Our hunting team had our work cut out for us. First, we had to identify a tuskless cow, on quota in this area in a bid to improve the overall genetics of the herd. Then, after ensuring she had no dependent calf, we had to get the hunter into a position where he would have the best chance of making a one- shot kill. Finally, after the shot, we had to get away without any other elephants getting shot, or people getting hurt.
Trying hard to walk on the pathways where the leaves were at least a little quieter, I tested the wind, which, in this thick Jesse, is notorious for its fickle nature. As the puff of ash drifted behind me I knew we were OK for now, but I also knew it could change at any moment. The cows were moving slowly through the bush and we had to catch them, silently, before the wind changed. My trackers had moved to the back and hung twenty yards behind us in a tight group while I moved forward with the hunter, Joe, and my cameraman, Doug King.
Suddenly we heard a crackle of twigs to our left, very close. I squatted to look through the bush, and spotted huge legs and a tiny calf. This was bad. The main herd was in front of us and invisible in the thicket, and if this large cow bringing up the rear saw us, things could get ugly. I crouched with my ash sock in my hand, testing the wind every few seconds. The puffs of ash drifted lazily upward in the late-morning heat. The cow sighed deeply and moved forward through the dense bush, which closed so tightly behind her those ten seconds later, all I could see were her feet.
We looped around, giving the cow plenty of space, and moved in from the right of the herd. Suddenly, less than thirty yards from us, came the roar of a cow and the squeal of an indignant calf having a dispute. As yet, they were unaware of our presence. We all squatted and saw in front of us a sea of legs, the closest just fifteen yards away. Joe was sweating through his shirt, and not just from the heat.
The October heat still carried the ash particles straight up into the air. We slowly followed the herd through the tangle, getting a glimpse here and there of tusks, mouths, and ears, my eyes glued to my binocular as I looked for a toothless old mouth that would indicate a possible target animal. Then suddenly the animals stepped into a small clearing no more than ten yards across, and I saw that the third cow in line was huge and tuskless, her sagging breasts indicative of no dependents. The only calf in sight was alongside the lead cow.
I heard Joe whisper, 'Is that the one?' The pure adrenaline and tension of the last twenty minutes was audible in his voice.
'Yes,' I replied.
Now I had to get us close enough for a shot. The density of the bush meant the range would be less than ten yards. It would test my ability to get right in among some of Africa's most dangerous game and then retreat unscathed without shooting anything other than our intended target.
In more than two decades of hunting elephants, I have had to shoot four elephant cows-ones that were not targeted animals-in self-defense. On each occasion, the result was a deep and uncomfortable inquiry by the National Parks of Zimbabwe to ascertain the true facts of the case, taking into account my side of the story, questioning the game scout, and then carefully examining the tracks to unravel details of the encounter.
Personally, I reserve all judgment of anyone who shoots an animal in self-defense; unless I was at the scene, I cannot begin to have an opinion on whether or not the action was necessary. As with many hunting encounters, there are many factors: the ability and mobility of ones client, what happened in the preceding few minutes of the hunt, and the manner in which the encounter was handled by all concerned.
In Zimbabwe, several elephants are shot annually by PHs in self-defense, and I think it is fair to say that a high proportion of those are cows encountered while hunting cows. The nature of an elephant cow hunt and all it entails raises the 'danger' bar substantially, and the chance of having to shoot to protect human life is exponentially higher than when hunting bulls.
Questions are always raised when females of any species are hunted, whether it is an elephant cow, a lioness, or a buffalo cow. There is always far more to that picture than just trophy hunting; it is usually a management imperative. The hunting of a female of a species, however, is just as exciting and, in the case of elephant cows, often far more dangerous than a hunt for a male of the species.
The purpose of having tuskless cows on quota is to diminish the tuskless gene in a bid to improve overall trophy quality. While park management staff could quite easily achieve this quota by shooting these animals themselves, having these animals taken by paying hunters means they are also able to generate much-needed revenue in addition to meeting the management goals.
