HERUHANTO ISLAND, NORTH PACIFIC
The grate over the waste pipe had corroded. Esteban knew it wouldn’t hold his weight, but his gut was telling him Ming was down there. The saltwater crocodile was over a hundred years old and one of the most legendary pursuits of the so-called ‘Hell Hunt’. And the old male croc was a legend for a reason – Ming had survived every season so far, whilst those who had gone after him had not. Esteban wanted him more than any other of the potential trophies on the island. He held his shotgun out in front of him as he jumped, crashing through the rusted metal grate, and landing confidently in the recess of the pipe below.
The smell hit him immediately. Rancid flesh and rotting carrion. The tell-tale stench of a crocodile’s larder. He edged forward into the gloom. The damp air engulfed him, and he could barely breathe. As his eyes adjusted, he began to make out shapes in the gloom. Shapes that moved and came towards him. He soon detected the eyeshine of an animal directly in front of him. It raised up onto its haunches as if to study him. Esteban raised his gun and fired. The pipe erupted into light and then noise. He felt fear take hold in the pit of his stomach and he wanted to retch. He had seen what was coming for him down the pipe. High-pitched squeals and the clicks of a thousand claws raking on metal echoed towards him. He fired again, then threw the prized shotgun out of their reach back through the broken grate above him, just before they swarmed him and began to feast.
General Tiao smiled at his own cunning. The giant African pouched rats had been a delightful addition to the island, and more than one hunter had mistaken their stash and stink for Ming. They were also now completely dependent on meat and a force to be reckoned with. There was no camera feed inside of the pipe as the rats had chewed through the wiring, but Tiao had known Esteban’s fate as soon as he had headed for the pipe. He now turned his attention to the island’s only current surviving guest, although he suspected that wouldn’t be the case for long, as far as the unfortunate Englishman was concerned.
Rupert Witherspoon knelt to examine the steaming pile of dung that sat in the centre of the trail. The predator had evacuated its bowels both as a warning and in defiance of its pursuer. It knew it was being tracked and a spray of faecal matter not only lightened the load, but also often confused and distracted anything behind long enough to make an escape possible. Tiao watched the screen as the Englishman wiped the sweat from his brow and took a moment to gather himself. It wasn’t hard to imagine why. As he stood up, Tiao noticed the slight tremble in his arms as Witherspoon worked the pump of his shotgun to chamber the next round. Undoubtedly, the jungle had just gone very quiet and the hairs on the back of the Englishman’s neck would be standing on end. They both knew he was in the presence of one of the world’s most proficient predators – in this case, the Amur tiger.
Khan was a formidable opponent. A mature and rather well-fed male, he tipped the scales at over 600lbs. He was also especially grumpy and irritable, even for a tiger. His long fur and heavy build were far better suited to his natural home of the Russian arctic. But here, those attributes made him uncomfortable and often, hot and bothered. Combined with a short temper, it meant he was always ready for a fight. Tiao often had to intervene to put distance between Khan and his pursuers. The tiger had no fear of humans and actively sought them out as prey. The Englishman would have been claimed by Khan on his first day on the island, had it not been for numerous diversions and distractions. But now his time, just like his luck, had run out.
Tiao watched the monitor as the man crept forward along the trail, oblivious to the fact that the animal he was tracking had just emerged from a thicket of bamboo and back onto the trail some thirty feet behind him. Tiao wondered if the man realised how stupid he looked in the leather bush hat and drovers coat, especially given his pasty skin and thin wire spectacles. The tiger sprang forward and was on the man within a few easy bounds. Witherspoon only had time to let out a wimpish bleat of fear as he was engulfed by Khan in full fury. The tiger bit down through the back of the man’s neck. Tiao sighed. The Hell Hunt was over, at least until his next round of guests took their chances with the lethal menagerie that called the island home. This time round, Tiao had been glad at the misfortune of the human hunters. There were plenty of game animals on the island, and the extortionate fees paid made them easily replaceable. But the more unique specimens, such as Khan and Ming, were much harder and more expensive to procure and replace. He was glad he would not have to go to the trouble before his next guests arrived.
SAN ANGELO, TEXAS, USA
David Moore and Noah Ramirez were happy with their spot. They were positioned on the north shore of the Twin Buttes reservoir, facing west and towards the San Angelo Regional Airport. The cove they were in wasn’t easy to reach, so they were pretty sure they wouldn’t have any competition. They’d scouted here several evenings in advance and baited several prime locations. All were within range of their rifles – both David’s Mossberg Patriot Predator in 22-250 Remington, and Noah’s Savage Model 24, which boasted a Remington .223 barrel on top, and a 12-gauge shotgun tube beneath. This gave Noah the best of both worlds in varmint hunting, with the long range of a decent rifle, and the close comfort of a shotgun for when a coyote or bobcat sprung out of the brush unexpectedly.
Only four of their 24 hours remained.
