Picking up again with my recent Tanzanian safari, I take you to the Lunda Wildlife Management Area (WMA) just north of Ruaha National Park where an astonishing number of elephant cross back and forth between the Park and the hunting concession. The traffic in one part of the concession was so heavy that the elephant had plowed their own road through the bush. The ground was covered with their football-size droppings, so pervasive that in some places you literally couldn't step without treading in the soft, dry dung.
Hunting elephant is arguably the ultimate safari experience. There are two reasons that make elephant hunting so special. First, the method of hunting is pure, undiluted Africa—long hours of walking in thick cover, over broken ground, uphill, downhill, your skilled tracker ferreting out the elephant's spoor. Don't laugh, it can be deceptively easy to lose the tracks of an elephant. Rocky ground, previously trampled ground, long grass and water are all obstacles to tracking.
Secondly, the quarry is so formidable. There is nothing so awe-inspiring as elephant at close range, inside of 10 yards. It's not uncommon to approach dozens of bulls before finally finding one that you deem acceptable. When you have that many close encounters with "tembo" as he's called in the local Swahili language, there's inevitably some shenanigans that usually end with a lot of angry bulls trumpeting and stampeding. There's nothing more exhilarating than a blind stampede in heavy cover.
(Stand your ground; never run. Usually you can "shout down" the stampede by waving your rifle, throwing your hat, yelling at the top of your lungs and otherwise making yourself as conspicuous as possible. The elephant are trying to get away from the man-scent, not go to it. Just let them know you're there, and they'll swerve to miss you—easier said than done when trees are snapping like kindling and six tons of gray panic is coming right at you!)
Michel Mantheakis, my PH on this safari and the managing director of Miombo Safaris, is an old hand at elephant hunting. The first thing he does is to seek the counsel and advice of whatever local inhabitants he can find. He spoke to the anti-poaching team he employs in the area and got some up-to-date information on the elephant's movements in the area. More importantly, he was tipped off that a notorious local poacher was at home in his village and that if anyone would know where the local "tembo "population was hanging out, it would be him.
His name was Benito. Conscripting poachers similar to Benito's renown over to Michel's anti-poaching team had proven enormously successful in the past. Just as the police "turn" a criminal into an informer, so too does it pay dividends to draft a poacher as a tracker or scout. Benito was eager to earn an honest living—as long as it was as profitable as a dishonest one—and Michel set about showing him how much better it is to be on the right side of the law.
We began by hiring him to show us where he had seen a very big bull, not far from his village. We met him early the next morning and started on a 10 mile walk that yielded nothing at all. We were around the Elephant Highway- the much-trampled path with all the droppings between the Park and the concession- so finding tracks was not a problem. Finding the track of a particular big bull was another matter, however.
Two days later we returned to pick up Benito and try again. Michel doesn't like to tromp about for consecutive days in a known elephant area because he doesn't want to disturb the area too much with human scent and noise. Benito led us off in what he thought was a promising direction and within a short time, not more than an hour, we found the tracks of four bulls. One them was outsized and had the tell-tale "wear mark" on his feet that show an old bull.
Just like a well-worn pair of tennis shoes, an elephant's feet get buffed down where they drag across the ground. The usual wrinkles on the bottom of the pad are worn smooth, making an old bull's track easy to spot.
We took up the spoor and before we saw them, we heard them. They were feeding and the sound of snapping branches and giant molars grinding leaves and bark to pulp was clearly audible, even with my lousy hearing.
Benito dropped back and Michel's number one tracker, Madindi, himself a former poacher-turned-tracker, took the lead. We saw the big bull off by himself. With the wind right and stepping softly on the sandy ground, it wasn't hard to close to within 20 yards. He was standing perfectly broadside. As I marveled at the massive ivory, stained brown from sap and plant juice, I knew without being told that I was looking at a superb bull.