The Noble Warrior
Above: Trying to select a trophy bull from a wary buffalo herd often turns into an exercise in futility.
In June 2012, Zimbabwe’s Bubye Valley Conservancy was experiencing its worst drought since 1992. I was hunting with the late Glenn Baker out of Pennsylvania. We’d tracked and seen buffalo dagha bulls from day one within this harsh dry landmass. Due to sheer numbers, trying to pull a trophy bull out of a large mixed buffalo herd can be frustrating. Invariably too, there are numerous soft, or green-bossed bossed bulls within the herds. As a result, we were trying to concentrate on bachelor groupings only, the exclusive dagha boys club. Periodically though, and if a suitable bull hangs back in a herd, you might get a lucky chance, although we weren’t banking on that.
One morning, at about 0930hrs we stopped to check for spoor at a waterhole and it was there the trackers found the spoor of a solitary bull. Judging by the well-worn path he’d made moving to and from the water, it appeared he was an old bull. Glenn and I chatted about this and during the conversation, I referred to the solitary buffalo as a noble warrior. He had to be, to survive on his own in an environment thick with lion, so we decided to track him, although there is always the chance that when you do close with a solitary bull, he may be an unsuitable trophy. We followed his spoor which took us in a meandering walk across part of his home range. Four times, we found thickets where he’d rested, so while we tracked him, we’d remained alert to the fact that as a solitary old dagha bull he may have been grumpy. And intolerant of intruders.
Above: If you're hunting for a good buffalo trophy and you track a solitary dagha bull, at the end of the exercise it's possible you may well come up with a poor trophy quality old bull.
Baker was carrying a .416 Ruger with an Interarms Mauser action and a 26” barrel made by Lilja Precision Barrel makers in the US. His bullets were North Fork 400gr cup point monolithics, with .416 Ruger Hornady cases, lightly crimped. He’d loaded them with 73gr of Lapua Vihtavuori N150 powder and used Federal 215 Gold Medal magnum primers. His scope was a Leupold VX6 2x12 illuminated dot reticule, with custom adjustments for his .416 Ruger using the North Fork bullets at 1400ft above sea level.
Above: We followed him at a meandering walk across his home range.
Eventually, and after about an hour of tracking, we found fresh dung, still warm to the touch. Not much further on, and as we rounded a clump of scrub mopane, Barnabas and the BVC’s Sgt Magocha suddenly dropped to their haunches. Pointing into the mopane scrub to our front, they indicated the hardly discernible dark black shadow like form of a sleeping buffalo bull. After a quick look with our binoculars, we were able to see more detail and assess the horns, which looked good. Moving closer, Glenn and I got to a point about 35m from the buffalo, and then squatting, Glenn settled his rifle on the short shooting sticks. The wind was hardly stirring, yet a vagrant eddy must have carried to the buffalo, for despite us being extremely quiet, he suddenly stood up, flicked his head and gave us a beady look. A screen of seemingly light leaf cover was immediately in front of the buffalo and he was glaring at us through it, head high. Glenn was confident he could get a bullet squarely into the chest, so without wasting time he put pin to primer.
In acknowledgement, the buffalo dropped his head, and right shoulder before quickly recovering and crashing off through the thick stuff to his right. Within seconds, all was quiet, although we felt confident and after fifteen minutes, having not hearing any death rattle or sounds of struggle, we moved forward and soon found blood. And then about 60m further on we came to a soup plate size pool of what looked like frothy lung blood, where he’d lingered and looked back down his trail, however, of a dead buffalo, there was no sign, and all was eerily quiet.
The trackers then cautiously set to work and we were soon following a lightly marked blood trail with gut fluid. Seemingly, Glenn’s bullet had possibly been deflected by the mopane scrub. Or gone in too low. Our follow up in the heat soon turned into a bit of an endurance course with the buffalo moving quickly, and only stopping to drink briefly at the odd waterhole. As the day wore on, we tracked the lone bull through widely varying terrain, from scrub, to woodland, to heavily grassed riverbeds and into dense riverine thickets. Much of the follow up in the really thick stuff had to be done with caution because of a possible close quarter ambush – our visibility being extremely limited.
Once, we caught a brief glimpse of our fleeing quarry as he broke cover and took off. My hurried attempt at a raking shot with the .458 Lott kicking up dust behind the galloping mass of musculature. Eventually though, and with it getting late, we were forced to give up. Walking back to the nearest bush road, Sgt Magocha and I then left Glenn with Barnabas and walked back to recover my vehicle and bring it forward. Before returning to camp, we marked the spot for the next morning.
After an early night, we once more ventured out in search of our wounded buffalo. Back at the point where we’d come off the tracks we were soon once again on the spoor, the trackers doing an exceptional job even though the blood sign had diminished. Our biggest worry was that the bull would link with a herd. He made two attempts to join small groups of dagha bulls before moving off on his own again. We also noted he’d stopped feeding and there was very little dung, although he still drank water. Our feeling was the bullet had driven through below the heart, possibly grazed the lower part of the lungs and ended up in the paunch. The trackers however, were confident that if he remained on his own, we’d eventually close with him.
