However, the largest bulls don’t necessarily grow the largest tusks, probably due to food, minerals and genetics. A Botswana bull can grow tusks 22 inches in circumference; the “small” bulls of the Selous produce at least as many hundred-pounders as those to their southwest. Other regional differences include northern populations that grow long, slender tusks, and shorter, thicker ivory in the southwest. Zambezi bulls pretty much split the difference.
My Botswana bull was not a trophy. I hunted on an own/use permit, meaning the elephant I killed was owned and used by the concession where it lived. Such an elephant is usually a bull with broken tusks no trophy hunter would ever shoot. The program supplies much-needed protein to the village that owns the animal for a long, long time. Tusks are remitted to wildlife authorities.
Namibia’s wildlife system is enlightened compared to some countries; they recognize elephant habitat is constantly shrinking due to human population shifts, and therefore their quota system includes a fair number of trophy and own/use permits. The difference, as far as hunters are concerned, comes down to money: An own/use permit costs about half as much as a trophy permit. For that price you don’t get anything but the experience and some pictures, and the tail (I cut off mine and will give it to one of Jamy’s guys to make me some bracelets). The day after we left my bull, the people of the Impalila Conservancy showed up and made off with every scrap of it, reducing 5 tons of magnificent beast into a grease spot in a matter of hours. So I got no ivory to display in my den, no hide to make belts or rifle cases, nothing but one helluva ride. That’s enough, I think.
Chatter ensues: “Who’s got water? How much? Food? We got peanuts and some apples. Okay.”
On the flight across the Atlantic, I’d read a book about monstrous waves, the scientists who study them and the extreme surfers who ride them. The surfers intrigued me when they described knowing when the energy of a big wave was welling up beneath them; it was as if they could feel the chest of the Earth heave. The thought struck a chord. I remember it now, and my mouth goes dry.
It doesn’t take us long to work up a lather in 85-degree heat. The grass is tall, the island flat: Will we simply bumble into jumbos? Two hours later, we stop and drop on high ground in the shade of a couple of great big jackal berry trees as Exile and Michael climb one to scout. But I can’t relax too much. My thoughts churn. Mainly, I’m thinking there’s no way we’ll actually find elephants on day one. Then the boys spot a gang of bachelors. Well all right, then. We’re doing this.
We get to within 200 yards and I can see them through the Weaver binocular—six bulls. Gotta be an own/use in that bunch. After some back-and-forth, we make our move.
All of us. I thought surely we’d leave 70 percent of this crowd behind at this point. But we can’t, I learn later, not when hunting like this. Our conga line sneakily saunters right up to those bulls. I quickly learn as long as you’re careful, use the wind, terrain and vegetation, and avoid sudden movements, elephants don’t really notice you until you do something to attract their attention. Either that or they ignore you because, really, we’re talking Brobdingnagians vs. Lilliputians here.
They’re feeding. A lot. It’s noisy. No wonder we can approach them like this. The bulls are pulling and tearing and breaking and munching—and I can hear their stomachs growling. They’re next to some absolutely thick brush and I know if we spook them and they run in there I’m not going after them, not if … I am sure one of them just spotted us. Michael, Exile, Danie and I hunch closely, shadowed by Tom with the camera over my shoulder. Danie twitches at my elbow. He nods at a bull and I nod in return and he mouths, “Can you shoot?”
Nope. The bull is standing broadside 20 yards away. And so are at least three other bulls. Where are the other two? I’m a couple feet to Danie’s right. Clearly, my view differs from his. I try but no, no, I can’t find an aiming point through the brush.
The crowd to my right looks like it’s filming a violent episode of “This is Your Life.” Either that or it’s “Candid Camera.” Five men crouch 10 yards away, fanned out in a sort of skirmishers left formation, staring intently at the scene—at me. Everybody’s got a good seat. Two of them are running cameras. Three hold guns. Jeez, I cannot screw this up.
We tiptoe right, left, trying to line up a shot as the bulls fade into the grass. Exile, agitated now, directs me to shoot and I hiss back, “I’m listening to him!” My eyes narrow and I point to my PH. I’m ready now.
Danie grabs me: “This way.”
We wheel to our right and move 20 yards, then slowly Danie and Michael and I creep to the left, up a little rise … there he is, there’s the bull. Danie slowly sets up the sticks and I’m calm now, sure of my actions: focus, breathe, squeeze, follow through, reload.
I know before I come out of recoil I’ve missed the brain. The bull wheels to his left as I stroke the bolt, so I do as I learned and fire into the beast’s heart and lungs. Reload. The shoulder—again. (I think; the third shot is a blur.) Danie shoots, too. Then things get a little sporty: I short-stroke the controlled-round feed bolt on the Kimber. I know what I’ve done immediately. By now the bull’s taken a couple of steps. He isn’t’ going anywhere fast, which suggests I can do what I must: Look down to clear the jam I’ve created.
When I look up an instant later I can see the bull standing there not looking too worried. I can see his back, I can aim for the spine. But since I’ve looked down I figure I better be sure so I ask for help.
“I can’t see him. Which one is he?”
Now, mind you, I’m sure I’m looking at the right bull. But since our presence and intent is no longer a secret I figure I might as well start talking. What I think and what I say, though, are two different things. What I thought was, “Are we sure that’s my bull? I want to be sure before I shoot again.”
Michael is jazzed. He grabs my strong arm and shouts, “He’s there. He’s right there. Shoot! Shoot!”
I think I will if he’ll let go of my arm, and when he does I aim for the spine and fire again, and the bull fades into the grass.
I breathe deeply and reload—a full magazine; never had to do that before.
We conga, all 10 of us, back to the left, every gun at the high ready, through the grass where the bulls stood then swing back a hundred degrees to our right then wheel right again. Danie wants to sweep the area to be sure the gang has moved off before we relax.
And then we approach the bull. Now my bull. At least for a while.
We let out such big breaths I bet a bystander would have seen a great cloud of anxious steam rise above us. Bolts are worked and metal chings. Backs are slapped. Somebody, everybody shakes my hand.
Wow. There lies a Botswana bull. He absorbed at least 4 tons each from four 500-grain Sledgehammers from my .458 Kimber. This most magnificent of all creatures on Earth wears splendid tusks. Well, to me they’re splendid. Anyway, I just checked off an item on my bucket list, and fed a village.