DANGER FOR THE MASSES By Terry Wieland
A serious safari in Africa has never been what you might call a commodity for mass consumption. The closest anyone has come are the five-day excursions for $1,795 (airfare, taxes and gratuities not included) to kill an impala, warthog, and a gnu in South Africa.
Brag-worthy as this might be with the family at Thanksgiving, it hardly compares with a month in the Rift Valley among the Masai, much less the old six- to eight-week expeditions that encompassed several countries and two dozen species. The latter were common even as recently as the 1960s, but even then they were never cheap. The going rate was usually about a year’s salary for the average guy, which pretty much ruled out any average guy taking one. Today, two or three years’ salary would be closer to the mark.
For the better part of a century, the key component that set apart a real safari was the pursuit of the Big Five (elephant, lion, leopard, Cape buffalo, and black rhino.) All of these animals, you will notice, are dangerous — and occasionally highly so. In the time-honoured practice of ranking the “most dangerous,” each of these has had its champions. It is not my purpose to even offer an opinion on that question, only to say that, without a doubt, they are all dangerous under the right circumstances. That’s what makes them the “Big Five,” and that’s what lends cachet to hunting them.
If hunting these were financially out of reach in the old days, it’s even more so today. Lion hunting costs a fortune; elephant hunting is not far behind, although you can occasionally hunt them on the cheap if you get into a “problem animal” situation with the blessing of the game department. Black rhino, of course, are completely off limits (with a few exceptions that only prove the rule) because of their endangered status.
Leopards are a different story, simply because they are secretive, intelligent, can live close to human settlements without causing too many problems other than the odd lifted goat, and so have not been eradicated the way lions have in many areas. They can also be raised, if that’s the right term, on game ranches. For the right amount of cash, a hunter can take a leopard under conditions that can most charitably be described as “controlled.”
That brings us to Cape buffalo. The fabled mbogo usually ranks no worse than number two on any professional’s list of dangerous game, which means he’s a serious adversary. Their herd habits and rancorous personalities mean they do not fit in well with any semi-domestic situation as the leopard can. You need serious fences to confine a herd of buffalo, and an awful lot of land to provide browse. If you have ten leopards on your property, every one is a potential source of cash; the same is not true of buffalo.
Fortunately, Cape buffalo are very adaptable and can bounce back from reduced numbers in an astonishingly short time. One year they may have been almost wiped out in an area; five years later, given suitable conditions, they are back in good numbers.
Altogether, Cape buffalo combine substantial populations with genuinely wild conditions. They are both affordable to hunt, and it’s real hunting in wild country. It’s safe to say this will never be true again of elephant, black rhino, or lions.
For these reasons, Cape buffalo are the last of the Big Five (barring the semi-domesticated leopards) readily available to anyone with a modicum of cash and an urge to hunt dangerous game.
One reason the Cape buffalo enjoys this enviable situation is that they can adapt and live almost anywhere, as long as there is a supply of water. I have hunted Cape buffalo on jungle-covered mountainsides, in volcanic craters, chest-deep in swamps, and in dry and sandy thorn bush. I’ve climbed mountains that reminded me of sheep hunting, and wallowed in swamps that reminded me how much I don’t like swamps. I have hunted them in burning sun and pouring rain. But it was all buffalo hunting.
Cape buffalo are not only hunted in a variety of terrain, but also using a variety of approaches. As a natural herd animal, of course big bulls are found in herds ranging from a few dozen to several hundred. Stalking a herd of wary animals in open grassland, while trying to pick out one good set of horns from among many, is no pushover. Alternatively, old bulls that have reached a stage of terminal cantankerousness often go off on their own, or with another bull or two of like temperament, to live out their lives in lonely reflection, alleviating the boredom occasionally by tossing and/or stomping the odd villager out in search of firewood.
Hunting these old lads is a whole different story than hunting a herd. It’s a game of cat and mouse with the possibility that the hunter thinks he’s the cat one minute, and finds that he is the mouse the next. Such old bulls have learned not to depend on the collective eyes and ears of the herd for his protection, and has discarded any notion of safety in numbers. He is wary, self-reliant, and superbly capable when it comes to individual combat.
Not all of these old loners are magnificent trophy bulls with deep curves and wide spreads. Many have horns worn down almost to nothing, bearing a massive boss that covers their skull like a helmet, but not much else. They are almost hairless, grey and scaly, usually tick-ridden, bearing the claw marks of lions on their flanks and with ears chewed to rags. If they are brooding and bad-tempered, they have reason to be. Taking on one of these veterans on his own turf, and coming out alive, is an accomplishment for any hunter. Having done so, it leaves many with a nagging dissatisfaction hunting anything else.
Probably the ultimate experience in hunting buffalo is having to track a wounded one and, as often as not, face a charge. In a genuine situation of this type, where you fight down the fear and stand your ground and come out on top, any hunter can take great pride (preferably privately and internally) in having faced and conquered one of the ultimate tests. I say “genuine” because, as with any human activity, it can be, and has been, cheapened and degraded by so-called hunters who have learned how to inflict a painful wound, gut-shooting a young bull with a light rifle, then provoking a charge, made to look more dangerous than it is through the magic of long-lens compression and dramatic camera angles.
At least one licenced professional, having mastered this technique, made and sold videos, and booked clients to go to Africa to do the same. They then came home, bragging to everyone about how they faced a charge and dropped the bull. An acquaintance of mine claimed to have done exactly that, not once but five times on a single safari, shelling out the cash to bribe the game scout for another tag, and another, and another. For years, some of the more ethical members tried to have this professional barred from the Safari Club convention, and eventually succeeded; at the same time, the Tanzanian professional hunters’ association was trying to have his licence revoked, but were never able to overcome the power of bribery.
It is tempting to compare all of this with the attractions (and undoubted profits) of pornography and the white-slave trade, but we’ll leave it there.
Better to end on a reflective note, recalling buffalo hunts past, and the feel of the rifle in your hand, and the sight of the Rift Valley stretching away as you listen to the rasping breath in the brush, and wondering when he’ll come for you, and whether this will be your last glimpse of that blue, blue sky.