Zimbabwe: September 2017
Zimbabwe’s Hidden Treasure – Non-Exportable Elephant Hunts
By Tom Murphy
Don’t ever let it be said that hunting a non-trophy elephant isn’t hard work…
Zimbabwe is lousy – it’s lousy with elephants. My wife and I were on a 7-day non-exportable elephant hunt, September of 2017. Over that time we saw an estimated 1200 elephants. We saw them singly, in small herds, and in large herds that our PH, Ross Johnston of Martin Peters Safaris, said contained over 100 elephants. We saw them every day, along with various plains game, including kudu, waterbuck, and even a large herd of sable.
We flew from Las Vegas via Joburg where we overnighted, then to Victoria Falls where we were met and taken to our hunting area – Matetsi Safari Area #5 – a little after midday. We got settled in our room, and I took my .416 Ruger Hawkeye out to the range for sighting in. That done, it was sundowners, supper, and sleep.
Six in the morning saw us up, and by seven we were in the safari truck and out looking for a legal non-exportable elephant. To qualify as a non-trophy, or non-exportable elephant, the animal could not have any ivory showing whatsoever. Nor could it have a young calf. The animal stays in the country, is butchered, and the meat divided up among villagers. Importing elephant parts into the USA is so difficult that hunting a non-exportable elephant, and taking only photos is an excellent way to have an elephant hunt. Plus, the cost is considerably less.
Matetsi #5 area is huge. There are over 14,600 square kilometres from where we entered the hunting area to the border with Hwange National Park, the largest natural reserve in Zimbabwe. There are no fences all the way to Botswana – a distance of 160 kilometres, and there are no fences in Botswana. Hunting the Matetsi is about as free range as it gets in Africa.
About two hours into our first day hunting, we ran across a herd of 20-plus elephants. This set the tone for the entire hunt – lots of elephants. However, this day we didn’t see any that were legal. The herds had some fairly large bulls and a lot of cows, but all of them had ivory showing. We returned to camp just before dark, tired, hungry, but happy with our day. This was my wife’s first safari – first trip to Africa, for that matter. She was so excited that she said she would probably have trouble sleeping. Well, I guess you can call three minutes of tossing and turning trouble sleeping, but she didn’t move until the camp manager knocked on our door the next morning.
The next few days we saw many head of game, just nothing shootable. It never got dull, though. Our tracker, Fani, would stare off into the distance, then look down and whisper, “Elephant.” Of course, I could see nothing except grass, trees, and rocks. But Ross would drive a bit closer, until even I could see the herd. Out would come the binoculars to scan, but no huntable elephant was found.
Day 4 started out the same. More elephant, but nothing legal. Then Fani spotted a herd. Ross stopped the well-used (285,000km) safari truck, and Fani climbed up on top the cage to get a better look. After five minutes he jumped down, and I could tell by his face that the hunt was on. He said there was one good-sized elephant in the herd that we should go take a look at.
Out of the truck, I loaded a 400-grain stopper into the chamber of my Ruger, slid on the safety, and tried to keep the adrenaline rush down to a slow roar. There was a slight rise between us and the elephants, so we were able to stay below the crest and approach quite closely. Due to the wind, we had to circle around to approach the herd from downwind, and this turned a short stalk into a long walk. We halted just on the crest of the hill, about 200 yards from the herd, and looked them over carefully. There was just one legal elephant in the herd, so we decided to take it. It took another 15 minutes of hiking to get where Ross figured we were 35-40 yards from the herd. We crested the hill. The elephants were slowly closing on us, but they had no idea we were anywhere around. Fani spotted the tuskless – and the calf that walked up behind it!
It was a long walk back to the truck.
The fifth day was a repeat of the first three. However, we spotted a herd of sable led by a bull that was so nice that I seriously considered doing a deal with the devil, but common sense and a very thin wallet made us bid them goodbye and continue chasing pachyderms.
Day 6 dawned clear and comfortable, just like the rest. The boss said she would stay in camp, and would I be so good as to take care of this “elephant business” while she did important things involving soaps, ointments and oils. Off we went, bouncing over hill and dale… and rivers, rocks, tree limbs, and various other impediments that made for an interesting ride. I was sitting up top between Fani and London, the other tracker. Every time the truck did a bounce, twist, and drop, I had to hang on for dear life. My right shoulder still hurts.
