and perhaps even some of his kills.

As we neared the lodge, we circled a few times to get a view of the area. The main lodge and its two chalets were situated on a ridge and positioned with a lovely eastern view looking into Botswana. Acacia trees and bushes were fairly abundant, providing excellent browse for the kudu, springbok, gemsbok, and giraffe we also saw from the air. All told, they have 18...

huntable species on their property ( Naturally, this area normally does not have predators of any kind, so the presence of the lion put not only the people, but the game in the area on edge as well.

Chapter 2: The Pursuit Begins

The farm was in the area where Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa all meet, just north of the Nossob River. The border fence, running north to south on the eastern Namibian border, was 4 meters tall. Construction-wise, it was a wire fence with either the first 4 feet being hog wire fencing and simple single strand wire from there to the top, or hog wire fencing running completely to the very top. Driving that fence line in a Range Rover, we could clearly see places where the lion was crossing the fence. If only the first four feet were hog wire, he would place his front paws on top of that, and then just squeeze between that and the above single wires. Where the hog wire fencing ran full-height to the top, he would simply climb the 4 meters and then jump down in the Namibian side, having come over from Botswana. The permit was only good for hunting in Namibia. That lion sure seemed to know that Botswana was his safe haven. The locals said he would often retreat east to the safe side of the fence. This first day was spent just looking for signs of the lion, his tracks and perhaps even some of his kills.

Very early the next morning we heard the lion roaring, and set out to follow his tracks.

The second day, again was spent searching for tracks, trying to establish if any pattern of the lion’s travel or habits could be determined. A springbok was shot for bait and hung in a tree near where the lion had previously killed an springbok..

While days are often spent to no avail when hunting lion, this is even truer when you are after a specific lion and not just a representative specimen in an area full of lions. On the third day, after two days of scouting, we called in Pete Kibble, a dangerous game licensed PH with five decades of hunting experience. Many countries in Africa require the use of a PH, licensed for dangerous game, whenever hunting any of the Big Five. Pete and his tracker, Paulus, flew in and landed on the airstrip in the Nossob riverbed, which was dry and surprisingly smooth and level; certainly not in any way a hazardous place to land. That afternoon, we found where the lion...

had crossed back into Botswana, so we retired for the day to rest up.

So do we build a blind and wait for him to come back to feed… or take off right away and follow his tracks?

Very early the next morning, we heard the lion roaring, and set out to follow his tracks. Three bushman trackers followed the lion for around 6 miles where they came upon an ostrich the lion had killed. The lion carried it about 200 yards up a hill, where he could lay and feed upon it while having a view of the area below his elevated position; but he had since moved on. Still on his tracks in another 4 to 5 miles, we were close enough to hear him kill a springbok. Approaching slowly, we found where it had been hidden under a bush for later feeding. As stated earlier, with virtually no lion ever in this area, it was quite possible the ostrich and springbok it killed may have never even seen a lion before.

Chapter 3: What to Do?

In every hunt there comes a time where a critical decision must be made. With the freshly killed springbok hidden under a bush, we knew for certain that the lion would be back to feed, but we also knew he probably still was in the immediate area. So do we build a blind and wait for him to come back to feed… or take off right away and follow his tracks? I went with the majority vote, and off we went to track the lion- it was around 2:00 in the afternoon.

I raised my .500 A-Square, but thought I was breathing too hard to confidently make the shot.

After only about 200 yards, we saw the lion up the hill, to the right, calmly lying under a tree. I set up to take a shot, but at that distance I did not feel steady enough to make the shot with confidence. Of course the lion saw us too, and we realized he was exactly downwind of us. When we tried to move to the right, he would move to the right. When we moved to the left, he would move to the left, always keeping perfectly downwind of us. A few times of this back and forth, and the lion decided there must be a better place to be, so off he took uphill.

For exercise, I had been walking for two hours a day, but the 150 yards or so we sprinted up the hill after him winded me a bit. Before we knew it, there he was broadside, facing to my right at about 50 yards. I raised my .500 A-Square, but thought I was breathing too...

hard to confidently make the shot. As he stood in very high grass, I only saw perhaps the top quarter of him above it, if that much- he was making low growls and seemed a bit annoyed that we had disturbed him.


