Into the big herds!
By Craig Boddington
The buffaloes we could see were starting to lie down on the far side of a short-grass savanna. Egrets swooping over sawgrass beyond indicated it was a large herd, only a portion in view…but how many buffaloes do you need? We ran out of cover at three hundred yards, good breeze in our faces. Protected with gloves and kneepads, we went on hands and knees and crawled straight in.
It seemed there was no cover at all, but then a last few scraggly tufts of weeds stood above the rest. PH Mark Haldane, in the lead, flashed a quick grin. “Time to leopard-crawl!” he said, as we crabbed our way from one sparse clump to another. We kept at it, gaining a few yards at a time and going to ground when a sharp-eyed cow got suspicious.
The buffaloes were spread in a crescent like a Zulu impi regiment, horns to our right and left, advance guard to our front, loins still hidden with swooping egrets behind them. We had reached the center, the nearest buffaloes forty yards to our front, tips of the horns a hundred yards to either side. There were no mature bulls among the closest buffaloes…but one cow had us and was playing the “look away” game. She would casually turn away, then snap her head back to see if anything had changed.
Off to the right, near the tip of impi’s left “horn,” a beautiful bull lay peacefully ruminating. With heavy bosses and tips starting to wear, he was easily the biggest and oldest bull we could see…and we were running out of time. It was inevitable that they would soon spook, so it was decision time. Flat on our bellies now, we picked a spot a few yards to our right and low-crawled to clear some weeds. The old bull was still bedded at about eighty yards, but now the sticks were spread low, nothing but a flat putting green between us. In time he would stand and offer a calm, unhurried shot…and he did.
At the shot I expected pandemonium and we got it…plus a whole lot more! Instead of retreating into the sawgrass, the group to our front broke to our right and headed out across an endless open plain. The stricken bull tried to stay with them, fell behind, offered a second shot, and was down in the short grass. And then curiously, instead of retreating deeper into safe cover, the unseen buffaloes trooped out of the sawgrass in ranks before us, passed our downed bull, and drifted slowly away.
I suppose we’d had three hundred buffaloes in front of us. In coastal Mozambique’s Coutada 11 this is not a large herd, but we’d assumed we were looking at the main herd with stragglers beyond. Now, as buffaloes streamed out of the sawgrass, we understood how wrong we had been. Just how many buffaloes might there be in a packed phalanx stretching nearly a mile from front to van, half a dozen buffaloes deep? We couldn’t count them, and no camera could encompass this endless black line. I figured minimum 2500 buffaloes, possibly three thousand.
MIRACLE IN MARROMEU
The Marromeu complex is essentially the delta of the Zambezi. Epicenter is the Marromeu Reserve stretching south from Marromeu town and reaching tidewater to the east. The reserve is a flat and seasonally flooded expanse of papyrus-lined channels and sawgrass flats interspersed with short-grass savannas. Surrounding the swamps proper is a huge floodplain; beyond lie a few million acres of miombo woodland. Bordering the unhunted reserve to south, west, and northwest are hunting areas Coutadas 10, 11, and 14, with Coutada 12 just inland of 11.
Mozambique was long famous for its wildlife, but Portuguese control was loose in the interior and it was a choice haunt of ivory poachers, including famous names such as Ian Nyschens and John Taylor. Safari hunting opened in 1959, grinding to a halt in about 1973 with the Portuguese pullout and the beginning of the long civil war. The swamps of the Zambezi Delta were difficult to hunt, but the area was known for its concentration of buffalo and was a favorite hunting ground of John F. Burger (Horned Death, 1947), who shot Marromeu buffaloes to feed workers on nearby sugar plantations.
In 1970 it was estimated that Marromeu held 40,000 buffalo, probably long overpopulated and known for small, stunted bulls. During the civil war wildlife was used to feed both sides. Worse, helicopter gunships strafed buffalo herds, picked up the carcasses, and whisked them off to Russian refrigerator ships anchored offshore. A peace accord was reached in 1992 and intrepid outfitters started to move back in. Mark Haldane’s Zambeze Delta Safaris (ZDS) has been in place in Coutada 11 since this new beginning, but the wildlife was in tatters. Only 1200 buffalo remained. Existence of cover-loving antelopes like nyala and suni was in question, and less than fifty sable remained. Those first few seasons were lean, but with conservative management and investment in anti-poaching the buffaloes prospered…as have most other species.
