On Being A Hunter
During my final few seasons as a PH I became a little concerned over the variety of hunting vehicles I was seeing which were seemingly fitted out for one role only, to be used as a ‘shooting platform’ or ‘gunship.’ The amount of customised, padded shooting rests covering the top rails on some rigs, boggled my mind. One ethical PH colleague with a sense of humour remarked he’d seen hunting rigs so customised, it looked as if the client only climbed off the high seat to go to bed at night. And this probably after an extremely hard day of conducting walking pace vehicle stalks around the game ranch. Or as my friend American writer John Barsness once quipped when we were on safari, 'A 5kph Toyota stalk.' While there’s an element of humour in the observation, it’s also sad.
Above: A safari rig should only be used to get you from A to B and back again, it's certainly not meant to be used as a shooting platform or gunship.
This post isn’t intended as a treatise on tracking and bushcraft. It goes without saying, any ethical sport hunter should make every effort at becoming a proficient backwoodsman. Not only does it give you a sense of well-being and personal satisfaction to be in total harmony with your surrounds in the wilderness, bush knowledge can also protect you from harm. Not to mention the true satisfaction of knowing when you shoot your trophy animal there isn't any odour of diesel or petrol lingering in your nostrils.
Above: It's always satisfying to know you hunted your trophy under true fair chase conditions on foot, and in the case of species like buffalo or elephant, by tracking them, and not from the raised seat on a safari rig.
There was many an occasion over the previous decades when I’ve been walking quietly through the thickest brush with clients, when suddenly we'll hear the tell-tale kssss kssss of redbilled oxpeckers’ hurriedly rising from the resting form of an old arthritic buffalo dagha boy, the oxpeckers distinctive call immediately alerting us to the presence of danger. By the same token, the oxpeckers quick departure up into the tallest trees or the sky, also warns their host species of a pending threat. A resting buffalo bull quickly comes to its feet when the noisy oxpeckers hurriedly take off. These tick and parasite eating birds are a friend to both hunter and prey. Small flocks flying overhead with their characteristic in flight tsik tsik call also attract the hunter’s attention because they may indicate the presence of buffalo, or eland, plus a number of other species as the flock suddenly swirls as one and drops from on high towards their chosen host.
Although it isn’t really of significance to a hunter the alarm calls of the bush squirrel too, vary according to the threat type. If the threat is aerial by way of a raptor they give one type of distinctive call, and all flee down towards the holes in the base of a tree. If the threat is from on the ground they have another alarm type call and flee up into the higher branches of the tree. They'll also energetically scold leopard, black mambas, cobras, and anything else they perceive as a threat to their well being.
Fork tail drongos too, fascinate me, and where the hunting blocks cover a vast landmass some of the birdlife shows no fear of man. Often, when we were walking quietly through the bush a drongo would follow us flying from tree to tree and each time our footfalls disturb an insect, the bird would quickly alight from its perch and hawk the insect. They were so focused on their prey, landing right alongside a moving boot didn't worry them.
Once while hunting on my own many years ago I observed a trio of fork tail drongos mobbing something in the ankle high grass. They were perched on a branch which was hanging down towards the ground and they’d periodically leave their perch and hover just above the grass, kicking up a noisy din before once more alighting on their perch. When I went to investigate, I found they’d been mobbing a relatively small banded cobra. A variety of birds making a racket in a thicket or the upper story of a tree canopy will also indicate the presence of a snake, raptor, or owl.
During the hours of darkness if you’re camped by a stream or waterhole it can also be interesting. If the frogs and crickets all suddenly cease chirping, it’s normally indicative of something on the move in close proximity to them. Once the threat has moved off, they all become vocal again, on moonlight nights if I was camping by a waterhole and this happened, I couldn’t help but get up to quietly have a look. When I was still a soldier in the Rhodesian Special Forces (Selous Scouts) nocturnal insect and amphibious creature noises suddenly ceasing near our position at night, were often reason for us to remain ultra alert.
Above: If you're camping near a waterhole at night and the normal noise of frogs and crickets suddenly goes quiet, it usually means something's on the move. Once the threat has passed by the noise usually picks up once more.
Antelope and other prey species all standing staring or staring in a particular direction can also be indicative of a predator’s presence, and particularly so at a waterhole. Often, animals like buffalo, and more so the females will periodically shake their heads vigorously while staring fixedly. All they’re trying to do is get the object of their curiosity to move so they can more readily identify if it is a threat or not. You may well observe this head-shaking activity when you're in cover and observing an animal or group of animals while you wait to take your shot. All it means is they're aware of your presence but can't actually identify what the threat is.
Another thing which saddens me in the hi-tech era which we now live in is that with the advent of the GPS and other similar gadgets, the fun has gone out of map reading and the use of a compass to take a back bearing using both map and compass. Anyone who hunts, works, or visits remote places should know these basic skills because hi-tech gizmos can go wrong, and despite my carrying and using a GPS, I also carry a prismatic compass in my daypack. When still a game ranger and later a Special Force soldier I always found it enjoyable to use a map and compass.
Above: Using a satnav or GPS and other hi-tech gadgetry has taken much of the fun out of old fashion map reading.