With the narrow band of lion showing just above the tall grass, I finally settled enough to take a shot. While I should have aimed right at the grass-body line, my mind defaulted to aiming at the center of the exposed lion, right behind the shoulder. At the shot, the lion collapsed, but then immediately made a 15 foot dash, disappearing behind a leafy bush about 20 feet in diameter. Certain he was hit, and knowing exactly where he was, the PH and I started to work our way towards the bush. But suddenly one member of the party grabbed the PH by his sleeve, and told him to not go on. Barely 30 seconds later, the lion decided he wanted to be elsewhere and quickly bolted away from us without offering a chance for a shot.

Chapter 4: Tracking 101

Most likely, my shot had gone too high, perhaps only grazing the spinous process of a vertebra (the point of the bone standing up away from the spinal column, and nearest the skin). A bullet so placed would have caused great shock and been transmitted to the spinal cord, resulting in him dropping at the shot. Unfortunately, it must not have been low enough to actually damage the spinal cord and anchor him for good.

We immediately took off after him, and tracking was easy as there were little spatters of blood with every step he took. There were even a few places where he paused for just a bit, and we found small, less than palm-sized puddles of blood. In less than a mile, the blood disappeared altogether, a sign that he had indeed only been grazed. We ended up tracking him for about another 3-1/2 hours more, until darkness forced us to stop. During that time, a second young PH, named Franc, did manage to get off a quick running shot when he and his tracker jumped the lion at some distance, but the lion was untouched by it.

The next morning, we went to where he had hidden the springbok under the bush the day before and were surprised to see he had returned and eaten the antelope after having been shot at! All...

the rest of the day and the following day, we worked to cut his tracks, but it was to no avail. On the third day after taking the shot, we were on our way to a small village to deliver some food. We saw several vultures circling above. Investigating further, we found a freshly killed cow that had been fed on- he was back. Following his tracks, we found where he had crossed the fence back into the safe zone. Again, he was a no-show the following day, never coming back into the area.

Since then though, the lion has been back and taken springbok again and again.

The fifth day after the shooting encounter, we found his tracks first thing in the morning. Four trackers set off right away with a radio and GPS to record his travel as they tracked the lion. By mid-day, they had covered almost 30 miles, and the trackers were physically and mentally exhausted.

A call to a local farmer brought some relief as he provided four new bushman to resume the tracking. Marnus also called in another plane to try and help locate the lion. The trackers later reported that whenever the lion heard the plane approaching, he would crawl under a bush to hide himself from observation. That is when the locals started calling him the Ghost of the Kalahari. Somewhat surprisingly, the trackers did locate a sheep- still alive- that the lion had disabled by breaking its back, rendering the sheep’s back legs useless. That unfortunate creature was then dragged under a bush, to await its fate as the lion’s next meal. By actual GPS coordinates, the two groups of trackers recorded a total distance traveled in fourteen hours to be a large, looping circle measuring right at 104 km in total distance covered (~60 miles). From this, it is apparent that the shot that had hit him was only a graze, and he was fully capable of carrying on in a normal manner. Towards the end of the day, we could see from his tracks that the lion had approached the border fence and climbed over it to his safe haven.

After reading this story, you surely can point out perhaps several places where we “did it wrong”, and you’d get no argument from me at all.

Unfortunately, during the final four days of the hunt, we never saw him or came across his tracks again, or came across any fresh kills. Since then though, the lion has been back and taken springbok again and...

again. Once the locals can determine any pattern to his travels and killings, they have promised to contact me, so I can go back and match wits with the Ghost of the Kalahari.

Chapter 5: Lessons Learned

After reading this story, you surely can point out perhaps several places where we “did it wrong,” and you’d get no argument from me at all. During the hunt, though not having any prior experience with lion hunting, I,too, felt there were times that we should have chosen a different path, but I acquiesced and regretted those moments almost immediately. I am not to say that when it comes to safety, I would choose to go against my PH’s decision. Only that when it came to strategy, with my dollars on the line, I should have been more persistent in how to pursue the lion- at several points during the hunt and follow up.

As soon as the locals can establish a pattern to the lion’s movements, I will return to finish what I started.

Early on, after finding a fresh kill, my gut told me to build a blind and wait for the lion to return for feeding for the chance of a calm, rested shot…instead of taking off after him. When we did have first visual contact of the lion, when we were upwind and he clearly saw us, instead of trying to get closer, we should have backed way off and circled around behind him. Lastly, having two PHs, myself, and at times 5 trackers… just seemed too busy, especially when the lion was aware of us.

Apparently, my one and only shot did only graze the lion, and as I sit here, now back home, reports of him still killing livestock continue to reach me. However, many expensive lessons were learned, and those errors in judgment will not be repeated again. As soon as the locals can establish a pattern to the lion’s movements, I will return to finish what I started.