The most recent aerial survey counted 25,000 buffalo in and around the Marromeu Reserve. Sable antelope run about 4000. Nyala, waterbuck, and Lichtenstein’s hartebeest have similarly flourished, and the rare Selous zebra, as few as 20 in 1990, now exceed 500. Interestingly, instead of small, ugly buffaloes, today the herds contain beautiful bulls. Supported almost entirely by safari outfitters and their hunters, the Marromeu complex is truly a miracle of what can be achieved in wild Africa.
BETTER AND BETTER!
I “discovered” coastal Mozambique nearly fifteen years ago and have since hunted there almost annually. I have hunted all the Coutadas surrounding Marromeu, but have spent the most time in Coutada 11, which holds perhaps the best combination of swamp, floodplain, and woodland habitats. For forty years my track record has been to “hunt and peck” across Africa. I’ve hunted many African areas a few times, but it’s uncharacteristic for me to spend as much time as I have in the Zambezi Delta. It holds no animals I haven’t hunted, no trophies I desire to improve upon. But I keep returning because, so uniquely in wild Africa today, I see it getting better and better. There are noticeably more nyala, waterbuck, and eland than a decade ago. As often happens with many animal populations, growth is slow and steady…and then a mysterious tipping point is reached. In the last few years I’ve seen Lichtenstein’s hartebeest grow exponentially, and the smaller animals are also exploding: Reedbuck and warthogs, and the little guys: Suni, blue duiker, red duiker, and oribi.
Mostly, it’s the swamp buffalo that bring me back! Although we encounter bachelor groups, in this area mature bulls seem to stay with the herds. Or, put another way, most herds contain bulls of all ages, and somewhere in the press there will be hard-bossed bulls. Hunting bachelor groups is fun, but prowling the edges of Mozambique’s big herds is an amazing experience!
It is not “traditional” buffalo hunting in that there’s little tracking. You can, and will track if needed…the passage of several hundred buffalo isn’t hard to follow…but most frequently you are glassing for white cattle egrets that circle every buffalo herd. The birds are often visible at a mile, sometimes more. This is when the swamp buffalo hunt really begins!
The papyrus swamps and sawgrass flats are a different world, and not for everyone. For a decade I’ve taken a camp in Coutada 11 and filled it with friends (old and new). Not everyone loves the swamp as much as I do! It’s a harsh area: No shade, temps about 50 degrees Celsius on clear days. Decomposing swamp stinks as you traverse the channels. Fortunately, it’s not particularly buggy…until dusk, and then hungry mosquitoes threaten to carry you away.
The swamp hunting has progressed, greatly aided by increased buffalo numbers! Some of the PHs who were there at the start remember accessing the swamps by foot safari and dugout canoe. In the Eighties I did that in the Okavango, but those were clear-flowing channels! I have accessed the Marromeu swamps on foot (with lots of porters for meat recovery) in Coutada 14 (tough!), and by Argo. In Coutada 11 Mark Haldane and brother Glen hit upon the amphibious Hogland BV, a monstrous tracked Swedish military vehicle designed for tundra. The intent was not to make things easier for old guys like me, (honest!) but to facilitate full meat recovery. So, today, we swim across the papyrus channels in the BVs. Typically, we go in teams, at least two hunters/PHs and two BVs. If things go well, we come out of the swamps with two buffalo bulls…and the articulated trailer behind the BV can carry three.
Tracks of the several hundred (and increasing) buffaloes in the miombo forest may be found and followed on any day, but “swamp days” are in rotation. Because of numbers and mature bulls within the herds, some success is expected on swamp days—but never assured. So, try again! I was with my friend John Stucker, who shot a brilliant swamp buffalo in ’16. He commented that I was either tough or nuts, making repeat trips out there. Yep, true enough, I like it. On my annual ten-day Mozambique hunt I’ll usually go to the swamps three or four times.
EVERY DAY IS DIFFERENT
That massive herd I described was unusual. Even Haldane, who has been there for twenty-five years, described it as the largest herd he has ever seen…and it’s the biggest concentration of buffalo I’ve ever seen. Two days later we couldn’t find it again, so we assume it was a temporary gathering of several herds…but who knows?
Movement in and out of the reserve depends on rains and grass but after a normal rainy season bigger herds start to appear later in the season, September and on through October. “Average” herds are into the few hundreds. Most herds will hold mature bulls, but in herds it’s very difficult to see all the bulls. Typically, the swamps dry out a bit later in the season—but the channels hold water throughout, and it very much depends on the year. When Haldane and I got into that big herd, it was the very rare (and long-remembered) “foot-dry” buffalo hunt…but don’t be counting on that! In recent years we’ve gotten rain in September and October, and the short-grass savannas were covered with an inch of water!