By mid-morning the heat was fairly intense and we frequently drank water from the bottles in the daypack. At about 1130hrs the trackers, who were slightly off to our left suddenly froze and Barnabas quietly mouthed the word “Nango” (“There”). About 25m in front of us and lying behind a thicket broadside on to us, was the buffalo. All Glenn and I could see was his tail and a bit of his lower haunches so we attempted to get a bullet into him by ‘guestimation’ in order to anchor him. Such was the speed of the incident, neither of us knew who actually connected but the buffalo leapt up, tail straight up like a scalded cat, and was gone in milliseconds. Not finding any blood as the result of our two shots, Barnabas ventured that he couldn’t understand how we’d missed it at such close quarters! He was concerned, and quite rightly so, although I was convinced either Glenn or I had connected – hence the buffalo’s high tailed Olympian departure.
After following for a few more hours and not catching up with it, we somewhat dejectedly returned to camp. Talking to the trackers that evening, I asked them if they felt we could still close with the buffalo, given that it would be the third day of tracking it. Not an easy task. They were confident, and Glenn, due to his seniority and a lingering hip problem, fortunately assisted us further by volunteering to remain with the vehicle, so we could hopefully move more quickly and bring closure to the exercise.
Early the next morning, and with Glenn and skinner Lingani remaining at the vehicle, the trackers and I took up the spoor of the previous day. We carried a bottle of water each and I carried my .458 Lott. Sgt Magocha who at 58 had been born on the BVC, and is a veteran tracker and outstanding backwoodsman, carried my .375 H&H. We followed the spoor at a fast pace, and eventually found blood smeared against the leaves and scrub, it was about waist high and had come from a new wound. One of our rounds from the previous day, had indeed connected, although it was a flesh wound and hadn’t slowed the buffalo. Whenever the tracks left the thick stuff and took us across open ground we accelerated our pace, but once back in the thickets caution prevailed.
After about 5 hours, the buffalo slowed down to a shuffle, and began to move in tight S bends through dense acacia thorn scrub. It became fairly unnerving as we tiptoed through the thorns, spending time squatting and staring intently into the dark shadows. We knew the buffalo was seeking a place of his choosing to make a stand, and we’d noticed he hadn’t found water anywhere since the previous day, so understandably his pain and rage must have been intense.
Moving further into the thicket the tension became palpable, we were on edge and the trackers body language conveyed they felt we were extremely close to the buffalo. It was deathly silent with not a hint of life, or bird song. A foreboding quiet that seemed out of place, and helped fuel the tension. As a PH I was fully aware of my responsibility towards the trackers’ safety, and had to keep a firm control of my own imagination. Two days prior, respected Zimbabwean PH Owain Lewis had been killed by a wounded buffalo in the Chewore under very similar circumstances. Also, on the third day of tracking it. African safari is a small world, and we’d heard of the tragedy in camp shortly after.
The key to our success was for us to see the buffalo before it saw or heard us, there was no other way because if it saw us first, there was but little doubt that it would attack, and with deadly intent. If that were to happen, I was confident I’d kill it, however, Murphy is often lurking and a misfire under those circumstances could rapidly change the scenario.
Slowly following the tightly meandering tracks, we then broke out of the thorns and found ourselves in a belt of shoulder high scrub mopane, beyond which was tall waist to chest high grass. It was here, that both Sgt Magocha and Barnabas suddenly hit the deck as if under fire. Crouching behind their prone forms and looking through the scrub I could see the buffalo about 40m away, standing side on in the grass, and with his nose held high, looking to our right. Still lying down, Sgt Magocha quickly shrugged out of his chest webbing (worn as part of the BVC anti poaching force uniform), and he and I then belly crawled forward to about 25m from where I was able to come up onto my knees and using a branch as a rest, place a bullet into the buffalo’s spine just above the point of the shoulder, causing the animal to go down heavily. We then ran round the struggling, kicking and bellowing bull and I put a bullet into his brain from the back, it carried through the head and went clean through his flaying right knee.
With the three-day saga finally over it was with a sense of relief when we covered the buffalo with our shirts to keep the vultures off, and walked back to Glenn and Lingani at the vehicle. The GPS readings would show that during the course of the 3-day follow-up the buffalo had taken us close to 30km, however, his 39 7/8” spread and 16” bosses made it worthwhile.
Above: After a lengthy three days of tracking we finally accounted for the wounded buffalo. Having recovered the vehicle with Glenn, and cleared the grass, the trackers and myself pose for a photo. Tracking by Barnabas at centre, and Sgt Magocha on the right was superb, and amongst the best I've ever experienced.