America and South Africa: 1980s
Buffalo with a Bow … seven species. Part 1
By Dr Adrian de Villiers
It was the early 1980s, and it was time for something different. I decided to focus on wild oxen of the world, starting with a bison – ‘Red Indians’ had shot thousands with longbows off horses. I booked a hunt with Paul Mooney in Marathon, Texas.
Paul wanted to make a video, and nearly got me killed by a cantankerous old bison. There were a few salient facts that he had not mentioned before we set out… Lone bison bulls are chased out of the main herd, and their eyesight is not that good in thick bush. When herd bulls bump into lone bulls, a huge fight ensues, so when you startle a lone bull, he just attacks to defend himself as he thinks he’s been seen by the herd bull.
Early one morning we spotted a large lone bull. Paul said it was not big enough for a trophy, that I should do a “mock stalk” for the video to be used later. It was hot, so I took off my white T-shirt and stuffed it in my pocket. Wearing my soft moccasin shoes, full camo overalls, gloves and a face mask, and staying in the shadows, I stalked the bull up to 25 yards. Paul, all six-foot-six of him in blue jeans, cowboy boots with noisy leather soles, a huge camera and a white Stetson, lumbered noisily ten yards behind me. Of course, the bison saw him and charged us. As I ran, I was terrified it would get me. In Marathon the cedar trees grow up to 12 feet and give good cover, but they are NOT climbable! There is also cholla, yucca, and cat-claw, all very unfriendly to humans.
I slipped in between the trees zigging and zagging, but the bison kept after me. Fortunately, a cat claw bush pulled the white T-shirt out my pocket, and the bison attacked it with a vengeance. After that I kept two T-shirts to throw out behind me if I was charged again!
A few days later I found a nice bull grazing towards me with the wind right, and I had great cover. The bison was walking towards a strong, five-strand barbed wire cattle fence that would protect me if he saw me and charged. He couldn’t see me from behind a cactus plant, so I drew my bow, very quietly sneaked right up to the fence, and sent a perfect shot from twenty yards as he was quartering away. He bolted off, then stopped and looked back. I was motionless in the dense shadow of a cedar tree. I watched, shaking from adrenalin. The bull swayed, lay down, and within less than a minute it was all over. I was thrilled – my homemade bow had worked flawlessly.
I next booked a hunt with my friend Luchs for an Asian (Indian) water buffalo as it was a step up in size and not quite as aggressive as the Cape buffalo. Water buffalo are similar in size, behaviour, and characteristics, but the Indian/Argentinian version has deep, swept-back horns as distinct from the very wide, straightish horns of the Asian/Australian species.
By now I had replaced my American Archery limbs with Pearson Spoiler limbs which shot incredibly well. My handmade bow was shooting like a dream. I sighted it in up to 80 yards. I sighted it at such long distances, not just to hunt, but to get in a second arrow on a wounded animal. We didn’t work out the kinetic energy or momentum in those days; I just used the heaviest bows and arrows that shot well. My guess is I was using about 120 foot pounds, and 1000-gr arrows.
A large herd was grazing in a swamp very close to a deep riverbed which afforded secure cover to get in really close. The snag was that the banks of the river were so steep, and the grass on the top of the bank was so short that it would be impossible to shoot from either, as they would surely see us and take off. I clambered up the bank and peeked over. Twenty yards away was a depression surrounded by high grass, and there was a huge willow tree making dense shade underneath it, a good place to hide as the noonday sun burnt down on us. As soon as the herd moved behind the thick cover, we sneaked into the thicket and made preparations. The best bull was at 50 yards, which was too far for me for a first shot in those days, and the wind was blowing hard, which made a long shot difficult.
“We’re going to just have to sit and wait and see what happens and take it from there,” I said.
I was hoping the heat would make the herd head for the thicket, but they seemed to be immune to it. We waited for four hours before they started grazing along the river bank towards us.
“Here they come!” I nocked an arrow. The river was only 25 yards away and the wind was blowing obliquely towards it – they would only smell us when they were farther past. We stayed hidden as the herd slowly passed close by, the biggest bull at the back. Then the lead cow picked up our scent and sounded the alarm. They started to stampede. I drew my bow – the shot would be difficult. I knew I should lead the buffalo by a full body length not to hit it too far back or even miss it… even at 20 yards.
