There's No Stigma To Wounding
In 2012 Zimbabwe’s south-eastern region experienced its worst drought in twenty years. It was depressingly dry, and much of it waterless. June is mid-winter in southern Africa, meaning mornings and evenings are chilly. Dressing in layers at day’s start is a wise choice – you can always shed clothing as the day warms up. I was guiding a 1:1 10/day buffalo and general plains game hunt on Zimbabwe’s Bubye Valley Conservancy (BVC), a bespoke venue.
We’d been tracking and seeing buffalo dagha bulls from day one within the parched unforgiving landmass that is the BVC. When it comes to buffalo, hunting large breeding herds has never been my forte. I’ve always considered it a bit unethical because of disturbance and pressure on cows and new born calves – it’s just a personal thing. Although in reality it’s no different to a lion pride pressurising a buffalo herd. Trying to pull a trophy bull out of a large mixed herd is usually frustrating too, due to sheer numbers. Periodically though, and if a suitable bull hangs back in a herd, you might get a lucky break. On a short duration safari, I don’t bank on that because it can become a waste of valuable hunting time. In a big mixed herd too, there are invariably plenty of soft bossed bulls. For that reason, concentrating on hunting bachelor groupings only, makes sense – your exclusive dagha boys club.
Early one morning we stopped to check for spoor at a waterhole. The old Lister engine and pump were still running, drawing life sustaining water from deep underground. In the heavy sand at the water’s edge, we found spoor of a solitary old bull. He’d been moving on a regular basis along a well-worn track to and from the water. The tracks were fairly fresh so we decided to follow them. When following the tracks of a solitary bull, there’s always the chance it might be an unsuitable trophy. Having said that, old buffalo bulls with worn off or ‘broomed’ horns are also worthy trophies. Some sport hunters specialise in collecting ‘scrumcap’ trophy buffalo. I think it’s noble.
The spoor took us in a meandering walk across grassed areas and scrub mopane. There was old spoor mixed with fresh. It was obviously the dagha bull’s home range, giving him easy access to the borehole fed waterpoint. Along the spoor we also found numerous scrub mopane thickets, heavily leafed, where he’d pushed inside and rested. While tracking him, we’d remained alert to the fact that as a solitary old dagha bull he may have been grumpy, and intolerant of intruders.
My client was carrying a .416 Ruger with an Interarms Mauser action and a 26” barrel. 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.
Within an hour of departing the waterhole, we’d found fresh dung, mucus covered with butterflies alighting on it. Not long after, my trackers suddenly dropped as one to their haunches. Lingani, closest to me silently indicated to our front. And there, inside a leafy thicket was the dark black shadow like form of a sleeping dagha bull. A quick glassing exercise, enabled us to assess the horns, which looked good. After the client and myself had butt-shuffled closer, I got him to settle his rifle on the shooting sticks. Just then, a vagrant wind eddy carried our scent to the buffalo. It immediately stood up and shook its head while staring straight towards us.
A stand of seemingly light saplings and leaf cover was still screening much of it from view. However, and after looking through his scope, my client was confident he could get a bullet squarely into the chest. Through my binoculars I could also see the buffalo’s chest, a leafy branchlet one could look through, was screening portion of it, so I let him take the shot. Acknowledging the bullet, the buffalo dropped his forequarters, recovered, and then went crashing off into the thick stuff to his right rear. Within seconds, all was quiet. Hunting quiet, not a sound. Without wasting time, we moved to where the buffalo had been standing, and found a few minute specks of blood spatter along his departing spoor.
After waiting for about twenty minutes, we took up the spoor, and about 60m further on we came to a soup plate size pool of what looked like frothy lung blood. It was where he’d stopped, lingered, and looked back down his trail before moving off. The trackers had then cautiously set to work and we were soon following a lightly marked trail of blood and gut fluid. It looked like the bullet had gone in too low and our follow up soon turned into a bit of an endurance course.
