Beware the Wounded Buffalo!
Above: An old wounded buffalo dagha bull can be an exceedingly cunning and determined adversary, and even when not wounded they need to be respected due their unpredictability.
If statistics are anything to go by it’d appear more hunters are killed or injured as a result of running after a wounded buffalo, than are those who track it cautiously and slowly. Blindly running through thick cover after a wounded buffalo places the hunter at a distinct disadvantage, and for a number of reasons. Humans are noisy creatures, and if the buffalo has stopped fleeing, the noise of its pursuer will carry to it easily. And then when it suddenly launches an attack on the hunter from extremely close quarters, the hunter will probably be out of breath, have sweat stinging his eyes, and be caught completely off guard. End result; a botched shot. And under those circumstances there certainly won’t be time for a second shot.
Why then do so many hunters throw caution to the wind and make the cardinal error of sprinting after a wounded buffalo? Or any dangerous game for that matter? Is it perhaps a momentarily lapse of common sense during the immediate adrenaline charged aftermath of the shot? When seeing their trophy disappearing in a cloud of dust.
Above: It would be folly to try and run after a wounded buffalo in this kind of cover, and although it can’t be clearly seen there is an elephant cow standing at centre in the photo. Part of her left hind leg is visual, and only just.
During 1968 when I was a young cadet game ranger with the Rhodesian Department of National Parks & Wildlife Management, we had it drummed into us by our mentors to never run after a wounded buffalo or any dangerous animal if it’d disappeared into thick cover. Cover, by way of thickets or other habitat types will dictate how quickly a follow-up takes place. Obviously too, common sense must prevail and as an example in open knee-high grassland with a few scattered trees, the ‘never run after’ principle wouldn’t necessarily apply. In this case visibility would be good and an animal the size of an elephant or buffalo clearly seen.
If the animal you’re following isn’t attacking you, shot-placement during a follow-up can be tricky too. In thick cover, a fleeing buffalo offers few shot-placement options, unless you see it before it runs off. Follow-up shots are normally either raking heart/lung shots as the animal breaks away after the first shot or from cover, or the proverbial ‘Texas Heart’ shot. This latter shot should ideally be placed at the root of the tail. Not easy when your target is disappearing in a rocking-horse motion through brush and dust.
Above: Another reason for not having to run after a wounded buffalo, is because you’ve usually got discernible spoor to follow and quite often in the case of a wounding, with blood spatter.
After the first shot if the buffalo doesn’t go down and run off, the golden rule of waiting for approximately 30-minutes is a sage one. It specifically allows the fleeing animal to hopefully slow down. And if badly wounded lie down and bleed out, or stiffen up. Periodically when you’re waiting and listening inexperienced trackers might show impatience and want to follow immediately. Avoid doing this, and rather allow the full 30-minute wait to run its course. Whilst waiting you may well hear the buffalo thrashing around in the brush, or the tell-tale drawn out death rattle (it doesn’t always happen). However, if you hear this last noisy expulsion of breath from the dying buffalo, moving forward isn’t an issue because you’ll invariably find your quarry dead.
Always try to approach the dead buffalo from behind with your rifle at the ready. The animal may not be dead despite lying on its side motionless. If still alive getting a tracker to throw a stick at its rump usually elicits a response. During the stick throwing exercise it’s wise to have your rifle ready and aiming at the buffalo’s brain. Touching the eye pupil with your rifle muzzle is also a good test. If the buffalo blinks put another bullet in immediately.
Above: My Japanese client with his buffalo. After he had wounded it, we had a brief, dusty, joust with it, and despite having a Japanese interpreter accompany us on the safari, it wasn’t easy trying to communicate during all the excitement.
During 1996 I was hunting a Zimbabwe Matetsi block with a Japanese client. After the gunning exercise his buffalo ran off, disappearing into some scrub mopane. Following the obligatory half-hour wait we took up the blood spoor, and eventually found the dagha bull lying in a heavily grassed riverbed. It was motionless, stretched out on its side and looked dead. As we approached from the rear a tracker lobbed a stick at it which connected. In response the ‘dead’ buffalo leapt to its feet, spun through 180ᴼ and immediately attacked us. Thereafter, followed the last Matetsi Banzai, a noisy 2-minute joust with a lot of excited yodelling in Japanese (from the interpreter and client) as we shut the buffalo down. Because we’d waited for 30-minutes before following up, and then tracking cautiously we’d been fortunate to catch the dying buffalo unawares. Until the stick hit its rump. The old adage ‘it’s the dead ones that kill you’ is certainly a truism when it comes to buffalo. Had I run after it following on the client’s first shot, the scenario may well have turned out differently.
