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'Someone's going to get hurt ... '

1/9/2010
Courtesy of exhibiting artist Kobus Moller of Ifafi, South Africa (www.kobusmoller.com). Photo by Steve Wagner

DALLAS — It's not something Larry Bucher likes to talk about. In fact, in the seven years since he survived the violent attack of a wounded leopard, the lifetime Dallas Safari Club member has shunned repeated interview requests from hunting and shooting's media luminaries — and it's not because of emotional trauma.

It's because he's embarrassed — genuinely embarrassed.

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Embarrassed, the 71-year-old Los Angeles resident said, because he knew better. Embarrassed because he's been on 28 African safaris; taking every species on the continent — most many times over — and had already survived so many close brushes with dangerous game with nary a scratch for his troubles.

Bucher knows Africa and hunting the Dark Continent like few men ever have. And if the worst-case scenario can play out for a dapper and eloquent gentleman of such vast experience, all hunters should heed the warning. For in the bush, mistakes snowball quickly, putting lives at stake.

"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 area of Namibia, a slender strip of land sandwiched between Zambia, Botswana and Angola, Bucher arrived in country looking to fill two bull tags.

Once one was filled, he and members of his hunting party delivered elephant meat to the protein-starved natives in the surrounding area (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."

The first mistake, Bucher admits, was agreeing to hunt the animal. Outfitted solely with his .416 Rigby and solid, deep-penetrating rounds suitable for hunting giant pachyderms (leopards require higher-velocity, smaller-caliber, rapidly expanding bullets that knock down and quickly dispatch the dangerous cat), Bucher was hesitant to take on the task.

However, native 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. But the trackers 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, and without a proper gun rest from which to make the vitally 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 a second time and moved the bait. Despite the intrusion of a juvenile bull elephant storming through their hunting area within dangerously close range, the big cat soon returned with little light remaining in the day.

"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 Kings of the Jungle — not the lion."

An accomplished marksman, Bucher, in accordance with leopard-hunting protocol, waited for the cat to finish feeding before attempting what he knew would be a difficult — and less than ideal — shot as the predator was in a less-than-deal position.

As he squeezed the trigger, the big cat straightened its body, altering the bullet's access to the vital organs and a quick, clean kill, instead striking it between the shoulders and the body. The wounded leopard jolted from the tree to the ground and began a series of vocalizations that chill even veteran leopard hunters to the bone.

"Anytime you hear a leopard go whoo-whoo-whoo," Bucher explained, "you're in big trouble."

With no leopard light to fend off the immediate darkness and no blood trail in the immediate area, Bucher (the most experienced leopard hunter in the party) advised that the group leave the area and resume searching the following morning, adding that otherwise, "someone's going to get hurt."

The next morning, the outfitter left early to greet a group of new clients, but failed to unload from his vehicle the gear Bucher and his party would need to safely track the leopard, including Bucher's preferred leopard rifle — a .375 H&H Magnum — along with his professional hunter's extra ammunition and medical supply kit. So with Bucher still loaded for elephant, and with the professional hunter having just two rounds of ammunition in his .500 Jeffry, the tracking party left camp.

The group soon found a substantial amount of blood where the leopard bedded down for the night. They followed the trail to an area where a fallen tree provided cover Bucher thought would conceal the wounded cat. After a short, tense moment, the cat leapt from the cover of the fallen tree, charging in the direction of the trackers.

"Leopards will react to a voice," Bucher said, " so I yelled 'Hey, Cat!' "

The wounded leopard stopped his pursuit of the trackers' position and turned toward the sound of Bucher, who was standing in the shadow of the thorn tree. Meanwhile, the professional hunter was exposed in open daylight — a prime target for the angry cat.

Running down the length of the tree trunk in fast pursuit of the professional hunter (Bucher's line of sight obscured by the fallen tree), the guide fired his only two rounds, missing both times. Knowing that the man's life was in danger, Bucher stepped 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."

Before being hit, Bucher managed to fire one, point-blank shot, striking the airborne cat in the face. The bullet travelled the length of the leopard's body, eventually coming to rest near its hips. 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 on the ground. Freeing one 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 his teeth grating my bones," Bucher said. "I knew I was in trouble. Good thing he 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. Seeing the professional hunter approaching, the cat let go of Bucher, now fixed on a new victim. The professional hunter kicked at the charging cat only to have his leg grabbed by the wounded leopard's teeth. Bucher 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 his attack as the pair finished the leopard by bludgeoning it with their rifle barrels.

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 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. It was determined that the violent leopard attack had — luckily — not broken bones, torn cartilage or ligaments and had not severed any major arteries or blood vessels.

Opting instead to stay in a nearby hotel instead of the modern hospital for matters of comfort, Bucher was on his way home to Los Angeles one week later.

Physically scarred by the attack and lucky to be alive, the L.A. resident capped off his amazing adventure with a final chapter for which his hometown is known: the happy ending.

Referred by a friend to an accomplished Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, Bucher sought cosmetic surgery to fix his scarred shoulder. The doctor, however, required the then-64-year-old adventurer to undergo a thorough physical exam before any operation could take place.

Upon close inspection, the internist administering his required exam discovered that Bucher suffered from rectal cancer. Without treatment, the doctor explained, Bucher would have died within six months.

The leopard, it seemed, had actually saved the life of the same 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."