Buffalo are big, tough and often grumpy. If you are hunting them, they might take offense and be quick to pick a fight. They say a buffalo won’t attack a hunter unless he is provoked. But who knows what will do that? It may be because a poacher’s homemade bullet is stuck in his guts and he is hurting, or maybe it’s just because you are occupying the same planet and he doesn’t like it. When it comes to buffalo, “provocation” is a fluid concept.
I was hunting buffalo this time on the Save Conservancy in southeastern Zimbabwe, on a government-owned property called ARDA. It’s not exactly the mythical, J.R.R. Tolkien lands of the same name, although at times it seemed so exotic it could be. In Zimbabwe, ARDA stands for “Agricultural and Rural Development Authority.”
Zimbabwe is run by a dictator named Robert Mugabe. His administration has a talent for finding anything productive in that country and bleeding it dry. In a shocking display of racism, they took away farm lands that had been in families for generations simply because the owners were white, even properties with clear deeds. All of it was approved by Mugabe himself. This “forced redistribution” resulted in a once thriving, farm-based economy turning to total collapse. It got so bad that Zimbabwe, a country with a currency once comparable to the U.S. dollar, hit an inflation rate of 471 billion percent in 2008. Now, they no longer even have a currency. So it’s not like Mugabe has much of a track record for making anything work except graft and corruption.
Lately, Mugabe’s guys are noticing the safari industry. In the Save Conservancy, they refused to give wildlife harvest permits for most of the privately held lands unless the safari companies turned over controlling interests to their hunting companies to hand-picked, Mugabe-controlled Africans. Those ranch owners with strong political connections and of course the government-owned lands had little trouble receiving quotas and permits, including ARDA.
ARDA is a small property, and with the exception of elephants and buffalo, which were both in abundance, it held a lot less game than the private Sango Ranch I hunted in 2009. Even though they are both part of the Save Conservancy and the distance between them is only a few miles, the hunting quality differed greatly.
Some of that was due to poaching, as we found plenty of evidence, including snares, every day. I had to shoot a giraffe that had been in a snare and was near death. Another party encountered an elephant in the same situation and had to put it down. One day we even caught some poachers in the act. They were later turned loose by the “authorities,” which explains the continuing problems. But, as I would later learn, the property was also being over-hunted.
At first I was seeing a lot of buffalo. We estimated one herd held more than 600 animals, and that was only one of several herds on the property when my safari started.
It was closing in on evening and we had just a few more minutes of shooting light. We could see the dust from the herd and knew we were very close. As we approached the edge of an open area we climbed a high termite mound for elevation. What I witnessed was a spectacular sight and one I’ll remember to the grave. (I am fortunate to have several of those vivid outdoor memories that will last forever; it seems that buffalo hunting has contributed an inequitable number of them.) In front of me, for as far as the eye could see right or left, was a solid wall of buffalo. It was as if somebody had built the Great Wall of Africa using buffalo for bricks. We stayed there and watched and as the light receded they merged into a solid black line and then faded into the night.
We were into buffalo on every hunt, so I was in no hurry to shoot. I wanted to know that I had truly hunted buffalo before I pulled the trigger. I wanted a few of those moments when it’s so hard to breathe. I wanted blisters and thorns; I wanted to sweat and hurt and to experience the highs and lows of buffalo hunting. So, waiting didn’t bother me. There were a lot of good bulls and we had seen an exceptional bull twice. We got close both times, but I never could quite close the deal with him. Still, I decided he was my standard. I wanted this bull or one of his equal.
I was having a good time so I wasn’t worried. But perhaps I should have been. This was a small property, well suited to a single small safari. But, with the troubles attaining permits and many other properties shut down, there were three safaris on ARDA while I was there. It was too much.
Soon after the third safari group joined us, the elephants disappeared. Most of the other game left the property as well. We were no longer seeing many zebra, kudu, impala, eland or much of anything else. We never found even the track of an adult male leopard, and the few sables on the property disappeared. Each day our buffalo sightings grew fewer and fewer, and the big bulls seemed to vanish.
But we stayed with it, often tracking buffalo to the border of the property and the bitter disappointment of turning back unfulfilled. On the 12th day, close to noon, we found that big bull, mostly by accident. I won’t lie, I muffed a tricky shot and he ran off wounded. It was another first for me.
We tracked him to his bed just a few hundred yards away. He rose and stood staring at us as if he was working out his own fight-or-flight decisions. The PH hissed to me not to shoot until he was sure it was the right bull. There was no time to debate: We had followed a blood trail right to this one, so I stood and held that heavy double rifle at the ready as my arms began quivering with fatigue. Only after the bull turned to run did I get the OK to shoot. I hit him again, but not well.
I’ll probably be criticized for saying this, but the next hour spent tracking that wounded buffalo in the thick brush was the most exciting thing I have ever done. I loved every minute of it. It was an aspect of buffalo hunting I had never before experienced. It’s impossible to describe my range of emotions.
Shooting is what I do, so when it goes poorly I am my toughest critic. I beat myself up even after a good shot, always thinking it could be better. With a bad shot such as that first one, I am merciless; at that moment I was sadistically nasty. I was sick, partly for wounding the animal, though I had no doubt we would get it, but mostly because of what I took as a personal failure. Nobody else in the world could ever treat me the way I treat myself in these situations. But, at the same time, it was thrilling to be tracking the most dangerous game on earth, a wounded Cape buffalo. I had no doubt my shooting would be up to the task when the time came.
The end was rather anticlimactic. I suppose I could tell you the bull charged and the hero stopped him with his last shot, so close the buff knocked the empty rifle from the hunter’s hands as he fell. But it wasn’t like that. We jumped him a few more times, I got a few more bullets in him and finally he just stopped and waited for the last one to arrive.
It was an odd kind of safari. Not at all what was promised or expected. There was no leopard, no sable. There was nothing except this buffalo. But in the end, it was enough.