Peter Flack | Hunter, Writer, Conservationist, Retired Game Rancher

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August 2011 | Published by African Outfitter

"B" is for Big Botswana Bulls by Peter Flack

I came to elephant hunting quite late as, for about ten years or so, I was stuck in a rut. Buffalo were my passion - some said obsession - and, for a long time, I could not conceive of wanting to hunt anything else. And then when I tried to hunt elephant, I found it much harder than I anticipated. I mean how difficult could it be - I thought initially - to hunt something the size of a double decker bus? Well, it was and especially so when the elephant had to comply with my idea of the ideal trophy - a lone, old bull, out of the breeding cycle, whose tusks (I wasn't so concerned about weight) had to be long, elegant, evenly matched and reaching into the grass at the bull's feet.

Four hunts and 42 hunting days later, I found "my" bull in the Chewore Hills of Zimbabwe with Joe Wright and his marvelous tracker, Magara. It was Jaws the kudu that led us to the bull. A huge 60 inch monster that I would have shot in a heart beat but for Joe threatening to kill me if I so much as dared even think about pulling the trigger. "You have to understand, Pete, that these animals aren't stupid. One shot and the big bulls will emigrate," he insisted. And, as I stumbled along in the kudu's departing wake, with spittle drooling from my chin, his words proved prophetic. We spotted the elephant down in the valley far below. With the naked eye he looked like a charm from a girl's bracelet but, through my 10x25 Leicas, I could see the long, elegant, dark stained tusks disappearing into the grass at his feet. After looking at literally hundreds of elephants over the past three years, I had found "my" bull.

If I say so myself, I shot the old gentleman perfectly. At the end, he may have just become aware that all was not as it should have been, as he shuffled a few paces forward and I had to change my shooting position behind the extended bipod attached to the reinforced front sling swivel of my customized Brno .460. When I let the shot go at about 40 paces, the brain shot pole axed the bull. The force of the bullet, which did not exit by the way, jerked the bull's head violently to the right and pulled him all but off his feet. Instead of falling in his tracks, the bull fell away from the shot on his off side.

It was when I walked up to the bull and took in his huge size, wrinkled suit of clothes, long eye lashes, bald tail and elegant ivory that my emotions almost got the better of me. I could not talk. Nor for that matter could anyone else or, if they could, they were not saying much. In fact, we all stood around the old animal in silence for the longest while, each one of us paying our respects in our individual ways. My own thoughts were filled with awe and wonder with a sense of sadness pervading everything.

At the time, I vowed that this was to be my first and last elephant. As much as I had enjoyed the hunting, probably more than any other kind of hunting I had ever experienced with the possible exception of giant eland hunting, I felt to hunt more than one elephant would be greedy and, in any event, what were the chances of me finding a bull bigger than the 58 x 63 pound bull I had just shot.

It was many years later that the two famous, French, West African PHs, Alain Lefol and Rudy Lubin, changed my mind. Alain started the ball rolling when, on the long, 18 hour drive back to Ndjamena, the capitol of Chad, after he had been stabbed through the forearm by a nomad's spear that, to pass the time, he talked to me about rain forest elephant hunting. To him it was the last great African hunting adventure. There was no way to fake this hunt. It was the genuine article and one of the most exciting things you could do, he said, with your clothes on. When Rudy and his wife, Brooke, came to stay with us in Cape Town not long thereafter and, unsolicited, he repeated the same sentiments, I confess my curiosity was aroused.

My research showed that rain forest elephants differed from their larger savannah cousins in a number of ways. Apart from size, their ears are round and not shaped like the continent of Africa. They have five toe nails per foot not four and their tusks grow down not forwards.

After three days of tracking the same Kamba, as the pygmies call a genuine rain forest bull (loxodonta cyclotis) in the pouring rain in the south eastern corner of Cameroon, I at last understood what they meant. It was without doubt the most inhospitable and dangerous terrain in which I have ever hunted and my respect for Geoffroy de Gentile and his team of well trained pygmy trackers who did this for six consecutive months each year, knew no bounds, especially as their previous leader, Jean Quatre, had been killed by such a bull in the very week before I arrived.

What I remember so clearly about the hunt was what happened after the elephant was down and well and truly dead. The tension of the previous three days was suddenly released and the spontaneous dancing, singing, hugging, clapping and shouting was something I have never experienced before or since. The deep voices of the pygmies as they harmonized on the back of the truck to camp, each taking a turn to sing about some aspect of the hunt before all joined in the chorus, will live with me forever.

And that was enough for me. One each of the two African elephant sub-species. Both excellent bulls - the Kamba weighed 36 pounds per side and, at the time, was the biggest that had been shot in Cameroon for 11 years - especially if you remember that a genuine Kamba weighs just over half what a savannah bull does.

