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  • Writer's pictureKev Thomas Writes

Respect Your Ears

While on a safari in 1994 an over excited client fired his .375 H&H while he was standing about a foot to my left. The rifle was wearing a muzzle-brake which was directly opposite my left ear when he took the shot, and the resulting concussion wave put me onto my knees. Aside from the extremely loud zinging noise in the ear, it was excruciatingly painful, and if I blocked my nose, and then while keeping my mouth closed tried to blow, air came out of my ear. Simply put, I’d suffered a perforated ear drum.


Annoyingly, I hadn’t even given the go ahead for the client to shoot as I was still glassing a warthog. To add insult to injury, he missed, which was probably a good thing because it was a very mediocre warthog. In anger, pain, and frustration, I remonstrated with him. Perhaps too loudly, because at that stage I couldn’t hear anything with my left ear aside from the zinging noise. The gist of my lecture, after telling him how irresponsible it was of him to have fired without the go ahead from me, was how there is no real need to fit muzzle-brakes onto rifles. And if you do, it normally indicates you can’t handle the recoil of a particular calibre. My suggestion was he either start using a lighter calibre, or if he was handloading to use a lesser powder charge.


Coloradan, Brian Spradling, wears ear protection while checking his rifle for zero during one of his African safaris

The above incident was my introduction to what is medically termed tinnitus, a ringing in the ears which will stay with me until I die. A friend once described it as sounding ‘like Christmas beetles (cicadas) singing in his ears.’ He actually thought it was cicadas until he blocked his ears only to find the noise continued! My guess is most veteran PHs, game rangers, wildlife managers and soldiers all suffer to a greater or lesser degree from tinnitus. In the main brought on by gunfire concussion which is of course part of the risk which goes with these kind of career choices.


When I was a young cadet game ranger circa 1968, and still in my late teens, I remember our family doctor mentioning I should endeavour to protect my ears when I was using heavy calibre rifles. To me his sage words were a joke. I mean how on earth was I meant to protect my ears if participating in a cull, or doing problem animal control work? Or for that matter just doing a foot patrol through parts of the Gonarezhou National Park, where back in the late 1960s and 1970s elephant were known for their truculence. If my ears were shut off with some sort of ear plugs, how was I to hear danger, or more importantly communicate with my game scouts or trackers in the bush. The whole idea seemed ludicrous.

A client from New York wear era protection while hunting in Zimbabwe

 During my five-year soldiering career during the Rhodesian Bush War, gunfire noise and explosions were par for the course and although my ears continued to absorb the concussion waves, I didn’t suffer any form of hearing loss or develop tinnitus. I guess I was just lucky, and with youth still on my side didn’t even think my ears would ever be damaged. Periodically, during training, if we were watching something with a loud bang being fired, we’d just stick our fingers in our ears and keep our mouths open.


In 1979 when I ventured back into the hunting industry, guns obviously remained important working tools. And it was about then too, for the first time, I let a client use my left shoulder as a rest when using a 9.3x64mm Brenneke he shot a crocodile. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last, and during later years even if a tracker was carrying the shooting sticks, I’d still quite often allow a client to shoot off my shoulder. And particularly so if a hurried shot was needed. In time it became a bad habit, and although I wasn’t aware of it my ears were obviously taking a beating. They just weren’t letting me know, and if a bit of post-shot ringing occurred, I’d shrug it off as being part of a PH’s lot.


Once, while at an SCI show in Reno, Nevada, I stopped at a booth promoting ear protection products. I also spoke to one of the marketing staff and he emphasised the importance of protecting one’s ears when shooting. Of course, none of this made any sense to me because I couldn’t perceive a PH wearing ear protection of any sort while actually guiding in the field. The mental image of walking through the bush on say buffalo spoor, while wearing head phone type ear protection reduced me to silent laughter. However, as an avid reloader back then, I realised the value of ear protection for range work and zeroing, and purchased a nice set of Deben fold-away headband type ear protectors.

