Hunting > African Game

Elephant on the Galana

An elephant license and 50 miles along the Galana River to hunt Kenya’s famed elephant country were pretty special back in 1970.

2/7/2011

The desire to hunt elephants is as foreign and different as the animal itself for most hunters who've never been to Africa. It's difficult for most people to imagine hunting such an animal before they've experienced the excitement, and danger, of tracking one through thick African bush. But for those who have felt the surge of adrenaline in the final approach to a massive tusker, elephant hunting is the epitome of all hunting experiences. Many hunters consider the taking of a big tusker, one carrying more than 100 pounds per side, to be the pinnacle of achievement—the holy grail of big game hunting.

The African elephant is larger than any other land animal by more than 2 tons. Ironically, a unique bone structure in the round, flat feet that carry his bulk, 6 or 7 tons of it, biologically links him to a family of animals where his closest African relative is a small, 6- or 7-pound, rock-climbing creature called a hyrax. In today's world, the elephant seems an enigma, a holdover from the Pleistocene Era. This may be why we're so inexplicably drawn to him. Elephants provide us with a historical perspective, reminding us of the way the world used to be.

One's first sight of a wild African elephant is truly unforgettable. His enormous size alone establishes this incredible creature as the true "king of beasts." My first look at one took place in Kenya back in 1967. As we drove across the red dusty plains of Tsavo National Park, my father suddenly braked the Land Rover and pointed to the horizon on our left-three enormous bulls strode across the open plain. They were coated with Tsavo's red soil, the color of old rusty locomotives. Several feet of gleaming ivory weighed heavily on their heads as they lumbered across a silvery carpet of dry grass past broken and twisted acacia and commiphora trees, evidence of prior elephant feedings. They showed no interest in us as they pressed on, possibly toward a waterhole to quench their thirst or some shade in which to stand. The midday African sun beat down on the Tsavo savannah as we watched the bulls until they disappeared into the distant shimmering heat haze. With that first look, the seed of desire to one day hunt such a beast was planted.

My opportunity to hunt in Kenya came about when my family moved there in the 1960s. My father was one of three Pan American pilots who ferried personnel and supplies from Kenya out to the U.S. satellite tracking station on Mahe, the main island of the Seychelles, located 1,000 miles east of Kenya in the Indian Ocean. They flew an amphibious Grumman aircraft called an Albatross out to the islands once a week from the coastal city of Mombasa, where we lived for six years.

For the first couple of years, my father and I were more than satisfied to hunt common plains game, species such as impala, warthog, zebra, wildebeest and Grant's gazelle, and later more challenging species like eland, lesser kudu, gerenuk and fringe-eared oryx. As consummate bird shooters, we thought we'd found heaven on Earth when we discovered the variety of gamebirds occurring in the hunting areas. Doves, sand grouse, francolin, guinea fowl, ducks and geese provided many exciting and often hot-barreled shoots in addition to the big-game hunting we enjoyed.

Kenya's resident hunters were not required to hunt with a professional hunter, so we did so on our own or with friends, and eventually gained the experience to step up to Africa's dangerous game, commonly called the "Big Five"—elephant, buffalo, rhino, lion and leopard. Kenya game laws were justifiably strict concerning the issue of dangerous-game licenses to resident hunters. You had to first acquire sufficient knowledge about the game and the various hunting areas. Then, after some basic hunting experience was gained, you had to pass both written and oral examinations administered by the Kenya Game Department. Final approval for a new applicant's request for a dangerous-game license was granted at the discretion of the chief game warden, who often required that you first observe a dangerous-game hunt before he'd sign off on a first-time application.

Satisfying game department rules and regulations was more than just red tape. It ensured that hunters were fully qualified before they were granted permission to hunt dangerous game. The demands of hunting dangerous game oblige you to be prepared physically and mentally to shoulder both rifle and responsibility. The whole perspective of our hunts changed with the added element of danger, and we learned to hunt the Big Five with respect and caution. Robert Ruark once wrote that to hunt dangerous game, "you have to be scared enough to be cautious, but brave enough to control your fear," an emotional balance that enables you to face an angry elephant or track a wounded buffalo into thick bush.

I arrived in Nairobi for the summer of 1970, fresh from completing my sophomore year at college. Joining my dad and I for the summer was Mike Brennan, a long-time friend and hunting companion who I'd grown up with, hunting ducks and doves among the mangrove islands of the Banana River near Cape Canaveral, Fla. After hearing me talk about my hunting experiences from previous summers, Mike was determined to visit Kenya and he'd finally made it.

That was the summer we began to hunt dangerous game, and my father had planned three months of big-game hunting for us. Our do-it-yourself safaris took us from the beautiful game-filled plains of Maasailand, located in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro, to the legendary big elephant areas adjacent to Tsavo National Park. In between hunts Mike and I often drove up to Tsavo from the coast for day-trips to film game with a 16mm movie camera. By the end of August, we'd spent many days in the bush and had been successful with both hunting and filming.

Our last hunt of the summer began the first week of September, just before Mike and I returned to college. My father booked Block 21-A, an excellent hunting area adjacent to Tsavo National Park and bordered in the north by the Galana River. This was also an outstanding area for lesser kudu, gerenuk and fringe-eared oryx. The previous rainy season had seen below-average rainfall, leaving many waterholes to dry up quickly. By September game was concentrated near permanent water sources like the Galana.

We drove into Block 21-A a day early by way of a remote Waliangulu village, hoping to find Abakuna Tise, a legendary native elephant hunter. Professional hunters often sought Abakuna for his knowledge of the area and his invaluable elephant expertise. He'd hunted tuskers extensively with bow and arrow; he was regarded as an ace hunter among his own tribe, and begrudgingly by the Kenya Game Department, who tried to apprehend him, often in vain, during his poaching years. In fact Abakuna was credited with killing more than 100 elephants with his bow. A fascinating account of that bygone era, in which Abakuna played a major role, is told by Dennis Holman in his excellent book, The Elephant People.


We were fortunate indeed that Abakuna was at the village, and he said he'd be pleased to accompany us. Our other two trackers, Kiribai and Barissa, were also Waliangulu from the Galana country and knew the area intimately. Thus we assembled a truly dream team of native elephant hunters to assist us.

After Abakuna and his gear was loaded aboard the Land Rover, we continued northward toward the Galana following a faint, sandy and very bumpy 60-mile track through the bush. It was late afternoon when we arrived at the river. Judging by the carpet of droppings littering the paths leading to it, there appeared to be no shortage of elephants drinking along its banks. Most of the sign was from breeding herds, and their movement to and from the river had created well-worn trails through the bush of low, gray acacia thorn scrub.

Dawn broke cool the next morning with gray, overcast skies threatening a drizzle of rain. My father woke first and stoked the campfire, filling the kettle with water and putting it on the fire for coffee. By the time the water boiled, Mike and I were up and huddled near the fire. After coffee and breakfast, we pulled out of camp around 7 a.m. Within a short distance of camp, we picked up the fresh tracks of two buffalo bulls, which we decided to follow, hoping to catch up to them before they laid up in shade for the day. Concentrating on the two sets of tracks, we suddenly discovered we'd come upon a herd of 50 or so elephants. We were close, and when the wind shifted, blowing our scent to them, the herd suddenly stampeded straight toward us. To avoid being stepped on by the charging elephants we raced down a game path, dodging and darting through the bush, broken-field fashion. Fortunately, they passed close by us, but kept going.

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