Throughout the remainder of the day, we tracked the lone bull through widely varying terrain. He led us through scrub, mopane woodland, heavily grassed riverbeds and into dense riverine thickets. In the really thick stuff, we had to be cautious because of a possible close quarter ambush – our visibility being extremely limited. Once, as he broke cover in dense riverine, my hurried attempt at a raking shot with the .458 Lott was to no avail. Eventually though, and due to lateness, we were forced to give up and after marking the spot, walked back to my vehicle, and then returned to camp.
After an early night, we once more ventured out in search of the wounded buffalo, and we were soon on the spoor. Our biggest worry though was that the bull would join a herd. He had already made two attempts to join bachelor groups before moving off on his own again. He’d also stopped feeding and there was very little dung, although he still drank water. We felt the bullet had driven through below the heart, possibly grazed the lower part of the lungs, and then ended up in the paunch. The trackers were confident if he remained on his own, we’d eventually close with him.
At about 1130hrs the trackers, who were slightly off to our left suddenly froze. About 25m in front of us and lying behind a thicket 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, tracker Barnabas ventured he couldn’t understand how we’d missed it at such close quarters! He was concerned, and quite rightly so! Although Glenn and I were convinced one of us had connected. Hence the buffalo’s high tailed Olympian departure. In the aftermath of the buffalo’s speedy departure, I realised how stupid and irresponsible I had been as a PH, and here I need explain.
When the trackers had first indicated the buffalo lying behind the thicket, reflex on my behalf had taken over, rather than common sense. I’d unthinkingly shot at the buffalo simultaneously with Glenn. The sound of our two shots blending into one, and in the immediate aftermath we were extremely lucky the buffalo had headed in the opposite direction, after coming out of the starting blocks at such incredible speed. Had it charged us at that speed, and from such close quarters, one, or both of us may well have been killed or badly injured, for the simple reason we were both carrying bolt-action rifles. Neither of us would have had time to chamber another round before the buffalo reached us. Had one of us been carrying a double, a hurried anchor shot may have been possible.
The lesson once more emphasised in the light of that near disaster was the all-important need for a PH to refrain from shooting at the same time as the client. Rather, let the client shoot first and wait to handle whatever unfolds immediately thereafter. I had always been a stickler for that throughout my lengthy career as a PH, but on that occasion, and perhaps through becoming blasé I’d let my attention to the reality of our situation slip. It could well have been a costly mistake.
After following for most of the day and not catching up with the buffalo, we somewhat dejectedly returned to camp. Sitting by their fire, and talking to the trackers that evening, I asked them if they honestly felt we could still close with the buffalo, given that it would be the third day of tracking it. Not an easy task, and although they still felt confident, they requested I try and entice Glenn to either remain in camp or with the vehicle when we once more took up spoor. Glenn was already an elderly man and he did have back issues which stopped him from moving at our pace while on spoor. My trackers felt that so long as this was the case, we were merely tracking the buffalo but not closing with it. It was a hard sell when I spoke to Glenn, although he eventually agreed to remain with the vehicle next day.
Early the next morning, and with Glenn and my skinner Lingani remaining at the vehicle, the trackers and I again took up the spoor. We each carried a bottle of water and I carried my .458 Lott, whilst game scout Sgt Magocha carried my .375 H&H. We tracked at a fast pace, eventually finding dry blood smeared against the leaves and scrub. Blood which had come from a new wound. One of our rounds from the previous day had indeed connected, although it hadn’t slowed the buffalo. Whenever the tracks left the thick stuff and took us across open ground we accelerated our pace, and when back in the thickets caution prevailed.
After about 5 hours, the buffalo slowed down 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 rest up and if necessary make a last stand. We’d also observed 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 my 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 similar circumstances, and also on the third day of tracking the buffalo. 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 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 there, that the trackers suddenly dropped.
Crouching behind them and looking through the scrub I could see the buffalo about 40m away, standing side on in the grass, with his nose held high while looking to our right. I then belly crawled forward to about 25m from where I was able to slowly 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 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 how over the three-day follow-up the buffalo had taken us close to 30km, however, his 39 7/8” spread and 16” bosses made it worthwhile. Despite Glenn’s euphoria at our having accounted for his buffalo it took time for him to accept there is certainly no stigma to wounding an animal. If you hunt enough, the chances are it will happen sooner or later.