The cows had continued to feed past us and now they were out of sight. As silently as possible we advanced, and the bush began to thin a little and a few mature mopane trees became visible on the ridge we were climbing. A low rumble, barely audible, confirmed they were still ahead of us. It was very hot; surely they would soon stop in the shade, if they could find some.
Just as that thought crossed my mind, Bashop, my lead tracker, dropped to one knee. 'Ndofunga dziripamvhuri (I think they are in the shade),' he said, pointing to an enormous baobab that poked its twisted branches above the tangled mass of Jesse.
If they were indeed under the baobab and resting, that could make my life a lot easier. Still, I was on a razor's edge. A tight cluster of elephants in the same spot of shade increases the likelihood of a confrontation. The fact that they were standing still, however, gave us the opportunity to closely observe them and decide on a shot. Time was not on our side, however, as the ridges, thickets, and heat could cause the wind to change at any moment. The approach was a tangle of possibilities, and everything needed to be perfect.
At forty yards or so the giant tree trunk came into sight, casting deep shade on its southern side. The wind was still good. The elephants stood in a tight cluster, some throwing a few puffs of dust onto themselves. The smallest elephant was lying prostrate in the middle of the group. We squatted behind a small boscia, unpalatable to most animals and thus still green in the dry, gray-brown mass of sticks. As I glassed the herd I saw two cows facing away, and I knew one of them had to be the tuskless one. I knew they could stand like this for a long time, and as it was unlikely the wind would hold, we eased back and circled the western side of the tree.
A couple of minutes later, although it seemed like at least an hour, we were standing fifteen yards from the group. The trackers and scout were thirty yards behind us, Joe was ready with his double, and the old tuskless elephant was quartering toward us.
T thought it was too good to be true, and it was. A cow lifted her trunk and showered her back with a puff of sand, and the dust blew away from us, indicating that the wind had turned. Abruptly everything went quiet. Two cows threw up their heads and moved aggressively, trunks up, ears flared. The tuskless cow took three steps toward us, head up, listening.
I whispered to Joe, 'Just below the eyes.'
As he raised his rifle, the movement caught the cow's eye and she bobbed her head, the moving target throwing off his aim for a second.
'Shoot!' I whispered as she dropped her head and continued toward us.
The blast of the .470 was deafening. The shot was high. Now everything moved in slow motion. The cow threw up her head. Half of the herd was already departing the scene, but two large cows were behind the tuskless one, and coming fast.
'Again!' said. The second barrel went off and the cow sank to the ground, hind legs first an indication of a successful brain shot.
Now I would really be put to the test as I tried to get everyone out unscathed. As we retreated through the bush, a large, single-tusked cow spotted us and charged.
'Don't run, stand here!' I shouted. I ran two or three steps toward the cow, aiming at her head and shouting 'HEY! HEY! HEY!' as loudly as I could.
The cow trumpeted so loudly I felt the vibrations deep in my chest, but the position of her ears and head told me she was going to stop. At just six paces, she wheeled around and ran off into the bush with the rest of the herd, tail held high in the air, flattening small trees in a bid to escape.
I looked back at Joe. 'Nice shot, my friend.'
His eyes were wide, and I suspected his giant grin was not so much from a sense of achievement as from nerves. Without a word, he walked up to the fallen elephant. The trackers and I retreated to give him space. Because Joe could not export any part of his animal, his only trophy would be the memory of what it took to hunt one of Africa's most dangerous animals.
I sat for half an hour mentally replaying the hunt, the culmination of which is always bittersweet. The sense of achievement was tempered by a feeling of sadness and loss as I considered the majestic animal taken, as well as an overwhelming sense of humility that I have the privilege of doing what hunters have done for millennial.
Soon, though, my thoughts wandered to the more practical and immediate issues. Getting the skin, meat, and all usable parts of the animal out would require cutting a road to bring in a vehicle and recovery team. The hard work was just beginning.
That night, we drank a toast to the great old cow. Joe's eyes welled up as he described how much the experience meant to him-how many years he had waited, saved for, and dreamed about that moment. He would remember it for the rest of his life.