The Dagha Bull Conundrum
Above: The reason why they’re called dagha boys – Photo credit Manfred Lotze.
Throughout the course of my outdoor career, initially as a game ranger, and then as a professional hunter, the term dagha boy or dagha bull has been an oft used phrase, whether in written form or during the course of a conversation. By the same token, any seasoned African PH or sport hunter will be familiar with the term of reference regards an old buffalo bull as being a dagha boy.
The spelling of the word has also varied considerably over the years. Initially, it was ‘dagga’ which is the colloquial southern African word meaning mud, and although the non-southern African dweller would probably pronounce it phonetically as ‘dagger’, it is correctly pronounced as ‘dugga’ as in dug. Thus, the variations like dagha (as used in the article title), or as daga, a shortened version of the original dagga (this latter spelling if pronounced with a harsh or throaty guttural g also means marijuana in southern Africa.)
Above: This photo clearly depicts just how thick the dry mud on a dagha boy’s skin can be – Photo credit Dillon Poole.
Periodically on safari I’ve been asked by a client new to African safari, to describe what exactly a dagha boy is. My interpretation is that a buffalo bull qualifies for this respectful salutation once he has reached about 10 years of age, and not before. Old bulls between the ages of 10 and 13 invariably depart the herd, and either live solitary lives or in small bachelor groupings of up to about seven individuals. These old buffalo often take up residence near waterholes, where aside from watering and grazing; they can also find a nearby mud wallow, preferably with good cover close by to lie up in during the heat of the day. There is one thing in common that all old buffalo bulls love, and that is to wallow in mud – thus the moniker ‘dagha boy’.
Above: My interpretation of a true dagha bull is one of ten years or older - Photo credit Ron Chandler
This wallowing isn’t merely to cool off. Wild buffalo, unlike domestic cattle can’t be plunge-dipped or pushed through a spray-race to rid them of ticks and other parasites. After they’ve had a good wallow, the coating of mud dries on their skin and by doing so entraps ticks and other parasites. It also protects the buffalo from biting flies and other annoying insects. The thick covering of dry mud is also something hunters must consider when it comes to bullet choice. To reach the vital organs on a buffalo, the bullet must at times drive through the hard mud, then through thick skin, musculature, and hard bone. Only then can it do the killing.
Above: Although not a proper rubbing post as such, these mopane saplings near a mud-wallow have been used a few times by a dagha boy. The height of the mud suggests he was rubbing his neck, and probably his horns against them.
Any observant hunter if looking for buffalo spoor in the vicinity of a waterhole, will recognise ‘rubbing posts’ and at times one can even come across a regularly used rubbing post a few hundred metres beyond a waterhole. These well-worn posts are invariably tree trunks, horizontal branches, and often termite mounds. The height above the ground of the easily defined rub marks (at times they’re like French polishing) will also assist in identifying the species. Just like many other mud-wallowing species, buffalo use these posts regularly and this activity ensures the animal’s entrapped tick burden is removed. I once heard mud-wallows, dust baths, and rubbing posts, collectively described as wilderness furniture. It’s certainly an apt description.
An old dagha boy will also periodically join up with a buffalo herd at a waterhole and tag along with them when they move off. He might remain with them for a day or so, although he’ll eventually move off and return to his solitary ways. If one observes a fairly large buffalo herd; the sick, lame, and lazy can always be seen trailing along in the herd’s wake. It is here, amidst the dust that a crusty old dagha boy, if he’s tagging along will invariably be seen. These animals at the rear of the herd are obviously vulnerable to lion predation, a typical example of nature’s survival of the fittest.
Above: Another noble old dagha boy with well broomed horns. Just look at the character in his face! – Photo credit Keith Gradwell.
I’m one of those old school PHs who believe the purist form of buffalo hunting is tracking a solitary dagha boy in a classical safari environment. In other words, on a huge landmass rather than on a game ranch of limited acreage. When doing this though, one must consider pre-hunt how they’re going to react when they eventually close with the brave old warrior, only to perhaps find that his horns are well broomed off. Do you turn down the chance of a shot and go off to seek another dagha boy? Or do you recognise him for what he is, an old and bold survivor, and honour him by adding him to your trophy collection? I know what I’d do. I’d take him, and my reasons will follow further on.
When we consider the classic buffalo trophy, we tend to imagine a non-broomed widespread set of horns, although in many cases of a wide spread with good tips, the seam between the protective boss plates may not yet have hardened. Trophy buffalo bulls in the classic trophy category vary, and quite considerably. For example, buffalo in Tanzania’s Tarangire and Moyowosi have reputations for much wider outside spreads than do their southern cousins in Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Mozambique. In Tanzania a 45’ buffalo may still be soft or green-bossed, while in Zimbabwe one can find a mature 36” buffalo with hard closed boss shields.
So far as the record books go, SCI requires a total score of 100 points minimum for a buffalo to qualify. Rowland Ward requires 47” at greatest outside width. Indeed, a hard call in much of Africa today due to poaching, overshooting of quotas, unregulated take off by wildlife authorities, lack of management, greed, corruption, and all else in an ongoing list of negativities that unfortunately can’t just be wished away.
