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  • Writer's pictureKev Thomas Writes

Blood Spoor often Saves the Day

Above: Blood spatter on the ground is normally a clear indication of a wounded, although possibly dying, or fatally wounded animal. This will only be ascertained after successfully following the spoor.

Since moving to the UK I’ve been impressed by the high emphasis placed on the use of dogs for finding wounded and lost game. It also gets written up constantly in hunting magazines. Used correctly, they’re a vital part of the hunt experience, and often the key factor between success and failure. Granted, dogs are used in parts of Africa, and more particularly so in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province. To South Africa’s north in the British colonies of old, hunting with dogs was illegal. The reason for this was to try and thwart the tribal poaching scourge, where dog packs were used to good effect.

After independence most of those countries continued to outlaw the use of dogs for any form of hunting on state land. Things are changing though, and several Zimbabwean PHs who guide safaris on private land, and on the big conservancies, now use dogs on blood spoor. Illegalities aside, another limitation to using dogs across vast swaths of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Zambia, is the tsetse fly. Considered by many to be nature’s most efficient custodian of wildlife in Africa, tsetse fly are vectors of the deadly trypanosomiasis which is lethal to dogs.

Above: Jack Russell’s are undoubtedly the most popular breed used for following blood in South Africa. Here veteran Eastern Cape PH Doug Snow relaxes post hunt with his JR bitch, Roxy.

Jack Russell’s are the most popular breed amongst African PHs and sport hunters alike. Over the years, I too had a few good Jack Russell’s. Their tenacity and pluck aside, they don’t take up too much space in a loaded safari vehicle, a big plus amongst PHs. Hounds are used in South Africa for bushpig hunting, and for caracal (lynx). And in the Eastern Cape thickets for chivvying bushbuck, a tradition that harks back to the arrival of the British 1820 Settlers.

Above: When not working, Jack Russell’s are always a favourite with safari clients.

In safari parlance, blood equates to a wounding and a wounded trophy animal must be paid for. Unaccounted for large animals make for an expensive safari. If one doesn’t have the benefit, or privilege of a good dog, tracking a wounded animal reverts to using the human eyeball Mk1. Most PHs employ skilled rural dwelling tribal African trackers. I emphasise the words rural dwelling because tribal Africans who’ve gravitated to an urban environment usually lose those ancient skills.

Above: Most tracking on safari in Africa is done the traditional way using tribal trackers and the good old Mk1 eyeball! In this photo three of my hunting crew, and a BVC Conservancy game scout, are checking buffalo spoor during an early Zimbabwe winter morning. Only two of them will actually do the tracking once the follow-up commences.

During my hunting career, and working with exceptionally good trackers I’ve had to deal with several buffalo wounded by sport hunters, and elephant, plus a host of other species. In each case, it was blood trail that ultimately led us to the animal. Finding blood from a wounded elephant is often difficult because the vast area of surface skin often retains the leaking blood on the outside. Invariably you find the blood sign on foliage, well above the ground where it has rubbed off as the animal passed by. Disturbed sign above ground, such as leaves, cobwebs, branches, and blood smears are referred to as aerial spoor.

Above: Blood rubbed off by a large animal onto vegetation above the ground, is referred to as aerial spoor. This is also applicable to disturbed spider webs, turned leaves, broken twigs etc.

Blood sign normally tells the hunter a fair amount about shot placement. Lung blood is bright pink and frothy, always a good sign. As a rule of thumb a lung-shot animal with severed arteries and punctured lungs seldom runs for more than about ten seconds. However, a fleet-footed antelope can cover a lot of ground in those ten seconds. In thick bush locating it means carefully following the trail of bright pink blood, until invariably you find the antelope lying dead. Lung blood is usually found along the spoor of the fleeing animal because as it runs, the blood that is filling the lungs due to an artery inside the lungs having been destroyed, is being blown from its mouth and nose. If the bullet doesn’t destroy or hit an artery in the lungs, the animal may survive, and it can cover a huge distance before succumbing. Bright red blood will tell you an artery has been hit.

Above: If it hadn’t been for my Jack Russell ‘Bounce’ lying at right, we’d never have found this waterbuck during a 1993 Zimbabwe safari.

An early gut-shot indicator when trying to assess where the bullet went, is if one finds bits of masticated gut content, and on the smaller antelope and warthogs, possibly a bit of intestine. Sometimes though, and especially in rocky terrain a gut shot may not produce anything viable for the trackers to go by. In a situation like that a good dog is invaluable.

Strangely, many safari clients think African game is ‘hard to kill’ and ‘tough’ compared to elsewhere on the globe. I don’t believe that because any wounded game, be it African, Asian, European, or North American, becomes hard to kill when trying to escape the hunter. Adrenaline obviously surges through the wounded animal’s system and helps keep it going, however, and irrespective of where you hunt in the world two words differentiate between whether your trophy becomes ‘hard to kill’ or not, and those words are shot placement. No matter how well constructed the bullet is or what calibre you are using, if your shot placement is incorrect, you’ll be left looking for blood sign. And if the resultant chase becomes a full day’s exercise or longer, you’ll probably also join the ‘African game is tough and hard to kill’ fraternity.

