There’s a law in Zimbabwe that says when a hunter wounds an animal, it is that hunter’s responsibility to track it down and kill it cleanly. But before it was written into the law books with the weight of a monetary fine, it was also an unwritten law among hunters there.
This is what Thomas Ballard was told on one of several trips to Zimbabwe, and it’s what was in the back of his mind when his shot at a large leopard hit behind where he aimed. The big cat jumped off the bait and began screaming and prowling in circles. Then it fell silent.
In the dark of night, Ballard and his guide, professional hunter Marcel Tiran, along with three trackers, thought the animal was dead. They jumped into a pickup truck and drove over to retrieve the cat.
But when the headlights turned in that direction, the leopard was still there. And it was mad.
“A wounded leopard is probably the most dangerous animal in the world,” the local architect and big-game hunter said as he sat in his downtown Wilmington office.
The cat did not hesitate, Ballard said. It leapt onto the truck’s hood, then sprang for the three trackers standing up in the back of the vehicle.
“It was the most unbelievable, god-awful thing I’ve ever seen – this screaming, charging leopard,” Ballard said.
The men shot the leopard about five more times with shotguns before it stopped, right at their feet, walked away and then collapsed.
“The professional hunter is there to save your life if it’s needed,” Ballard said. “And they’ve pulled me out twice so far.”
A similar leopard, about seven feet long from nose to rump, expertly stuffed and mounted on a large piece of wood, stands in the corner of the room where Ballard sits. It’s one of about 50 specimens from all over the world that fill the large room on the second floor of his business, Ballard Architecture.
Soon, though, nearly all of them will be added to a collection at the National Institute of Zoology in China.
“I have already sent over nine specimens. I have promised them that I will donate my entire collection,” he said. “This will give the Chinese people an opportunity to see these animals. They don’t let people hunt over there.”
China wasn’t randomly chosen as a taxidermy depository. Ballard said he met a man in the jungles of Africa, they started talking, and the man told him, “You’ve got go to Asia.”
Ballard made his first trip to China in “2004 or 2005,” he said. Soon after, the government banned hunting altogether. But during that stint, he became friends with a doctoral student and a curator of the Institute of Zoology who encouraged him to donate his mounts.
“I had been looking for something to do with them,” Ballard said. “I can only give so much of it to my kids.”
He also needed to clear the large room out so he could rent it.
After sending over nine specimens in two big crates, Ballard said he made a trip to China in March of 2009 to see them displayed. He said the Chinese were very grateful.
When it’s all shipped, except for a few of the hunter’s favorites, it’s likely the Chinese will have the same reaction as the Wilmington schoolchildren or others who occasionally tour Ballard’s office to learn about the animals and their habitats.
Newcomers to the beige, nondescript building walk into a reception area not unlike a doctor’s office. They speak with a secretary who calls Ballard or his wife, Dail Ballard, up to the window. The couple leads the way to see the collection. And then you step into the room.
Your jaw drops. It’s like walking into a photo of Ernest Hemingway’s living room.
Taxidermy hangs on every wall. It stands in the middle of the room and is displayed in the small sitting area. It ranges from blue duikers, a type of pygmy antelope slightly larger than a Chihuahua, to a 600-pound bongo, one of Africa’s largest antelopes. Cape buffalo heads hang on a wall near photos of Ballard posing with other exotic animals he’s hunted over the years in far away countries.
As a kid growing up in Wilmington, Ballard read Hemingway and Wilmington-born big game hunter and writer Robert Ruark. He thought about becoming an English teacher. But he also hunted deer with his dad, the architect and avid outdoorsman Frank Ballard Sr.
Thomas Ballard went on his first big game hunt, for elk, in 1992 in New Mexico. Then he went on a few hunts in Canada. One day, a hunting consultant, Tom Smith of Charlotte, told him that for almost the same amount of money, he could hunt in Africa.
So, in 1996, the younger Ballard flew to Zimbabwe. On that trip he shot a leopard, something unheard of for first-timers. To hunt leopard, the hunter sits in a blind and waits from about 3 p.m. until about 5 or 6 a.m.
“You have these hours and hours of boredom,” he said. “When you hear the leopard chewing on the bait, it will just unravel you. And you have about half a second to make the shot.”
This is when Ballard “caught the bug,” his wife said.
“I remember sitting in a ditch one day with (her husband and his dad) out deer hunting,” she said. “The bug did not bite me.”
After that, he made a promise to himself to hunt each country four times, “To kind of saturate myself,” he said. So far, his list of checked-off locations includes Canada, Zimbabwe, Camaroon, the Central African Republic, South Africa, Tanzania, Azerbaijan, Mongolia and China.
Sheep hunting in the Caucasus Mountains of Azerbaijan was physically the toughest, he said. Hunting ibex in Mongolia was nearly as rough – he has photos of a large canvas tent covered in snow 10,000 feet up a mountain.
His last hunt in the Central African Republic was in such a remote area he had no idea until later that he had made the last flight out of the country before it was overtaken with civil war. He made it home, only to come down with malaria soon after.
His list of animals taken is extensive.
Ballard took three separate hunting trips of two weeks each, walking 15 to 18 kilometers before he got his most elusive prey, a Giant Eland. He walked eight days before he even saw it.
“It’s hard to believe that you can have such a large animal, 2,200 pounds, and he can be so elusive,” Ballard said.
He’s also taken pygmy buffalo, golden cat, civet, red-flanked duiker and an east Caucasian tur.
All the animals, Ballard said, were eaten or used in some way by the locals. In most hunting areas of Africa, hunters must sign an agreement that the meat will be given to local villagers. He said one elephant he shot was completely consumed in less than 18 hours.
“Nothing is wasted in Africa,” he said, adding that good management practices equal good hunting. And there are other benefits.
“Hunting employs the local people – guides, trackers, professional hunters,” he said.
Not to mention the postal workers and customs agents who determine whether Ballard receives his hides. It could take up to five years for the animal skins to make it to the United States. Some, he said, he may never see again.
But if some do show up, it’s likely they’ll make another long trip – to China. But not before Ballard recalls the stories of hunting them.
Amy Hotz: 343-2099
On Twitter.com: @AmyHotz