Kev Thomas Writes
More than Just the Sight Picture
Updated: Sep 9, 2022
Above: If we ever lose respect for the wilderness and see no further than a dead or dying animal, we no longer deserve the privilege of being there,
While guiding back-to-back safaris in Zimbabwe during the 2010 season, I spent some campfire time recalling various interesting bushveld observations, my various clients and I, had been privileged to witness during the previous few months of safari. It made me realise how lucky we hunters are, once we understand and appreciate how much more there is to hunting than just the sight picture, a gunshot, and a dead animal.
It was my third consecutive buffalo and general plains game safari, and during the first, some weeks earlier, my East European client and I had decided to investigate what during an early morning hunt had been deep guttural buffalo bellows of anger and stress. The noise was coming out of a dense thicket that we couldn’t see into – and we were only about 35m away. We hadn’t heard any lion sounds, just the buffalo bellowing. Whether it was a cow or bull we had no idea, however the noise level indicated it was a mature buffalo. The rest of the herd, about forty-five in number had already moved away to the far side of the thicket.
Not wanting to end up possibly shooting a poor quality dagha bull in an unprovoked confrontation, I’d then decided to back off and move away. We still had no inkling what the cause of the unseen buffalo’s stress and anger was. By mid-afternoon and having still not shot anything worthy, although we’d seen plenty of game, my curiosity overcame the desire to continue hunting, and after discussing it with the client we decided to return to the thicket and attempt to find out what the cause of the buffalo’s angst had been.
Above: Once the sun sets in Africa's wild areas all manner of things go on that we aren't witness to. In this case a blue wildebeest bull killed by a lion pride and devoured at one sitting.
Arriving back in the vicinity at about 1530hrs and with the wind in our favour, we quietly retraced our steps from earlier in the day. And then, after arriving at the edge of the thicket, we began to carefully circle it, all the while peering into the shadowy depths. It was deathly quiet and we couldn’t see a thing. A BVC (Bubye Valley Conservancy) game scout/tracker called Desire was tip toeing to my immediate front. My tracker, Gurazhira, was behind me, followed by the client, Ivica. Desire is a tall man, American basketball player tall, and as I looked past him into the scrub about 25m to our front on the fringe of the thicket, I noticed a large tawny grey sausage like form, although I couldn’t see a head or tail.
While still trying to focus on what it was, I grabbed Desire by a handful of his shirt, halting his forward movement. He had been looking to our right into the thicket, bent at the waist and peering intently. Pointing, I indicated the large tawny sausage. Desire straightened up, and rose onto his toes, stared briefly at the object to our front, forgot how to pronounce the ‘L’ in the word lion and seemingly also forgot lion is one word. After quickly whispering ‘RI ON!’ rather loudly, he spun through 180º and with nearly 2m strides took off down our back trail! We followed as quietly as possible having finally ascertained why our early morning buffalo had been bellowing. Despite our intrusion into their world, the satiated sleeping lion(s) never even woke up.
Seasonal close encounter lion stories are many on the BVC, there have been incidents of lion trying to chase hunters off a waterbuck trophy, off a giraffe, and in one close encounter of a tracker being knocked down by an angry lioness and given a warning nip before she returned to her cubs, this incident quaintly described to me by a staff member as the tracker having been ‘touched’ by a lioness.
Another well-represented predator species aside from leopard and lion on the BVC, are hyena. Unlike their less sophisticated cousins on the vast National Parks safari concessions further north, the BVC hyena are wily and extremely wary. A legacy of having been persecuted for decades by cattle ranchers trying to protect their herds of prime export beef. Cattle are no more on the BVC, and although the landmass is a successful one-million-acre wildlife conservancy, and the hyena populations have expanded since their days of having been persecuted as cattle-killers, they still remain elusive and untrusting of our dread man smell.
Above: Vultures can be likened to municipal refuse collectors - they clean up the leftover mess.
A Spanish client hunting with me wounded an impala and despite our tracking it for hours through thick mopane scrub on an ever-dwindling blood spoor, nightfall eventually drove us out of the brush and back to the vehicle. I determined to return early the next morning and once more try to account for the wounded impala. Interestingly, if not a little annoyingly, my client was somewhat disinterested in the fate of the wounded impala. He made mention how in his home country little time is spent in trying to locate a wounded animal, the intimation being that if an animal doesn’t fall to the bullet, then it must surely deserve to suffer! This total lack of reverence by a minority of so-called sport hunters towards wildlife, and towards the great outdoors in general, irks me no end. I once had a client who boasted about shooting walruses off ice ledges because he likes to watch the seawater turn pink. Sharing campfire time with that kind of person has never been a priority in my life. No matter what their station in life.