Thomas opened his eyes and for a moment, didn’t stir. He wasn’t startled, but something had woken him. This wasn’t unusual. Five hundred metres from the house, a remarkable predator that the world hadn’t seen in Millennia, casually patrolled its enclosure, occasionally letting out a roar that had been officially recorded at 147 decibels. It was quite something, but somehow, he’d grown used to it. The lynx housed in a paddock next door, not so much. They still viewed their outsized neighbour and distant cousin with suspicion. After all, the sabretooth was big enough to see them as a snack rather than family.
That wasn’t what had woken him though. He moved his head slowly and quietly to the side. His wife, Catherine, still slept. Her snores were sweet and soft. She always worked harder than he did. She was tired, and sleep was a luxury they didn’t always have. Silently, he lifted his side of the bed covers and brought his feet to the floor. Dressed only in a pair of pyjama shorts, he tip-toed over to the window and looked out. He could see the enclosures for both cats from where he stood but saw no sign of them. The sun was barely just beginning to edge above the forest canopy, still almost entirely shielded from view by the mountains beyond. Known locally as “the Walls of Mullardoch”, the series of Munros – mountains over 3,000 feet, contained the river valley, loch, and ancient forest that leant their name to these granite precipices. The highest of the mountains was Càrn Eige, a lone, pyramid-shaped peak that stood tall and resilient against the rest. It was the same mountain where Thomas had tracked and faced the hybrid father of Tama, the sabretooth now in the enclosure outside. Tama too was a hybrid, her mother being a mountain lion from a collection in a nearby glen. Zoo fences hadn’t been enough to stop her father from reaching the female in heat, to mate. Thomas carefully eyed the enclosure fences. Nothing was out of place.
Thomas cocked his head and placed his hand on the glass. A few moments later, he felt it more than heard it. He glanced at Catherine, who still slumbered, then ran barefoot from the room – silent, but unable to control his excitement any longer. He took the stairs three steps at a time, quickly rounding the corner and bursting into the downstairs room of his seven-year-old daughter, Cassie. As he had expected, she too was standing at the locked glass doors to the rear of the room, looking out. Like him, she was also in her pyjamas – dark blue with assorted dinosaurs on them. She turned her head sharply, causing her shoulder-length, red curly hair to sway and bounce with the movement. She smiled when she saw her dad.
“Did you hear it, Dadda?” she chirped in her soft, Scottish lilt, her eyes bright with wonder.
Thomas smiled. Despite being born in Drumnadrochit, on the shores of Loch Ness, he had lost his accent after a move in his early years to the North of England. Catherine shared his mixed heritage with a mother who also hailed from Scotland, but she too had grown up in London, meaning neither of them had accents. Cassie’s was one that made him smile. In fact, Cassie just made him smile, full stop.
“I think I did,” he finally replied, drawing closer.
He unlocked the doors and took Cassie’s hand as they stepped out onto the deck. He looked down as Cassie lifted her head and gave him a mischievous smile whilst holding a finger to her lips. He did as he was told and closed his eyes, listening. Then it came. Soft and distant, but unmistakable. The “sawing” call of a leopard.
Thomas froze as he saw the print etched into the soft sand of the loch shore. Over the last few weeks, he’d begun to seek out paths and trails where he might find traces of his elusive new neighbour. As his excursions had taken him farther into the forest, he had discovered a stream that ended in a seven-foot waterfall that fed into the loch. Here, he had found the spoor of the leopard – a male, just as he’d suspected. After the pattern repeated itself a few times, he accepted that the leopard drank here often, and it had become part of his regular route. Today though, as he’d feared and been told, the cat’s injury was recorded in the shallow impressions before him. The right front paw barely touched the ground, and the rear footing was irregular and turned outward. Usually, a leopard’s feet turned naturally inwards, and the rear paw would automatically be placed where the front paw was – known as proprioception. But this cat was hopping awkwardly and dragging its front paw, which it held off the ground as it went. The farmer had found his mark, and now, what had been a benign creature minding its own business and keeping to itself, was more likely of becoming dangerous and turning on the easily killed sheep. The farmer had inadvertently created the problem he had been seeking to prevent. It also didn’t slip Thomas’ mind that many a maneater had started its career after being wounded in a similar fashion.
Thomas took a breath and reminded himself that this leopard had been reported as black, and therefore was more likely to be descended from animals that lived in Southeast Asia. That meant it was probably an Indochinese leopard, a subspecies that was slighter and lither than the African cats he had more experience with. He was also led to believe they were less confrontational and aggressive because of their smaller size. Their dark coat had proven to be an evolutionary advantage in the thick jungles of Thailand and Malaysia. South of the Kra Isthmus – the narrowest part of the Malay peninsula, and where the jungles were thickest, all leopards were melanistic and dark in colour. They were built to hide and ambush rather than waltz into a stand-up fight.Unfortunately, their black coat also made them highly desirable in the exotic pet trade. Melanistic leopards were also known as black panthers, and it was they that had been sought after significantly when keeping such animals had been popular in the 1960s and early 70s.