And it was enough until that fateful Dallas Safari Club black tie dinner to announce the winners of both the Capstick and Rowland Ward Literary Awards. I had no intention of bidding on anything at the compulsory after dinner auction but, when the bidding on a Botswana elephant hunt stalled at around half of what I thought it was worth, my right hand acquired a life of its own and, as the Stetson clad auctioneer raised his gavel and started shouting, "Going once ..." it levitated into the air. Within seconds I was the proud owner of the hunt and, by the end of the convention, I had fixed the date to hunt in the north east corner of Botswana, between the Chobe and Botetie Rivers, for the second half of April 2011.

According to all the experts, April was the best month to hunt elephants in Botswana. The summer rains were over but there was still water in some of the pans fed by borehole pumps. "You will see about 20 to 30 bulls a day in the concession and that is just from the car," the outfitter said confidently as he took down my details.

The concession was approximately 300 000 hectares in extent, flat as a pancake and covered in a dense, claustrophobic clutter of six to ten foot high thorn scrub and mopane thickets. It was also all but devoid of game and, over the eight days I was there, my diary records 13 bull elephants, four small herds of cows and calves, four small zebra herds, four groups of giraffe, four wild dogs, three kudu bulls and a group of kudu cows, three dagga boys and about two dozen steinbuck, the latter all along the cut lines demarcating the concession.

The hunt started well, however and, at noon on the first day, we picked up a set of fresh bull tracks - not big but worth following. Two hours later we caught up to not one but three bulls dozing in a small clump of camel thorn trees. An inadvertent sneeze by our game scout - the first female one I have ever encountered - alerted the bulls and, as they swung around to face us, trunks periscoping up to try and detect our scent, I was reminded how huge these Botswana bulls are. My .416 Rigby started to shrink in my hands and I wondered how I could have been so stupid as to leave my .460 at home.

The next day was more of the same but it was clear that fresh bull elephant tracks were few and far between. In fact, we travelled nearly 350 kilometres over the two days and found just two sets of fresh tracks. The third day was even worse and we found not one. What was the reason?

The concession was bordered to the south and north by hunting concessions, to the west by a game ranch, a cattle farm and another hunting concession and to the east be Nxai Pan National Park. These concessions have had their elephant quotas substantially increased since elephant hunting first re-opened in 1996 and I wondered whether this had not been overdone. The quota in the concession where I hunted had been increased over the years from six to 23. Having said that, Botswana still has the best average annual tusk weight (51 1/2 pounds in 2010), of any African country and last year produced its first 100 pounder for many a year from the Mobabe concession leased by Johan Calitz.

We had unseasonal rain off and on throughout the hunt and the concession received over an inch of rain which filled up the pans and just about any little hollow, which could have accounted for the lack of game as they could drink just about anywhere. But it was not only us who were battling to find elephants but the two other PHs and their clients who we bumped into while hunting.

There was a third possible reason. There are no takers in and around the concession for elephant meat and so the carcasses are buried, or I should say, meant to be buried. There was a TLB (tractor, loader, backhoe) for this purpose but it had broken down some weeks previously and not been fixed. The previous two hunters had shot four elephants in four days - why anyone would want to do this is beyond me - and, while the one carcass was partially cremated, the others were not properly buried and the stench wafted across the concession driven there by the prevailing easterly wind.

As Joe Wright said so many years ago, elephant are not stupid and, between the volleys of shots and stench, they had got the message. It was open season on elephants and they were not going to hang around.

What to do? No-one had a plan so it was down to pounding the beat. All told, we drove some 1 300 kilometres over the eight days of the hunt - over 150 kilometres a day - looking for fresh tracks. In other words, we spent six to seven hours of our 12 hour hunting days bumping over the increasingly rutted, soft, grey, Kalahari sand tracks. The rest of the time we followed any bull track we came across - 13 in all. Not one of those we caught up to caused the needle of our trophy gauge to even so much as flicker. They were all young bulls - with short and/or thin ivory - which would have been illegal to shoot. Ivory below 11 kilograms per side is forfeited to the government.

What I can say is that I found the stalks both interesting and exciting. It reminded me a bit of my youth when on Sundays we would walk up to the corner green grocer and buy Lucky Packets with our pocket money. You never knew what was going to be inside. Mostly we were disappointed but there was always the chance that next Sunday was going to be different.