If the situation has deteriorated to the point of it having become a survival issue and finding water has become vital to one's remaining alive, game trails are an excellent indicator. Far away from water they'll just be faint paths crisscrossing all over the place. However, as they get closer to water they start to become more defined. In big game areas these trails can be used to lead one towards the water, and if looked at from above, they'd be much like the spokes of a bike or wagon wheel. All converging towards the hub which would be the waterhole. Close to water, they're often so well worn because of use by game, a motorcycle could easily be ridden down them. Birdlife too, is prolific as you get closer to water, and especially doves as they fly to and from overhead.
Above: As the game trails in big game country converge towards water, so too, do they become more well-defined. The photo shows a well-used game trail leading to a waterhole in Zimbabwe's Chirisa Safari Area. This was during the early 1990s when the Chirisa wildlife populations were still robust.
A fairly common yet erroneous belief is that the only qualification or skill a sport hunter needs is the ability to shoot accurately. In reality, that alone is less than half the total sum of the skills a hunter needs to know. In 1916 during WW1 when the British Army finally got around to organising a Sniping Corp, they made good use of the game-keepers, guides, and men from the Scottish deer forests, and for good reason. They could stalk as well as shoot.
Before a hunter can ‘shoot’ it's imperative he gets within range of his prey without being detected or it’ll become an exercise in futility. To get within decent shooting range of an animal over varied terrain means a hunter has to be a skilled stalker, and this only comes with high levels of self-discipline, patience, constant practise, sound wind usage, and a thorough understanding of animal behaviour, coupled to above average powers of observation.
The aim of every stalk should be to get as close as possible to the intended prey before putting pin to primer, and not to just hunker down on some open ground and take at best, an iffy shot, which could mean a wounded, suffering, and lost animal. Your stalk might also mean rolling, crawling, butt shuffling, staying in deep shadow, or remaining in dense brush. You should only move when the animal you’re stalking has its head down feeding. If it lifts its head and stares in your direction, you remain unmoving until it lowers its head again.
Stalking skills can be learned on any of many wildlife species, including a variety of game birds. Despite the many brands of hi-tech optics and new generation bullets and powders on the market, not to mention the many calibres available to a sport hunter, shooting at long range without needing to stalk certainly doesn't make one a skilled hunter because all you’re really getting is rifle practice.
Above: You should develop your shooting skills on the range, and your stalking skills out in the hunting field.
In extremely dense cover and with a favourable wind, I believe a 70m shot is about max and any good hunter should be able to stalk within that distance. As a rule of thumb, one should get one’s shooting or rifle practice on paper at the range, and your stalking practice in the field up against live game. With experience, the two combined are generally a recipe for success.
Above: A combination of good shooting ability and honed stalking skills, invariably leads to a successful hunt, however, both take dedication and practise.
While I’m on this subject, some years ago I heard a disturbing story in South Africa about professional hunter incompetence, and a complete lack of professionalism and ethics. It was alleged a PH and his crony took a woman client from the US out at night for a buffalo. The landowner was apparently feeding his few pre-safari auction bought buffalo with baled alfalfa. Given that this particular part of South Africa has a habitat type classified ‘Valley Bushveld’ – these erstwhile buffalo hunters (not the client, she was just doing what they advised her) were obviously too scared to hunt a buffalo during the day in the thick stuff. Their answer to this apparent dilemma was quite simply to shoot the buffalo at night with the aid of a red lens spotlight, and from the safety of a hunting rig while it was placidly munching alfalfa. Brave men! Unfortunately, the client wounded the buffalo and it disappeared into a dark thicket. Next day, and despite the client’s ongoing requests the story had it the PH evaded all attempts to go and look for the wounded buffalo, and the safari eventually ended without a single effort being made to account for it.
Not unlike like the distasteful ‘canned’ lion hunting industry which is so pervasive in South Africa. The disgusting behaviour described above on a supposed buffalo hunt, brings immeasurable sadness to me because it is not what African safari is meant to be about. Hunting ‘put & shoot’ buffalo on postage stamp size properties and hunting captive bred lion has nothing to do with safari, or its noble historical ethos. It’s little more than a commercial racket not worthy of the term ‘hunting’ or ‘safari’. A racket which only benefits a handful of unethical individuals. It also plays right into, and affords ammunition, to the ever-vocal anti-hunting fraternity.
Some years back too I read an article in SAFARI magazine about a South African lion safari. The writer (being the client) waxed lyrical about his wild African lion hunt and how he was feted by the local tribesmen after he’d shot the lion. In reality they were the tribal Xhosa farm workers (dressed like Masai for the occasion) and carrying out all sorts of pantomime whilst feting him as the mighty ‘lion slayer’. You could almost smell the sea in nearby Port Elizabeth. The last wild lion to roam that particular game rancher’s property was probably killed back in the late 1700s, and the true Masai tribe of East Africa live about 4,000 miles north east of South Africa's Xhosa tribe.
Sport hunting and true safari is a noble pastime for which we hunters’ need make no apologies, and it's made all the more noble by what we can witness and observe from close up, in our great outdoors when in pursuit of our prey. I honestly don't believe a true sport hunter gets any satisfaction killing animals from the back of a hunting vehicle, or shooting a captive bred lion, and if he does, he’s living a lie. Not only that, he's also doing the safari industry a gross disservice.
Above: Anyone who shoots a captive bred lion, even if it is released into a large fenced area before being shot isn't worthy of the title ethical sport hunter.