Near as one mile from the camp as made no difference, Fani spotted a herd that had just crossed the road, and was no more than 200 yards from us. They were in some trees, and it was impossible to sort them out from the truck, so we wore off some shoe leather and took a look. The only shootable elephant was just a tad too young, and we returned to the truck.
By now, we had probably seen 800-900 elephants, but watching them never got boring. A couple of times we were able to get quite close to them before they caught our wind and slowly moved off. This happened again just two hours after the first herd, but still no luck.
Lunchtime was rapidly approaching when Fani said he saw another herd out about 600 yards -my estimation. He just pointed and said, “There.” He and Ross balanced on the safari cage and scoped out the herd. Ross said there was a good, shootable elephant. Not a really large one, but a good one, nonetheless. We closed a bit, then left the truck and set off on a stalk. The herd was split in two. The tuskless was in the second group that was behind the rest of the herd. The wind was totally wrong for a frontal approach, so we headed off downwind to avoid the first herd. That didn’t work, so we dropped back a couple of hundred yards. The elephants were moving slowly downhill, and Ross figured that they would cross in front of us as they walked. They weren’t moving very fast, so Ross and I parked under a tree while Fani and London watched the herd.
I had just about drifted off when London ran up to us and said the elephants were moving. Ross looked at me and said that here was the chance, and that I should give some serious thought to getting my lower fundamentals in motion. I’ve had both knees replaced, so getting to my feet in a hurry is like watching a very large clown get out of a very small car. Just without the humor.
We had about 200 yards to cover, and ten lifetimes later (about 10 minutes, max.) I found myself with the rifle on the shooting sticks while trying to get my breathing down to where the crosshairs on the scope would settle down. Somewhere around 20-25 elephant had crossed in front of us no more than 30 yards away. They were off to our right and moving away. Ross pointed to the left and said to wait until I had a broadside shot. This was the one we had been stalking. I double-checked that the safety was off, and got down on the scope (Leupold 2.5x). Both eyes open, I could see the elephant as it walked into the crosshairs.
“Take this one?” I threw at Ross.
“If you have a good target, sh…”
“Bang,” said my Ruger.
The elephant stumbled 25 yards and slowly corkscrewed into the dirt.
We had looked at about 800 elephants over six days before finding this one – and there was no taxidermy – only photos.
Tom is a long-time adventure writer, currently for print and Internet media. He’s been on safari in Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe, hunted with rifle and handgun, and taken a giraffe and a lion with a S&W 500 Magnum. His first hunt was in 1967, and his first African safari was in 1995 when, at age 50, he hunted Cape buffalo in the Okavango Delta of Botswana.
The Rifle and Ammunition
I used a Ruger Hawkeye Alaskan in .416 Ruger caliber. It’s eight pounds of stainless steel with a black synthetic Hogue stock and a 20-inch barrel that was ported by Magnaport. Recoil is a bit stout, but with the four ports, it’s no worse than a .338. The scope is a Leupold 2.5×20 Compact. Ammunition is by Hornady, and is their Dangerous Game 400-grain round nose solid. Muzzle velocity is 2,400 fps, and muzzle energy is right at 5,115 foot pounds – about the same as a .416 Rigby, but in a shorter barrel and smaller case. The bullet hit right behind the right shoulder and exited almost the same place on the other side, having traversed the heart in the process. The bullet was not recovered. The hunt was provided by: discountafricanhunts.com
1. 1.jpg The view from our camp shows the emptiness and solitude of the Matetsi Safari Area.
2. 2.jpg Our home away from home. We saw no other people throughout the entire hunt.
3. 3.jpg This fellow decided that a dip in the Zambezi River was just what he needed.
4. 4.jpg This is a quick shot of some of the elephants we saw during our time in Matetsi.
5. 5.jpg The end of a successful hunt for a non-exportable elephant. The only trophies were photos.
6. 6.jpg I’m in the process of cutting off the tail. This establishes ownership.
7. 7.jpg I used this Ruger .416 Alaskan on the hunt. It fires a 400-grain bullet at 2,400 fps and 5115 foot pounds of muzzle energy.
8. 8.jpg Yesterday’s dinner for a pair of lions. There wasn’t much left of this Cape buffalo.
9. 9.jpg We ended our hunt with a few days at Victoria Falls. This was an amazing way to end a great hunt.
10. 10.jpg Ho hum – another beautiful sunset on the Zambezi River.