Concerned that his family would be killed if their
That is the story the farmer related to us later that morning. He showed us the footprints of the elephant that had terrorized his family. His mud-and-thatch house was spared, but there wasn't much left of his cornfield. The frail, grayhaired man was understandably distraught. Not only had the elephant destroyed the family's principal food source for the winter, it had consumed the seed corn for the next year as well.
It was March, harvest time in Amadundumela in southwestern Zimbabwe. The elephants had come across the border from Botswana to raid the cornfields. Interestingly enough, only mature bulls make the trip. For the subsistence farmers in the area, it was a life-and-death event.
They had to protect their crucial fall harvest, but the elephants would kill any farmer who tried to intervene too aggressively.
To address the problem, the government sets a quota of four bulls in this area each year. It's not nearly enough to solve the problem, but just enough elephants are shot by hunters to prevent the farmers from poisoning them in large numbers. The farmers' preferred method of elephant control-loaves of bread stuffed with herbicides-delivers a painfully slow death to the pachyderms.
I was hunting with Brian Van Blerk, one of the premier Zimbabwean professional hunters. He got me up close and personal to an elephant on the very first day of our hunt. The agitated bull elephant stood just thirty-five yards from us with ears flared and head up. A bright green dot bounced in a small circle at the base of its trunk, a little below eye level. The green dot emanated from a laser about the size of a large pencil. The laser was strapped to the side of Brian's rangefinding binocular.
'At this angle, that's where you would have to shoot him,' whispered Brian.
The bull that was serving as the subject of Brian's Shot Placement 101 class was one of nine bull elephants, all with small tusks and none of them shooters, that stood under a
grove of large mopane trees. I had watched all of the DVDs and read all the books I could find on elephant hunting. Still, I wasn't prepared for the sheer size of these gigantic bulls. Standing twelve feet at the shoulder and weighing more than 12,000 pounds, they seemed like great, gray battleships. I couldn't help but feel intimidated as Brian calmly pointed out the correct location for frontal and side brain shots.
As we backed away and returned to the Land Cruiser, Brian continued to prepare me for the final moments of our hunt. 'As you can see, the foliage is dense and green this time of year. The old bulls like to hang out in the real thick stuff. We will have to get close, and the shot will most likely be a brain shot. Once you shoot, the elephant will disappear in a second. We may not even see its body, so I may have to shoot within a split second of you, if you want me to back you up. I probably won't have time to wait and see if your shot was fatal or not, and you most likely won't have time to get a second shot off.'
I understood what Brian was telling me. There was another hunter in camp. He had recently made a shot that wasn't fatal. The PH had not been able to get off a backup shot, even though they were only fifteen yards away from the elephant when the client shot. They were now into their third day of tracking the wounded elephant and were about to give up. This sad event cast a dark shadow over what would have normally been a fun reunion at the end of each day. No hunter who takes a single shot at an elephant once in a lifetime is going to be proficient at it. Still, losing an elephant is heartbreaking. It can cause a slow, agonizing death for the elephant. In addition, it can be a disaster, financially and emotionally, for the hunter. I knew Brian's instruction and this straightforward discussion could be the difference between a kill and a lost elephant.
'I will do my best to make the first shot good, but don't hesitate to back me up. I would be devastated if we lost one of these old boys,' I told Brian.
The second day of our hunt started with a brilliant blast of sunshine. Rain had fallen most of the night, and the rolling hills produced a sweltering sauna of steamy mist that enveloped us as we left camp. We traveled down a bumpy excuse for a road until we met the farmer who told us the terrifying story about the big bull elephant's rampage on the previous night.
The farmer showed us the tracks that had been left by the big bull. They were huge ovals, more than two feet long. Brian assured me those large tracks, especially those that had a smooth edge, meant that they were left by an old elephant. Only the old fellows carry the big ivory, so these tracks should be worth our while to follow. We left the farmer and began our trek through the bush in search of 'Big Foot.'
The tracker, Albert, with his son and apprentice, Proud (so named because Albert was proud of his firstborn son), led the way. I had tried to condition my sixty-two-year-old legs as best I could back in the snowy New Hampshire countryside. I was well aware of the fact that elephants are 'hunted with your feet.' In the cold, crisp air back home, I could walk a brisk five miles without breaking a sweat. Nothing I had done, however, prepared me for fighting my way through thick thornbush with a heavy rifle slung over my shoulder. The temperature was in the mid-90s and the humidity had to be near 100 percent.
Most of the vegetation here was scrub brush twelve to fifteen feet high. It was tall enough to hide the elephants, but not the sun. After five hours of continuous brushbusting, we finally caught up with the elephant. It was midday by then, and the wind was fickle. Before Brian had a chance to evaluate the ivory, the old boy caught our scent, shifted gears, and was gone in an instant. We called off the chase. We spent the next two hours fighting our way back to the truck. The heat of the day had peaked, and it was a brutal walk.
After seven hours of exhaustive trekking, we each drank several bottles of water, ate a sandwich, and collapsed onto the ground in the shade of the closest bush. It was Brian and Albert's first hunt of the year, and although they were young, they were both snoring before I was. I wondered about snakes and bugs as I lay there in the red dirt and grass. That uncomfortable thought lasted about thirty seconds, and then I didn't think about anything.
