Hunting > Big Game

The Accidental Buffalo

The author is reminded of the old adage, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

The ear-splitting shriek was accompanied by a rhythm section of breaking branches and thudding feet. The dust filling the air was back-lit by a bright morning sun until it formed an opaque curtain that was difficult to see through. Inside, a giant, barely formed shape was moving fast in our direction as I adjusted the grip on my double rifle, which now seemed oddly petite in my hands. I wondered, not for the first time, how we managed to stumble so close to elephants without seeing them.

The professional hunter had mentioned just a few hours before that the elephants on this ranch had bad attitudes; he hoped we would finish the safari without the need to shoot one in self-defense. At this moment I was certain he was psychic.

When you are tracking a herd of buffalo and getting close all senses are set to high anyway, so with the pump already primed, the shock of this sudden charge sent a jolt of adrenaline into my system like a case of guzzled Red Bull. They call it the “fight-or-flight response,” but there was no flight; you can’t outrun an elephant that’s this close. So I stood my ground, ready to shoot and wishing I had solids in both barrels.

The bull smashed through the last of the trees and skidded to a stop yards in front of us, throwing more dust into the air.

“He is charging the buffalo,” said one of the trackers in his soft, musical, African voice.

But the buffalo were not backing down. The small herd of bulls stood like a defiant street gang, staring down the elephant. The bull kicked dust, stomped his feet and continued to shriek like a banshee at a rock concert with an amplifier cranked to 10.

That’s when we decided we were not really all that interested in shooting any of these buffalo. We slowly backed out of there, making ourselves very small and being very quiet.

“I told you these elephant all have an attitude, didn’t I?” the PH said once we were a safe distance away. “Those buffalo got too close and that bull didn’t like it. What you heard was elephant talk for ‘get off my lawn.’

“Actually that was a good thing. We didn’t know the elephants were there and that young bull might have done worse to us if we had stumbled in much closer.”

That’s a lot of excitement for a leopard hunt, don’t you think?

You may have read about my last leopard hunt in American Hunter a few years ago. What you didn’t read about was all of the problems, and there were many.

The final one happened on U.S. soil. I shot the leopard in 2009, but it was shipped to the United States with a 2010 CITES tag attached to the skin. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service seized the leopard because the tag didn’t match the paperwork. I hired a lawyer, fought it and lost. We even received a letter from the Zimbabwe government stating it was a legally hunted leopard and that the tag was placed in error. But it didn’t matter. The leopard was seized and, presumably, destroyed.

To atone for his outfit’s mistake, Alistair Pole at Zambezi Hunters offered me a deal on another leopard hunt. Buffalo hunting was a last-minute add on, one that saved the safari, as it turned out, because adult male leopards were as common as dinosaur eggs on the property we hunted.

I knew that once the baits are in place leopard hunting is mostly a game of waiting for something to happen. That leaves a lot of open time on a safari, time most hunters use to hunt other species. So, for an additional fee, I added sable and Cape buffalo.

I will always pick the buffalo option if it’s available, because when properly hunted, a Cape buffalo is perhaps the most exciting and challenging animal on earth.

By “properly hunted” I am talking about tracking the buffalo and hunting on foot in his domain. Riding around in a safari truck and shooting a bull is cheating yourself.

I have only hunted buffalo in the brush and can’t comment on what it’s like to hunt them in open country where you may shoot 200 yards. But, for me, it’s about getting close, working the thick mopane or jess, with the anticipation that every step can reveal the buffalo.

The excitement and challenge is in “walking miles and miles of bloody Africa” while following buffalo tracks. It’s in working around the herds of buffalo, trying not to be noticed by the multitudes of eyes, ears and noses as you search for that one trophy bull.

Or it might be following a group of dugga boys to its daytime haunts and trying to find the right one without any of those grumpy old men taking notice. It’s slipping and sliding, creeping and crawling until you are so close you can smell their breath. That’s the excitement, the soul and the life of buffalo hunting.

The essence of buffalo hunting can be found in those moments when you suddenly realize you are breathing again and you can’t remember how long you weren’t; when you get lost in time as you find yourself so close you can count the ticks on his back; when nothing else exists except for you, Africa and buffalo. That’s what makes buffalo hunting so damn special. If there is any other hunting on earth like this, it has escaped my notice.

Cape buffalo are of course one of the big five and are considered to be a premier dangerous-game animal to hunt. They are a bit unique in that category, for reasons I think make them even more exciting.

Buffalo have for eons been considered food by lions and other predators so, like most prey, they are extremely wary. But unlike the other “eyes-on-the-side-of-the-head” critters, buffalo don’t resign to their prey status with a passive acceptance. Most “food” critters accept their fate and offer little resistance other than trying to run away. When is the last time you saw an impala kick a leopard’s butt on the “Animal Planet” channel? Prey animals are born to die and most are genetically programmed to accept that once they are caught. But not buffalo. A calf might not put up much of a fight, but any grown-up buffalo is going to make some mayhem before it dies. Rather than passively accepting death, buffalo have an attitude unlike any other prey: They are going to beat the hell out of any threat.

Dangerous-game animals are often the large predators, and hunting predators is different. We once were just another food source for them. Lions, tigers and bears (“oh my,” sorry) are equipped to kill, and for eons they saw humans as easy targets.

It’s said that our drive to hunt these large predators has its foundations buried deep inside our lizard brains, probably left over from when we were a food source. Sociologists tell us that once we learned to hunt, rather than be hunted, man progressed and evolved. Among other things, it was man’s ability to use tools to fight, kill and dominate the large predators that distinguished us from other “food sources.” This allowed us to spend less time avoiding being entrées and more time building cities, spaceships and hospitals. But some of that dark history stayed behind, locked deep in the subconscious of our minds where it manifests itself in a desire to hunt large predators.

The drive to hunt dangerous game in general may be built on a slightly different foundation, as it includes animals that are not predators. Most experienced African hunters will tell you that the most dangerous game is those prey animals with the ability to fight back. Almost without dissension those with a lot of African experience pick the elephant or the buffalo as the most dangerous game to hunt. Oddly enough, neither is a predator.

Once they are full grown, for the most part man is their primary predator and that seems to tick them off. We are puny, weak and easily crushed, and at times elephants and buffalo will attempt to do exactly that. All too often they succeed, which makes them very exciting to hunt.

The trouble with elephant hunting is that it’s very expensive and short on opportunity, so most hunters, if they are lucky, are one and done. It’s the same with many of the large predators. Lions and big bears are very expensive to hunt, tigers are impossible. Plus, for a lot of hunters, one and done is enough with the large carnivores. Again, I think it’s a lizard brain thing. Once we succeed, the need abates.

Buffalo are prey animals and they evoke a much different emotional response than predators. They are also more common, even abundant, so hunting them is far less brutal to the checkbook than other dangerous-game hunting.

I was recently asked, “Just how many times do you need to hunt buffalo?” My reply: “At least once more.” I never tire of it, and with buffalo I don’t endure the lingering guilt that hunting carnivores sometimes instills.

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