When a hunt has been conducted correctly by the PH, a well-placed shot on an unawares buffalo for example, will put it down with the same lack of fuss as if you were shooting a domestic cow. A well-placed brain or heart shot on an elephant will do the same thing. Irrespective of what species you are hunting that's how it should be.

As hunters, we must accept too, wounded game does get lost. It happens. Some years back I had an American friend hunting with me. He's an accomplished rifleman and hunter with decades of experience under his belt. Unfortunately, and while using his 7x57mm, a scope he was field testing was faulty, and the front of the scope literally came apart as he was putting pin to primer. It hadn’t been an easy shot either, and when we got down into the brush-choked dry stream bed, we found a large amount of blood on the ground and on the surrounding leaf cover.

Aerial sign indicated probable bullet damage high up on the front right leg. Possibly into the muscle behind the leg bone above the knee, but below the kudu’s chest. The blood was where the bull had stopped about 30m from where he’d first been hit. The bulk of the blood however was on the ground. It was dark venous looking blood which doesn’t tell you very much, and larger animals can lose a lot of it and still recover if the bleeding eventually stops. To the human eye a pint of blood scattered along the ground looks like a huge amount. However, an eland (the biggest African antelope) has got 23 pints of blood in it, and is quite capable of functioning on as little as 15, so one pint of blood staining the ground doesn’t really amount to much.

Our follow-up was lengthy, although after finding the initial blood on the ground, the sign soon began to diminish markedly. From where it’d been lingering in the thick brush along the stream bed, the kudu bull took off uphill. That behaviour alone, was an indication he may not have been badly wounded. Often, a severely wounded antelope heads downhill towards low ground. When we eventually reached the level ground on top of the ridge the blood was what my trackers in Zimbabwe referred to as ‘spot, spot’. Small strung out individual spots of blood, at times no bigger than a match head and hard to see and follow as the sun gets higher.

Once on the level ground the kudu had the option of running down into the next valley. Choosing not to do so it continued across the flats before taking off up a steep incline onto a plateau. The terrain on the first level was shale with areas of low shrub, amongst scattered islands of bush and grass. By then it was late morning although we were still able to find the odd minute spot of blood every 100m or so. There were four of us searching. Eventually, we reached the highest level of the small plateau.

By then, additional help by way of our other hunting colleagues and their PHs had also arrived and were all sitting at various vantage points in the anticipated direction the kudu would go. They were glassing in the hope of picking the bull up. The odd blood spot soon led us to the edge of the plateau, and then down into extremely dense valley bushveld. Unique to South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province, anyone who has hunted in it will know it’s not ‘user friendly’. Most of it has thorns; straight ones, hooked ones, and others that if they stick you leave a burning sensation lasting for hours.

Our last blood sign was found inside this dense vegetation. A tiny dry droplet looking more like a spot of rust than blood and then nothing more. We’d managed to ascertain the kudu was moving north along the side of the plateau about 70m below the crest. By then it was just after 13hr30 so we broke for a quick snack and much needed water. Inside of forty-five minutes we were back in the thick stuff, which is probably an understatement because it’s almost impenetrable to a human being. In situations like this the search becomes more of a sweep line as hunters and trackers endeavour to find the wounded animal by flushing it. Again, a good dog would’ve been invaluable. Our colleagues were still sitting at vantage points above us, glassing the area we were sure the kudu had headed into.

By late afternoon, and with the shadows lengthening we’d arrived in a huge thickly wooded amphitheatre. Once or twice we saw solitary kudu bulls but they showed no sign of injury and aside from them we saw nothing else, and with the sun setting gave up the search. Personally, I believe the kudu survived his wound because it seemed that as the day wore on the bleeding continuously lessened until ultimately there was no more blood sign. During our afternoon search we found no blood and the indications were that the wound had sealed.

There is probably one shot all hunters like to experience irrespective of where they’re hunting in the world and that is a well-placed heart shot. In Africa, it’s a nice feeling for a PH to know that on a prize trophy animal the client can get in a good heart shot. The result is an antelope normally careering off in a blind run, before piling up dead. Impala often look lame in the leg on the bullet entry side as they take off, the leg swinging uncontrollably from the shoulder down. Kudu and bushbuck often flag their tails as they leap forward, the white underside clearly visible. Heart shots certainly work and give little cause for anxiety. Having said that, so long as we hunters go out in the pursuit of game, we need to accept periodic wounding will occur, and there’s certainly no stigma attached.

Above: We found this kudu lying dead in open ground, the result of a perfect heart shot.

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