Many years ago, a PH colleague of mine once eagerly sprinted after a wounded buffalo as it disappeared into a sea of 8-foot high elephant grass. However, and after about 70m his Olympian dash came to an abrupt halt because the buffalo was waiting for him. Out of breath, he only managed to get one ineffective shot off before the buffalo clobbered him. Fortunately, and because he was a South African, he had a Zimbabwean PH ‘fronting’ for him on the safari. When the buffalo first took off into the long grass with the eager PH hot on its heels, the Zimbabwean had shouted ‘Don’t chase it!’ Unfortunately, the shouted warning floated away on the breeze. Unheard.
The next thing heard issuing from deep inside the long grass, was a single shot followed by loud shouting and an angry buffalo’s bellows and grunts of rage. The Zimbabwean PH immediately forced his way through the elephant grass and found his colleague getting a severe goring from the wounded buffalo. He courageously ran up to it, placed his .458 Winchester barrel in its ear and shot it. And then with Herculean strength pushed it off the badly injured PH. Some two-months later I shared a safari camp with the PH in question, who by then had recovered from his ordeal after having spent time in hospital. He readily conceded that had it not been for his Zimbabwean ‘front’ he would’ve been killed. He also emphasised he wouldn’t be running after a wounded buffalo again.
During 1992 another wounded buffalo scenario also took place in Zimbabwe, sadly, it ended in a double tragedy. PH Alistair Travers was an exceptionally experienced and respected young PH who came from a well-respected family in Zimbabwe’s game ranching and wildlife industry. He was guiding a buffalo hunt with a prominent South African banker, Johan Bellingham, who also had his son along on the hunt. Using a borrowed .375 H&H Bellingham wounded a buffalo which ran off. Next day when it was located, it immediately galloped down into a heavily wooded steep-sided narrow ravine, before reappearing on the opposite side. In that brief window of opportunity when it reappeared, Alistair got off a snap shot, just as the buffalo disappeared over the crest. It was later said he felt his bullet may have connected with the buffalo’s hindquarters.
Immediately after the shot Alistair, with the client, and his son, following in his wake took off at speed after the buffalo. Obviously, he felt his bullet may well have slowed the buffalo down, and he was intent on anchoring it as quickly as possible. To save time he followed an elephant trail which also led into, and through the same heavily wooded area in the bottom of the ravine, the wounded buffalo had passed through earlier. For some unknown reason the buffalo, already having disappeared over the crest on the opposite side suddenly turned around and returned at a gallop back along its previous trail towards the ravine.
With momentum behind its 820kg mass it charged back down into the ravine straight into Alistair and Bellingham who were hurrying along the elephant trail from the opposite direction. Alistair, being in front was immediately attacked before he could get a shot in. The buffalo hooked him in the stomach, partially ripping his intestines out before tossing him up into the air. Falling heavily, he rolled off the trail and down into the ravine bed. During the melee Bellingham’s son had shinnied up a tree, and the buffalo next attacked and killed Bellingham senior instantly. It then ran off and once more disappeared (apparently, never to be accounted for).
Bush pilot Ian Piercy was flying overhead on another tasking when he heard the VHF call for an emergency CASEVAC. As a result, Alistair, in terrible pain and shock was evacuated by air, but unfortunately passed away shortly before the aircraft arrived in Harare. Alistair’s attempting to quickly follow the wounded buffalo after his attempted anchor shot was a normal PH reaction given the circumstances, and terrain. The last thing they’d probably anticipated was the buffalo suddenly deciding to double back. By doing so, it’d caught them totally by surprise in thick brush. The loss of a highly respected young PH, and a South African businessman, was a tragedy which shocked the Zimbabwe safari industry.
In 2013 I was guiding an American client in Zimbabwe when he inadvertently wounded his buffalo. For the first time in years of hunting I didn’t wait at least 30-minutes before following up. My trackers, who were good, and had been hunting with me for a long time, were agitating for us to follow the blood-spoor after a short wait. Against my better judgement I conceded to their wants.
Complacency coupled to over confidence probably led to me agreeing. However, it was nearly our undoing because within 100m of our start-point on the blood trail we got attacked by an extremely angry and determined buffalo. Judging by the spoor pattern in the aftermath, it seemed as if it’d found a place to bed down – and probably die. Our arrival in the thicket disturbed it which initially led to it running off for about 40m. Moving cautiously forward on the spoor, we’d hardly covered 10m before it charged out of the brush bellowing and at incredible speed, almost getting amongst us. It was a noisy affair but we managed to shut it down and then watched the sheepish looking trackers attempting to climb down out of thorny trees which under normal circumstances would’ve been impossible to climb.
Patience and discipline are the keys to successfully hunting buffalo (and any other dangerous game). Probably ninety-nine percent of wounded buffalo will keep trying to flee the hunter, however, if you rush the follow-up on a wounded buffalo, the odds are it will attack you.
Above: A German client and the writer with a good 43” Chirisa buffalo in Zimbabwe circa 1992. After waiting for 30-minutes we tracked and found it almost dead and the client gave it a coup de grace before it detected us.