No other hunting destination on earth sees as many fatalities, injuries and near-misses as Africa. Every year professional hunters (PHs), trackers and sometimes even clients are mauled by wounded leopard, stomped by elephant, pounded by Cape buffalo or chomped by lion. Warthog charges are not unheard of and even a dainty little antelope called a bushbuck is renowned for its ferocity when wounded. Africa’s menu of man-maulers is indeed varied.
For sheer consistency, a cow elephant is the beast most likely to charge unprovoked. By “unprovoked” I mean you haven’t done anything to warrant a bellicose reaction, such as shooting at her, wounding her or threatening her.
A PH's Worst Nightmare Nigel Archer, a professional hunter in Tanzania, is among the lucky few to have survived being tusked by a cow elephant. As is the norm in cow attacks, Nigel was not even hunting elephant at the time and was unaware that a mother and calf were close by. The encounter happened a year ago, in late September 2009.
Archer was guiding a Russian client on his first safari to Africa, a 10-day buffalo hunt. The client was a terrible shot, yet he refused to take a rest on the shooting sticks. He had wounded a buffalo in the morning on the same day as the elephant assault. Archer had followed-up the buffalo and dispatched it. (Remember that, because it might explain the condition of Archer’s rifle later on.) That afternoon they spotted a good puku in a herd near thick riverine bush and papyrus.
"The first part of the stalk took us down a gentle slope, through some open miombo woodland to an anthill, Archer said. "Once we got to the anthill, which we were using for cover, I glassed the area extensively looking for any dangerous obstacles, and also to locate the puku. The puku was amongst a number of other puku and various other species of game that were grazing on the open glade below."
Archer took the shooting sticks, perhaps hoping his client might change his mind, but failed to take his rifle, a .458 Lott. When the trackers spotted a herd of elephant with calves in the papyrus, they got out of the truck to take Archer his rifle. Meanwhile, the client let loose on the puku. He fired five shots, all misses.The elephant panicked at all the shooting.
"After the third shot, I heard my gun bearer, Kiondo, shouting 'Tembo! Tembo!' ('Elephant! Elephant!')" he said. "To my total and utter dismay, I saw Kiondo and the tracker about 40 meters away running down a gently sloping hill from the anthill."
The elephants appeared confused and alarmed, not sure which way to run, the trackers said. In a group, they stampeded toward the hunting party, but appeared to be veering between the vehicle and the men. Suddenly one of the cows peeled off from the herd and came right for Archer.
He tells what happened in his own words:
The elephant was in full charge, totally silent, head forward, trunk twisted up and ears stuck firmly to the side of her head. These are all signs of a full-on charge, not a bluff charge, i.e. do not hesitate to shoot. I only had time to shoulder my gun and fire. The shot looked good, however, on an elephant frontal brain shot, using a Hornady soft, I did not get the penetration required in order to hit the brain.
The elephant knocked me flying, presumably with her trunk. My gun went one way and I the other. I managed to get up, tried to dodge the oncoming elephant, lost my footing in a hole and fell over. The elephant then immediately dropped onto her knees and tried to crush me into the ground with the bone on the top of her trunk. I put my legs up to try and push myself away and prevent my upper body from going under her massive head. While I was on my back with my legs pushing against her head, one of her tusks pierced the top of my thigh and consequently went deep into my left buttock.
I instantly lost all strength in this leg and it got trapped and crushed under the elephant’s head. From the side of the elephant’s head I could see the client, my gun bearer and tracker, who had exploded from the scene, standing some 150 meters away. I shouted to the client to shoot and could see him fiddling around with his gun.
After shouting for a third time, an ineffective shot was fired. The elephant eventually released my leg. I rolled over and over very quickly, got up and staggered about 10 meters. The elephant then got up and ran away into the grass.
Archer suffered a horrific tusk wound to his calf and another through his thigh and buttocks. Prompt first aid and the scrambling of a charter plane to medevac the severely injured PH to Dar es Salaam are why he survived.
All the muscle and skin of his right calf was tusked off the bone and left dangling by only a few strands of flesh, but his client, a Russian hunter who had served in the Soviet military, immediately applied a tourniquet. Radioing to camp as Archer was being driven back, word immediately reached the offices of Miombo Safaris, for whom Archer works, where Nicole Mantheakis, wife of Miombo owner Michel Mantheakis, organized a rescue.
Archer regained virtually 100 percent use of his leg.
I was on safari with Nigel’s boss, Michel Mantheakis, when this happened. The speed of getting Nigel to the nearest hospital was, in hindsight, the only thing that saved his leg, according to doctors. What can we learn from Nigel’s close shave? Michel said it best, “Complacency is what nearly cost Nigel his life. A PH should never be without his rifle. He got lazy and let a gun bearer carry his rifle.” Given the circumstances, it’s almost guaranteed that Nigel had solids beneath the one Hornady soft in the chamber. If he had been carrying his rifle and heard the alarming cry of “Elephant! Elephant!” he would have had time to wrack the bolt, eject the soft and chamber a solid. But he wasn’t carrying his rifle…
Charged By a Buffalo Niki Atcheson made a mistake which resulted in her being severely gored by a Cape buffalo in 2007 in Zimbabwe. She had her rifle, a .458 Lott, but when presented with a shot, she couldn’t see the buffalo’s body position clearly.
“I can see the buffalo,” she whispered to George Hallamore, her PH, “But I can’t see where to place the shot.”
George, glassing the buffalo with his binocular, pointed to a distinctively colored twig and leaf and told Niki to aim just at that mark. She fired, and the buffalo lurched away into heavy cover.
She, her husband Keith Atcheson, the PH and trackers followed the wounded buffalo for the rest of the day, but never caught it. They returned in the morning at first light and took up the blood trail where they’d left it the previously evening. By now the buffalo’s wound had stiffened and he’d picked his last stand, button-hooking on his back-trail and waiting for his pursuers.
He came from eight yards, slamming into Niki before anyone could fire a shot. The impact knocked the rifle from her hands, and then the bull was on her, hooking her with his black tipped horns as she lay dazed on the ground. Keith and George fired from point-blank range, killing the 1,600-pound buffalo, which fell on top of Niki.
Niki awoke in Room 13 of a Johannesburg hospital. She had a fractured forearm, broken collarbone, broken ribs, a concussion and two horrific horn wounds in the back of her thigh which required numerous surgeries to repair.
The daughter of an African missionary, Niki was born in Rwanda-Urundi and certainly is a highly experienced African hand. Her encounter with a wounded buffalo is one of those tragic circumstances that only hindsight can prevent. Her mistake? Obviously, you should never hazard a shot at dangerous game unless you’re confident of your bullet placement. In Niki’s case, she relied on her PH to point out an aiming spot, but a change in perspective from a 6-foot-tall man looking through a binocular to a woman crouched over the shooting sticks and looking through a riflescope is all it takes to misplace a shot.
And so we have two examples of what can go wrong in Africa. Both were “mental mistakes,” one an error of judgment in placing a shot and the other a case of complacency leading to laziness. When you hunt dangerous game in Africa, it’s just part of the risk. As Michel Manteakis says, “Live by the sword, die by the sword.”