As per plan, the following morning found us back in the mopane as the sun began to light the eastern sky, and within 100m of where we’d lost spoor due to bad light the previous evening, we found where the wounded impala had finally succumbed. Knowing hyena would have made short work of the impala; I’d previously consoled my client by stating that we’d no doubt recover the skull and horns, and given that he only wanted shield mounts of his trophies, a typically European trait, it all seemed pretty straight forward. However, with the impala it was not to be.
All that was left where the impala had died was a large blood stain on the ground and lots of hyena tracks, plus a clearly defined drag mark so we followed it. The hyena, about three in number had carried, dragged, and fought over the luckless impala across about 350m. During the mobile tussle, come tug-of-war they eventually arrived at the hyena warren, situated in a large termite mound. Of horns, there was no sign, for the remains of the carcass had been dragged underground, no doubt for hungry pups. All we found was a sliver of rib bone and nothing else.
Above: Without the help of marabou storks vultures wouldn't be able to penetrate the abdomens of large thick-skinned animals.
On well balanced wildlife landmasses the equivalent of our municipal (when they’re at work and not on strike) clean up services function efficiently. Vultures miss little, and they too are well represented on the BVC, normally however, and in areas where they’re hunted the first to arrive at an elephant kill is the Bateleur eagle, known as Chapungu to Zimbabwe’s Shona speaking peoples. After alighting on an elephant carcass, the Bateleur merely pecks out and eats the uppermost eye, then defecates on the head before once more taking to the skies. Ever alert vultures soaring on high keep a careful watch on the sharp-eyed Bateleur, using it as a food source indicator. On an intact elephant carcass, however, vultures have to exercise further patience and wait for larger predators to tear open the tough skin, or for the powerful beak of the Marabou storks to puncture the stomach skin.
During the same safari where the hyena killed the wounded impala, we came across a young blue wildebeest of about 14 months old. It had crippled hindquarters and had been dragging itself along using its front legs. We found it near a waterhole and sat observing it, noting how the crippled hindquarters seemed to be a congenital defect and not caused by injury. Despite the animal’s severe limitation, it seemed to be holding its own and looked to be fairly fat, how it had survived for so long amongst the hyena, leopard, and lion on the BVC is anyone’s guess and not far short of a miracle.
Above: The luckless bushpig had suffered a horrific bite which penetrated both sides of the neck but didn't sever the spinal cord.
Another client of mine shot a female bushpig at midday, and it too, was near a waterhole and strangely enough seemed not to hear our approach or see us. Just prior to the shot rolling the pig, I’d been watching it through my binoculars and wondered why it was somewhat thin and small looking, the body more than normally disproportionate in comparison to the head. When we got to it, we soon realised why, the pig stank of rotten and gangrenous flesh. Where the ears should have been attached to the body they hung on shreds of skin, deep puncture marks bore down deep on either side of the neck and most of the flesh beneath the skin on the top of the neck had rotted away, almost to the spinal chord and we could look through the gap from one side to the other. A predator of some sort, no doubt a few weeks before, had bitten down hard on the neck, but had failed to sever the spinal cord before the pig had escaped. Because of the pig’s condition we cut off the head, so as to recover the teeth, and left the body to the scavengers.
Sport hunting is a noble pastime, made all the more so by what we witness and observe in our great outdoors when in pursuit of our prey. However, once we lose respect for the wilderness and see no further than a dead or dying animal, we no longer deserve the privilege of being there, because that is exactly what it is. A privilege.
Above: This blue wildebeest obviously decided to rub or scratch its horn bosses against the mopane tree trunks and got stuck. It must have died a lingering death while listening to hungry hyenas padding quietly around it in the dark until they'd probably plucked up the courage to attack and kill it. We'll never know, however, when we came across it the BVC game scout told us the horns had been there for a few years. Without cutting down the two tree trunks they're impossible to remove, but like others, we tried to shift and remove them but failed.