By Kim Stuart
Zimbabwe: 1996 – 2018
It was 1996 when I was with hunting buddy Jim Gefroh. Being novices, we had booked our first tuskless hunt in Zimbabwe in November. The weather was hot and beyond humid. The jesse was thick – in places like a rainforest. We encountered elephants from the beginning of day one, until the last day of the hunt. We were charged, and held our ground. We aborted a shot when, at the last second, a newborn calf was spotted lying under its mother’s belly. We crawled into a herd of buffalo, and realized almost too late that we were also in a herd of elephant. We got lost, ran out of water, got caught in the rain, lost weight and suffered from the tropical heat. We were essentially thrown into a mosh pit of elephant hunting and… we were hooked!
Over the following years we experienced other challenges. An enraged matriarch charged us without provocation. Our PH, with his back literally against a tree, steadfastly stopped the charge. His head-shot to the angry cow was taken at four meters! What had started as a relatively simple quest, to shoot a tuskless cow elephant with a period muzzleloading rifle, essentially took on a life of its own.
First, we needed the correct black powder rifle. A big-bore percussion rifle capable of knocking down an elephant was not one you could order online. The ivory hunters of the past used a minimum of an 8 bore, or .80 caliber. Their rifle of last resort, or “Stopping rifle” was a monstrous sixteen-pound 4 bore, (4 balls per pound, so each of the round ball projectiles weighed one quarter pound). Jim’s mission was to build custom black powder rifles. After considerable research and untold hours of work, he built both rifles, the 8 bore and 4 bore, both in the classic German Jaeger style – full stock rifles – with percussion actions. He also built an 8 bore flintlock rifle for himself.
Moist conditions necessitated keeping powder dry and the rifle barrels moisture free. With the help of a “cow’s knee” over the breach of the muzzleloaders for protection and a finger cot over the barrel, we were successful. Field repairs, what we called, “MacGyver” fixes, raised Jim’s creative gun-building ability to another level. Without specialized black powder rifle-building tools he was limited, but nonetheless he always kept us in the game. A highly recommended new hi-tech projectile turned out to be a disappointment. Jim cut the top of the slug, removed a small ball encased in gel, and filed a fresh tip on the bullet, saving the muzzleloader part of the safari.
More than once we returned home having not fired a shot. Consequently, we critiqued our performance and that of the PH. We were driven back to the drawing board with more research upgrading the rifles and experimenting with new projectiles. Our 8 bore slug now weighed 1,360 grains and was propelled by 270 grains of 2FFG black powder. The 4 bore, or “Big Mack” pushed the quarter pound, one inch diameter ball, with the same charge of 270 grains. The rifles had become very dependable and very capable hunting tools.
In 2015 we had been lucky hunting with our PH Johan on a conventional rifle hunt in a different area of Zimbabwe – our “Safari from Heaven”, taking two tuskless elephant cows with one frontal brain shot each, and two buffalo cows with one shot each. That hunt was the finale of multiple hunts in many of Zimbabwe’s hunting concessions with many different professional hunters, over a period of twenty years! We had been severely skunked, and calculated that the number of days in the bush hunting tuskless cows during those years would exceed 50. Hard to believe, but true.
In an attempt to recreate, “The Safari from Heaven” we booked a rifle hunt with Johan again. This safari would take place in the Dande South area of Zimbabwe. Would it be another bust? Would it be like returning to a fabulous restaurant to experience a memorable meal from the past? Would it be like checking out your high-school girlfriend at a 50-year reunion, and wishing you hadn’t? We had tremendous faith in Johan’s hunting skills and those of his trackers, but in reality, what were the chances of recreating our “Safari from Heaven?”
We had hunted hard for a week. We followed the spoor of many elephants, sometimes finding the animals. We were close and very personal with elephants deep in the bush trying to identify a tuskless cow. Difficult, because of the necessity of checking for a tusk on each side of the animal’s head. We spotted small herds on ridges far away, taking the time to close the gap and look for a tuskless cow. We drove to distant areas, high in the hills of the multi-thousand-hectare concession, hoping to find sign of elephants. We got up earlier each morning, driving to the dry river, attempting to catch elephants returning to the bush after watering in the early hours. We set up lookouts at one area of the riverbank, in touch by radio with Johan at another, hoping to set up an ambush when the elephants crossed the riverbed and headed into the bush to feed. We speculated, strategized, theorized and calculated, all to no avail. All our efforts resulted in seeing one tuskless cow – and she vanished before we could get close enough for a shot.
And now, mid-morning on our last day of our 7-day hunt, Philip the tracker who was leading our team of eight, spotted some unusual spoor from a few yards away. The wide drag marks were etched deeply into the dry sand of the Angwa riverbed. We were about to move from the bush onto the sand, when Philip stopped abruptly and conferred with our PH Johan, and Admire, our second tracker. Their opinion was the same: We were looking at the spoor of an elephant in severe distress. Visually following the spoor to approximately 500 yards down the riverbed, we could see the elephant. Johan raised his binoculars and took a long look.