We did a little more driving in the evening and searched for more elephants, but didn't see anything. Finally, we called it a day and headed back to camp. We had a quick dinner and headed to our cottages. I crawled under the mosquito net and slept like the dead.
Early the next morning, we were up before sunlight and cruising the back roads, trying to cut the tracks of Big Foot. At one point, Brian climbed a 200-foot-tall electrical transmission tower to try to spot an elephant in the dense cover. It seemed strange to see these high-voltage electrical lines and their supporting towers out in the middle of nowhere. Brian deftly climbed past the sharp elephant-guard spikes and finally ascended to a precarious perch on top.
Brian didn't see any elephants from the tower, so we kept driving. Many of the weeds growing along the barely visible road had gone to seed. The seeds plugged up the Land Cruiser's radiator and it overheated. We had to return to camp so Brian and Albert could pull the radiator and wash off the seeds. By the time we were ready to go back out, the sky had opened, and we were inundated with a torrential downpour. That was the end of our hunting for the third day.
The fourth morning of our hunt broke clear and cool. We headed back toward the farm where we had picked up the track of Big Foot originally. We were elated to find his fresh tracks cutting across the road not far from the spot where we had first found his trail. He had been in the cornfields again and was now headed back into the thick bush. This time, it was early morning, and he only had a short head start on us.
Albert (who is 6 feet 4 inches and 275 pounds) grabbed my .458 Lott. With scope, strap, and shells, it weighs about twelve pounds. I looked puzzled, and he smiled and said, 'We are really going to move fast. Don't worry, in a few miles I will return it.'
Brian pushed us forward at a blis-tering pace. He wanted to close the gap as much as possible before the heat of the morning set in.
After a couple of hours, we found dung that was steaming hot. Albert handed back my rifle. We pushed forward at a rapid pace, following the clearly visible spoor. Elephants are usually hunted in the dry months.
Now, it was slick and muddy underfoot, and my muscles were starting to complain. Fortunately, the elephant was in no hurry. He was busy pulling down branches from trees that were as thick as my waist. He tore roots out of the ground and left holes in the mud a foot deep.
Albert climbed a tree and spotted the elephant about six hundred yards away. We started after it, and Brian left the trail to make sure we were downwind from him. We didn't want a repeat of our encounter two days earlier. In the dense foliage, we promptly lost track of the elephant. We listened but couldn't hear him. Albert had to climb a tree again. The elephant was about a hundred yards away.
We moved forward cautiously, and then abruptly halted. The mopane brush was thick as hair, but only about twelve feet high. The elephant had either heard us or smelled us, and he lifted his giant head to catch sight of us. In the two or three seconds that it took the elephant to size us up, Brian saw that he had nice 60-pound tusks. He told me to get ready. This was the one we had been looking for.
The elephant was tired of our pursuit and decided to come and sort us out. When he saw us, he started straight for us without hesitation. There was not going to be any walking away from this encounter.
My scope was set at lx and the safe was off. My heart was beating like a trip-hammer, and the adrenaline was flooding into my bloodstream. The brush was so thick I could only see the top of the elephant's head bobbing up and down. It wasn't a running charge, but it was six tons of very irritated elephant barging through a tangle of dense trees, brush, weeds, and thorns. I flinched with every loud crack of wood as he literally smashed his way toward us. Fortunately, the elephant lost track of us as we stood frozen in place. At a little more than fifteen yards, he stopped, raised his massive head, and peered down at us. Nothing was visible but the head, ears, tusks, and trunk.
In the fleeting second I had, I re-membered Brian's instruction about finding a line between the ear holes and tried to locate the appropriate spot to shoot. Only problem was, the sun was just coming up over the trees, and it was at the elephant's back. He could see me perfectly, but all I could see was his big, black silhouette. Then he moved his head slightly and blocked the sun enough for me to find my target. I heard Brian whisper the com-mand to shoot, and I increased the pressure on the trigger.
The recoil from the .458 Lott jolted my head up, and in that instant I heard Brian fire. As I refocused, I saw the big head disappear and heard a loud crash as the elephant went down.
Brian yelled, 'Good shot. Come quickly.'
We ran forward. The elephant was down, right where he had been standing, and appeared to be stone-dead. Brian had me administer a 'stay-dead shot,' and it was all over.
Suddenly, I was overcome with emotion. This was the greatest hunt of my life, and I was elated. We were safe, and the elephant was down. I gave Brian a bear hug, and Albert pumped my hand and slapped my back. At the same time, I was stunned by the immensity of the elephant and the almost instantaneous death of this colossal animal. There was also a twinge of remorse for taking such a noble old creature. Fortunately, both Brian and I had made good shots, and it was a very humane kill.
Later that day, I had the opportunity to personally take a large section of the elephant meat to the old, gray-haired fellow whose farm this elephant had destroyed. He was ecstatic and thanked us profusely, tears welling up in his eyes. I knew the meat, once cut and dried, could mean the difference between sustenance and starvation for him and his family. It seemed like a fitting end to this exciting African adventure.