Above: Over the course of two seasons we found this old broomed off skull cap in the same vicinity on the BVC in Zimbabwe. I always hoped a client would take him, and recognise him for what he was - a noble warrior.
On well-managed conservancies in Zimbabwe like the Bubye Valley Conservancy, or the Save Conservancy, hard-bossed buffalo of 45” plus can still be found if lucky. However, in Zimbabwe over the last decade or so, high numbers of buffalo bulls have been shot seasonally on government concessions like Chirisa, Chete, Sijarira (a para-statal), and in some CAMPFIRE areas such as Dande South, without any thought given to ongoing sustainability. As a direct result what is coming out now are soft, or green-bossed buffalo, and for the most, probably not yet having even reached 7 years old.
If a sport hunter gets a 38/39” hard-bossed buffalo in Zimbabwe or South Africa now, on a fair chase hunt, he can consider himself lucky indeed. I’m not even touching on South Africa’s advanced scientific captive buffalo breeding programs, where individual animals with fancy Zulu names and huge spreads are put out on auction, because shooting one of them isn’t exactly ‘classical safari’.
Above: Periodically you will track a solitary dagha bull for a fair-distance and be rewarded with a good trophy such as the 43" spread depicted above. We tracked this buffalo over 4-days until we connected with him.
All of the aforementioned brings me back to why I’d be content to kill a broomed off true old dagha boy. As we all know, buffalo hunting can at times be dangerous due to the species unpredictability. This in turn tests a hunter’s skills to the full when in pursuit of a trophy buffalo. Herd bulls between about 8 and 10 years displaying widespread un-broomed tips, are in their prime as breeding bulls within the herd. Hunting them out of a herd will negate their genetic contribution to the herd, even if it does pose a challenging hunt due to all the eyes, noses, and ears, in a buffalo herd.
Above: Although this herd bull is a superb trophy, shooting him while he is still a dominant herd bull would remove his all-important, and ongoing, genetic contribution.
Hunting dagha boy of ten years or older, whether solitary or in a bachelor grouping, and even if his horns are broomed-off, is just as challenging. Tracking a solitary dagha boy across varying rugged terrain and through various habitat types is to me the crème de la crème, of buffalo hunting.
A ten to thirteen-year-old dagha boy that has survived in an environment which is hunted on a seasonal basis, and has healthy lion and hyena populations, has to be sage and savvy. Broomed-off horns aside, those old bulls are also invariably battle-scarred from numerous brushes with lion, and quite often have tails missing. Bitten off no doubt by hyena. They also have torn ears, are normally suffering from failing eyesight, or are already blind in one eye. In addition, they’re seemingly arthritic, worm infested, ill-humoured, and generally unfriendly. Another characteristic of dagha boys with heavily broomed off horns, is how much the shape varies amongst different individuals. You get what PHs affectionately term the skull-cap or scrum-cap. These old buffalo don’t have horns in the true sense. Just a hard boss, and it gives them character and attitude.
For two seasons running we found one of those skull-caps living in the same area of the Bubye River on the BVC. He used to linger on the fringe of a reedbed and stare at us with ill-concealed disdain each time we passed by. I often wished I’d been with a client who’d appreciated him for what he was. A true warrior for sure. With all of his battle scars, had he’d been a soldier, he’d probably have had a chest full of valour medals. Fortunately, a small percentage of clients like to specialise on hunting broomed-off dagha boys. I truly admire their want to do this.
Perhaps, and if one’s budget allows, maybe a good way to do it is on your first safari, hunt a trophy with a full boss and nice tips and have it shoulder mounted. And then on a later safari look for a true old broomed-off dagha boy, or even a skull-cap. This latter trophy’s boss plates as a European shield mount and displayed near the shoulder mount, would make for a great conversation piece (some reputable safari operators offer non-trophy buffalo, normally old bulls of less that 35”).
Above: A classic example of a ‘skull-cap’ dagha boy, the bosses would be a great conversation piece as a European shield mount, and a fitting salutation to such a noble warrior – Photo credit Manfred Lotze.
Not all dagha boys have broken or broomed-off horns. During mid-2013 I guided a client out of New York on a solitary dagha boy on the BVC. After some exceptional tracking over four days by my trackers, the client wounded the dagha boy and we had an exciting experience when it attacked. It measured 43” with excellent bosses. During the course of the same safari, other good friends out of Philadelphia were hunting with PH Lance Nesbitt, and they both shot old dagha boys. One buffalo had so much thick dry mud on it, it looked a bit like a huge tortoise.
With many of Africa’s once great hunting areas now under threat as never before, I honestly feel a sport hunter on a once off safari, which includes a buffalo, should maybe leave the tape measure behind. Rather, give serious consideration to the excitement and challenge of tracking a solitary old dagha boy, and if you get lucky, give that noble old warrior all of the respect he’s due, when he’s finally on the wall in your den.
Above: It requires a well-designed and constructed bullet to drive through the outer dry mud on a dagha bull, and then the thick skin, followed by musculature and quite often, heavy bone.