Ear protection should always be worn when shooting at paper from the bench. Here, the late Bill Haslett, readies his ammunition before checking his rifles for zero at the onset of his African safari.

Out in the hunting field though, it was still a case of my shoulder for quick shots, rather than the shooting sticks. And stupidly, I continued to occasionally let a client shoot off my shoulder even after I’d had my left ear drum perforated in the manner I described in the opening paragraph. Sheer madness, although it still hadn’t been brought home to me aside from the tinnitus in my left ear. Which incidentally can be aggravated by all sorts of things like antibiotics, caffeine, alcohol etc. I enjoy a glass or two of good red wine, however, my tinnitus certainly doesn’t. At times it is extremely noisy and at other times a sort of background zinging.


The first inkling I had that all was not well with my hearing was in 2011, on Zimbabwe’s BVC. One evening, I was sitting in a leopard blind with a client and his 15-year-old son. The father and I were sat alongside each other, his son immediately behind us. After we’d moved into the blind my trackers closed and camouflaged the rear entrance, and then departed. It was a moonless night and darkness came on quickly. We were sitting quietly, when suddenly the father loudly shouted, ‘Watch out!’ before quickly leaning backwards and hauling his son forward. When I asked him what was going on, he said he had heard something big walk up to the back of the blind. He also said he had actually heard it walking, and when at the blind, breathing.


When this happened, his son had been dozing and couldn’t confirm hearing anything. Thinking it was perhaps nerves on the father’s behalf, and possibly his imagination at play, I assured them all was well, and got them to settle down again. However, fearing compromise because of the disturbance we didn’t sit much longer, and when we exited the blind, I played my Mag-Lite beam along the ground at the back. Clearly defined in the sandy soil were the tracks of a black rhino. It had stopped right at the flimsy brush-covered rear wall of the blind, before turning away. The spoor indicated it had turned quickly, probably upon hearing the father’s shouted warning, and yet I was oblivious to it! Later, I began to question my hearing. It was worrying me.  


During 2012, similar happened in the Chete Safari Area. Three of us were sitting in a blind and shortly after nightfall, a cowherd of elephant walked right past the rear wall of the blind. When elephant are moving through dry winter scrub and fallen leaf matter their feet make a distinctive shuffling noise, easily heard from close by if your hearing is good. The client, and a South African PH, both heard the elephant. As for myself, I heard nothing but it was confirmed when we were back at the rig, and my trackers asked if we’d seen the small cowherd, comprising about six which had crossed the road right in front of the vehicle.            


It was also in 2012 while hosting a group of clients on the BVC in Zimbabwe, that a particular client who was on his second buffalo and plains game hunt, always wore headband type hearing protection while hunting. They were a superior quality brand and he was able to fine tune them to the point of hearing everything we could hear, and yet they afforded his ears almost 100% protection from gunshot concussion. Although it looked a bit strange from behind to see a person walking through the bush wearing headphone style hearing protection, they worked. With the benefit of hindsight, I’d rather look odd walking through the bush wearing ear protection, than suffer the progressive hearing loss I now live with.


After having retired from hunting in 2014, we emigrated to the UK in late 2015, and during 2017 our doctor referred me to an audiologist who prescribed hearing aids for me. However, and because I felt my hearing was still OK, I tended not to wear them, and then suddenly in about April 2022 my hearing loss took a turn for the worse. For most of this year, and even as I write this, mere days away from turning 73 the progressive loss of my hearing continues. Recently I’ve undergone a series of audiology tests, and the prognosis wasn’t good. I was informed the concussion damage my ears were subjected to for close on five decades is irreparable. Due to wear and tear, the hearing loss will continue be progressive and only the use of hearing aids will help stave off the inevitable. My right ear too, now suffers acute very noisy tinnitus and I only have about 3% hearing left in it. Be warned, as both sport and professional hunters, it’s just not worth neglecting your ears as you will live to regret it. 

 From left, Eastern Cape PH Doug Snow and PH Braun 'Proppie' Ockers ham it up using Eastern Cape style ear protection, while monitoring clients shooting at the zeroing range!

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