“The elephant is standing with most of its weight on the left back leg,” he reported. “Something is definitely wrong with the right front leg. Let’s take a closer look.” We slowly closed the gap another two hundred yards on the unsuspecting elephant. Further inspection by Johan described grossly enlarged teats, one almost touching the ground between the elephant’s legs. “Let’s call Parks and Wildlife and report this right now.”
In rural Africa, like many places around the world, cell phone service does not always cooperate. We had to leave the elephant and drive thirty minutes to a high point on a nearby ridge to find reception and make our call. After reporting the details of the distressed elephant, Parks’ response was, “We’ll get back to you.” Unbelievably, they did, but with the caveat that they must also get the permission of the local village Council before giving us the go-ahead to put the animal down. We expected hours of delay, but amazingly Johan’s cell phone rang in just minutes.
“You must take a video of the live animal, the tracks she made from the bush, a field autopsy, and any other documentation you can to verify the need for putting the elephant down. Also, you must deliver all the meat to the local village, and the ivory and skin to the local Parks office.”
We had been charged with a mission of mercy. There would be zero drama in our duty. No ears-back-vengeful charge. No close-quarters shooting in dense bush. Just a purely ethical service provided by hunters when called upon.
Our trip back to the dry river was a quiet one, and our plan was simple. Johan, Jim and I would proceed to the riverbed downwind and behind the old cow, walking quietly and narrowing the gap as close as possible to avoid being seen. Our trackers and game scouts would remain behind.
As we approached the elephant it was obvious how severely distressed she was. The abscessed and swollen gland was huge and almost touched the ground. She carried as much weight as possible on her left leg, trying to relieve the pain of her damaged right leg. We stalked to approximately 30 yards from where she was standing. Sensing something, but not knowing what, she began to swing her head from side to side. Within a few moments she detected us and turned to face the intruders suddenly appearing behind her.
Jim fired first, a frontal brain shot as she stared us down. I followed with a second shot to the brain, and Johan put a third shot into the side of the head as she turned, collapsing on her rear legs. She folded rapidly with a heart/lung shot by Jim, where she had stood in pain an instant before. Our mission was completed in seconds.
Everything had been recorded on video and camera, and now the work of the autopsy and meat recovery began. We documented large, fluid-filled boils that ran from her hip down the length of her right back leg. As we opened her cavity and exposed her vitals, further illness was obvious. She had numerous melon-sized cysts on her intestines. Also, she was on her last set of teeth, and probably 35 to 40 years old. It was obvious she had been very close to death and might have lasted only a few days to a week longer, provided she wasn’t taken first by the lions we had seen in the area.
Our next and very real concern: How safe was the meat we would be delivering to the local village? As we were the last hunters of the season, and the villagers would be approaching a six-month involuntary vegetarian regime, the meat would be highly valued. However, Johan would be responsible if the villagers fell ill due to tainted meat. The Parks and Wildlife game scout couldn’t make a call about the meat, neither could the local Council game scout for fear of losing their jobs.
Sensing an impasse, I cut a small piece of meat from an area of the rear hip, away from any boils, smelled the meat, and ate it. Tough and grainy, it tasted like elephant meat I had eaten in the past, only raw. I felt comfortable enough to call it safe for human consumption. Field test completed! We continued to butcher the old cow and load the meat for transportation to the village. The trunk, as tradition dictates, was taken to the head of the village, as well as the heart, spleen, and other organs. Protein is a valuable commodity, and what was not eaten in the next few days would be salted, dried, and consumed at a future date.
Our humanitarian mission accomplished, though we hadn’t traveled halfway around the world just to put down a sick elephant. Our reason for this hunt had been to take a tuskless cow.
So, did we get skunked again? No way! It was great spending time again with Johan, and his wife and two boys after the hunt. We ate the best biltong ever. Experienced a new hunting area. Felt part of the village, even if it was only for a week. Our team was terrific. Our game scout, a lady and the new face of African women was a devoted professional without losing her charm and wonderful sense of humor. Her Shona name was, Nyaradzo Shiridzinodya, (in English, Memory Birds Can Eat.) Our trackers, Philip and Admire, worked tirelessly to find and follow fresh elephant spoor. Shumba, our local Council game scout, was a quiet presence of security and calmness, always with a smile and ready to help, no matter what the job.
Over the past 25 years Jim and I have hunted for tuskless elephant cows in, Chowari North and South, Omey North and South, Dande North and on this safari, Dande South, as well as other concessions whose names I don’t remember. In over 100-man days of hunting our one lucky tuskless cow safari had been with Johan.
As Johan reminded us when he bid goodbye at the airport, “Hunting can be cruel. Better luck next time.”
Will there be a next time?