I hate aiming in front of an animal, it just doesn’t feel right, but the huge, two-bladed Thunderhead did its job. Too far back or not, at sixty yards the buffalo stopped and fell over. My Asian water buffalo would be #1 SCI for a long time.
I now knew my bow and arrow combination was adequate for buffalo, and set my sights on a Cape buffalo hunt which I organised in Hoedspruit, South Africa. I also knew I needed to be ultra-careful with the beast known as “Black Death.” It would have been easy to shoot one from a tree stand along the river, or at a regular drinking hole, or buy a truckload of animal feed, dump it and come back a few days later and sit in a hide. But I wanted the walk and stalk method, on foot, up close and personal.
It was very dry and cold that September. Although the hunting season had officially ended, farms with a “P3 Exemption certificate” may hunt all year round, and as I was shooting only old bulls it would not affect the breeding program. The bush was desolate, not a leaf on a branch and very little grass away from the river. The animals could spot me from a mile away. I slowed down to a snail’s pace and stayed in the shadows. The whole morning passed with no result, not even a glimpse of a buffalo. Then I came to a dry riverbed and stalked along the edge opposite to the wind, hoping to catch one at a pool in the river. Just as I was giving up hope, I saw a large dust cloud behind me with red-billed oxpeckers rising out of it.
“Buffalo. They’re coming, think and fast.” Jogging along to keep ahead of them I suddenly saw an opportunity – a huge, dry tree on the river bank with a horizontal branch sticking out about six feet from the base of the tree. An easy climb. Fully camouflaged, I sat on the branch over the riverbed. My plan was to spot a big bull at the back of the herd and shoot as it passed under me. I estimated the distance to where I thought they would walk at 30 yards – perfect. I set my sights and waited. Where I sat was an old hippo slide, a good spot to exit the deep riverbed. As the buffalo started getting nearer, the herd trailing behind the leader by thirty yards, I scanned them with my binoculars to look for a nice bull. I was expecting to take a thirty-yard shot on a moving animal, when the leaders suddenly veered up the hippo slide right in front of me, passing me just ten yards away. I was totally safe, only two yards above them, out on a limb, literally, when a really nice bull stretched out his front legs to get out over the top of the bank. My arrow took him right in the heart. He jumped, ran thirty-five yards and went down hard. The herd bunched up behind him in turmoil, not knowing what had happened or what to do. Then another nice bull, not as big as the first, was straddled over the edge right in front of me, trying to push his way into the herd.
“When am I ever going to get another chance like this?” I asked myself. Ignoring the fact that I would now be in for double the cost, I sent another perfect shot. The second one died almost touching the first.
I was elated – my first of the Big Five. I was on my way.
Adrian is a retired radiologist, game breeder and professional hunter and bowhunter. He is desperately trying to get the next species of buffalo, the fearsome gaur. They have been protected in India and Indonesia for years. If anyone knows where he can legally bowhunt one, please email him @ firstname.lastname@example.org
I had moved from being a handgun hunter to trying out a bow and arrow, and wanted to be the first person in Africa to shoot the Big Five and a hippo, legally, with a bow and arrow. In those days the local archery establishments knew very little about the sport – they were usually gun shops with a few bows in the corner somewhere, so I contacted many famous bowhunters and American Archery manufactures. “What arrow weight and what poundage should I use to shoot a Cape buffalo and elephant?” I asked. No one really knew.
I wrote to Fred Bear and I have a copy of that letter dated 1986! He replied that one could NOT kill an elephant with a bow and arrow, no matter how heavy the arrow or how strong the bow. To cut a long story short, by 1992 I had shot the Big Five and a hippo – with bow and arrows.
I had been shooting a PSE Mach 1 on 80 # but wanted more poundage. However, as I increased the poundage by getting American Archery to make me 105# limbs, the cast magnesium risers started to break regularly. (Not something you want to happen when you are drawing down on dangerous game!) So I decided to make my own bow riser out of T4 aircraft aluminium. It shot beautifully and weighed a staggering nine pounds, but it was as steady as a rock at full draw. I could not find a stiff enough arrow off the shelf, so I inserted a 2419 arrow into a 2512 aluminium arrow, and used one of Andy Simo’s (New Archery Products’ president) 273 gr stainless steel African Broadheads.