As with most hunting, you don’t really know exactly what you might run into. Except …the swamps are buffalo country, and there isn’t much else out there! Once in a while, warthogs or bushpigs will ruin a stalk, and every year there are a few more waterbuck and reedbuck ‘way out there, but mostly buffalo…and mostly in big herds. A while back, with Swift Bullets’ Bill Hober, we almost drove over a couple of old bachelor bulls in thick sawgrass—one was irritated enough to charge the BV, impacting right where Bill was sitting.
Another time, hunting with my friend Zack Aultman from Georgia, we crawled through muddy sawgrass for a couple hundred yards and were looking over a herd when a lone (and very nice) bull detached from the sawgrass we’d just crawled through, and sauntered into the herd. Zack shot him, and I was happy we hadn’t blundered into him when we were on hands and knees! Several times, sitting on the BV while other hunters stalked herds, I’ve seen lone bulls cruising. So dagga bulls are out there…but without luck, I don’t know how you could reliably hunt them. We can find the big herds, and the herds contain good bulls…so we hunt the herds.
SORTING THE HERDS
Ten years ago, I would have said coastal Mozambique was a great place to hunt buffalo…but not necessarily a great place to look for a big bull. There has always been the occasional outsized bull, but most buffaloes taken are just nice, mature bulls. Perhaps this is true everywhere but, slowly over time, I think quality is improving. Every year we see—and pass—awesome youngsters that need another year or two. And, every year, a few more great bulls are taken. I don’t think the area will see a time when the “average” buffalo is a hard-bossed bull exceeding forty inches—if such an area exists—but such bulls are there. In October 2016, hunting with several friends, we had a magical week for big bulls. On the same day John Stucker and Tim Lesser took “cookie cutter” bulls in the low forties with big bosses; later in the hunt Paul Cestoni took another big bull, Donna got her best swamp buffalo, and I got a very fine bull out of the same herd. Our average for that week was spectacular!
Come to think of it, in October 2018 my daughter Brittany’s fiancé, Brad Jannenga, shot a beautiful forty-two-inch bull…and a couple days later I took a fine bull right at forty. So, I suppose our average on that hunt would have been pretty awesome as well…but I wouldn’t count on it every time! In those big herds we probably don’t always (or often!) see all the bulls. Also, getting a glimpse of a big bull isn’t the same as getting a shot. They keep mixing and shifting…and sorting them out is a large part of the fun.
Often, this is also the difficult part. Hundreds of black buffaloes in harsh light, no landmarks, a bull seen for an instant, then lost again in the press. It doesn’t work to say, “Can you see the hundredth buffalo from the right?” Even though distances are short, optics are important. “Can you see that cow in the middle with the egret on her back? Go two to her left, see the small calf…there’s a big bull just behind it.” This can go on and on, and is often frustrating but that’ s part of the deal. Sometimes there’s no shot—or there isn’t a suitable bull. You crawl some more…or you go look for another herd!
BRING ON THE LIONS!
By older accounts, in the Sixties there were a lot of lions. After the civil war there were almost none and, although the occasional lion passes through, unlike all other species the lions have not increased. Absence of lions probably has something to do with how well the buffaloes have prospered…and almost certainly has much to do with how calm these buffaloes are! Even so, wild Africa needs lions and this has been a glaring gap in what is otherwise a magnificent slice of African wilderness.
This gap is now closed. Funded by Mary Cabela, her son Dan Cabela, and the Cabela Family Foundation, in 2018 two dozen wild lions from various South African Parks were flown into Coutada 11, habituated, and released. This was the largest international transfer of lions in history…and a huge effort by hunters, purely for conservation. When I was there in late October the lions had been roaming the floodplain unrestricted for several weeks. They had split into several small prides, and were making natural kills—mostly reedbuck and warthog, and the odd hartebeest. Even more promising, videographer Bill Owens was present when a wild Mozambican male—one of the few local lions that come and go—joined one of the prides.
Lions don’t like to get their feet wet, so it may be a while before the swamp buffaloes have to re-learn how to deal with lions. For sure, they have already changed the way we blithely stroll along the floodplain! And at night, the Marromeu complex will once again be part of wild Africa…where lions roar.