Blue Collar Elephants (Part II)

A quest for adventure leads the author to Africa to track wild African elephants in the Zambezi River Valley.

I admit freely that elephant hunting holds at least two strong attractions for me. One is the difficulty and the challenges it presents. It requires the ability to walk for miles in the hot African sun, testing your endurance as you follow an endless track. The end game will call on hunting skills you may not realize you possess. The shot will not be a long one, but it will require surgical precision with a rifle pushing a bullet heavy enough to use as a paper weight. The other strong attraction, and the one most often denied, is the element of danger. Wild African elephants are not the docile creatures the public sees at the circus or the zoo. They are big, strong, intelligent, tough, vindictive and relentless. Elephants kill people with regularity throughout Africa and a decision to engage them is not to be taken lightly. I understood that on my first safari when I saw genuine fear in the eyes of my young professional hunter as he described some of the close calls he experienced with elephants. I saw it again when we encountered elephants unexpectedly while hunting buffalo. He had respect for all the dangerous game in Africa, but true fear for the largest.

While the price of a trophy bull hunt is out of reach for most of us, there is an alternative. Hunting tuskless elephants provides everything that makes elephant hunting interesting-except a trophy to bring home-at a fraction of the price. A tuskless elephant hunt costs about the same as a buffalo hunt and is "doable" by a motivated hunter willing to work some extra overtime.

In many ways it's tougher and far more dangerous than hunting trophy bulls. The tuskless hunts are a "management" hunt. They are for elephants, almost always a cow, with a genetic defect that prevents them from growing tusks. The tuskless ones seem to resent that fate robbed them of what most makes them an elephant, and professional hunters in several locations have told me they all seem to have a bad attitude. I suppose they are mad because they don't have tusks and I am sure there is something Freudian in that, but no matter, they are often spoiling for a fight. In fact, cow elephants in general tend to be more trouble than the bulls. Tuskless elephants are found with the family groups and the hunter must go in and sort out a specific elephant among the many eyes, ears and noses all attached to pachyderms with bad attitudes and no love for bipeds.

Trophy bulls on the other hand tend to be solitary, or hang with a buddy or two. They are usually mellower in attitude than the cows, probably because they are not protecting the young. They might provide a more impressive trophy for bragging rights, but without fail every PH I have talked with says a tuskless hunt is more difficult and more dangerous. The only downside is that all you can keep are photos and memories. The elephant belongs in total to the local natives, providing much needed protein and income.

Of course, I would like a huge set of ivory tusks to frame the doorway to my office, but my budget will not allow that hunt. What I wanted even more was the experience of hunting elephants and I found a way to make that happen when I booked a tuskless elephant hunt in Zimbabwe during July 2005.

As the bush plane banked to make its approach to the dirt strip at the camp I looked down and saw five elephants standing on it. We buzzed the strip to run them off, circled and landed, and I took that as an omen of good luck ahead.

In contrast to my first visit to this area in October 2000, the leaves were still on the trees in late July. This cut visibility by a huge margin and made all the hunting much more difficult. I thought we would probably follow the dusty roads until we found fresh elephant tracks. But my professional hunter, Ben Coulson, had other ideas. We drove just a few miles from camp before stopping at the top of a hill where there was a radio tower. It reaches high into the sky and provides enough elevation to view "miles and miles of bloody Africa" and to look down through the canopy to spot elephants. The head tracker, Claudious, climbed the tower like a lineman in no time and was soon near the top. I waited below, eager to hunt, knowing enough not to question the tactics. Finally he climbed down and conferred in his native language with Ben. Then Claudious started down the hill and into the thick leaves.

We moved very fast and very quietly for nearly a mile, when suddenly Ben stopped. I strained to see what he was looking at, but saw nothing. I could hear the rumbling of the elephant's stomach, of several elephants, in fact. It's amazing to me how easily something the size of a small bus can hide, but elephants can blend into the forest in a way that makes the whitetail look like a neon sign. I was staring at a patch of thick brush not 25 yards from me for some time before a branch moved. Once I saw the trunk curl around the branch the rest of the elephant appeared in my vision like one of those picture books you stare at for hours before seeing the subject clearly.

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