And even though we were disappointed time and again, the closing moments of the stalks were filled with tension. I say this not to try and pretend there was a false or exaggerated sense of danger (although you always need to be careful when in close proximity to big game), but because the PHs and trackers were united in their view that, over the last few years, the elephants had become increasingly aggressive. So much so that, when elephant bulls were spotted from the vehicle and we needed to stalk in to view the tusks - the vegetation was too thick to do so from the vehicle - Robert Ramajaga, our Botswana PH and the two trackers would do so on their own. The reason being that, on a number of occasions, bulls had charged and, when an elephant was shot under these circumstances, the game scouts would sometimes wrongly attribute the shooting to the client and deduct it from his licence. If the client was not there, this could not happen and so the client was only called forward if one of the trackers returned with the news that the bull was a possible shooter. No one said so but I guessed that, in addition, in fraught situations like this, many a client, myself included, could sometimes be more of a hindrance than a help.

In fact, on the very next elephant hunt, a huge bull mock charged Campbell's vehicle as they approached the small pan where it was drinking. Unable to see the tusks clearly through the thick mopane scrub, when it turned away, a tracker, Marman, ran after it and the elephant, on becoming aware of him, instantly reversed course and tried to catch him. He ran back to the vehicle and, when the client shot the bull to save Marman, it was so close he had to aim six inches BELOW the eyeline to hit the brain.

The days ticked by. It was hot and humid. Nothing was working. I consoled myself with the thought, however, that the worst day's hunting was still better than the best day at the office. And, despite the conditions, we were hunting well. No mistakes. Campbell Smith, my South African PH and Robert had hunted together for nigh on 25 years and, with our two trackers, Marman Jems and Doms Muyenga, formed a well oiled, highly experienced and proficient machine. Marman, a Bushman from Ghanzi in the Kalahari, was particularly skillful and experienced and had wonderful eyes, ears and sense of smell.

By day eight, however, I had resigned myself to going home without an elephant and was absolutely at peace with the fact. I mean it. I was. The day started like all the others before it, except this time Robert persuaded Campbell to head to the south eastern corner of the concession which had no water and consisted of more open grassland terrain. Within an hour of leaving camp we picked up the fresh tracks of two bulls. Not big but, as everyone knows, track size is not always indicative of big ivory. Within an hour we had caught the two who were meandering along feeding at the same time while covering ground at an astonishing pace all the same. As usual, we did not hang about once we determined that these bulls were not for me.

Well, what was for me? For starters, I did not want to shoot an elephant smaller than the one I had, which set the bar at 65 pounds minimum. Thus far, from the start of the season, no-one had seen an elephant that met, let alone beat, this minimum. But, given the neighbouring national park, it was always possible that a big bull could walk in from there or the concession to the south which was unoccupied. I was told it had been leased by a South African outfitter for some R1,7 million. He had come in at the beginning of the season, shot all 12 bulls on quota and left with the ivory and without paying for the lease!

Robert's tap on the cab roof took me by surprise. For the umpteenth time I climbed out of the car in time to see a small herd of cows and calves, ears and tails flapping madly as they hurried across the track in front. The rear was brought up by a stroppy young bull who shook his head and started towards us but, seeing we were not to be intimidated, soon turned and ran after the herd. I would have been a touch embarrassed if I had been him.

When Campbell dropped down off the roof where he had stood to have a better view, he said, "There's a bull way off to the south that I think we should go and have a look at." Despite my questions, he would not be drawn on the size of the tusks other than to say that the bull had a very big body.

When Marman eventually picked up the tracks it was clear to me that this was the biggest set we had found to date and I immediately noticed a quickening of interest from the team. Much later, coming up a slight rise, we spotted the bull in open grassland walking diagonally away from us with that deceptively lazy walk of theirs that requires you to run if you want to keep pace. As he swung slightly to the right, I saw the right hand tusk and my breath caught in my throat. This was the one! We all stood and had a good look. How big, I asked? Marman answered first, "About 70 pounds". Robert's answer was 69 to 70 and Campbell, traditionally the most conservative, would not be drawn and would only say, "More than 65."

There was no time to waste. Even as we stood and speculated, the bull had grown noticeably smaller. The elephant continued to meander westwards without feeding and we made a series of semi-circles downwind. Each time we backed off, bent double to hide behind the thinning vegetation and jogged forward. Each time, as he came into view, the PHs stopped to check the bull through their binos and, by the time they were satisfied, he was ahead of us again. I remember thinking, "The wretched tusks aren't going to grow any bigger no matter how hard you squeeze those binoculars" but kept my thoughts to myself even though I had started to worry about what would happen if he became aware of us.

Then we had a stroke of luck. An elephant cow and calf appeared out of nowhere and the bull, which was in musth, stopped to investigate the two. The cow must not have been in oestrous as, after a cursory examination, he turned away and resumed his westward course. By now we had run out of cover. The cow and calf had drawn the bull further north and, when he turned to the west again, he was about 70 metres away, slightly below and ahead of us but stationary, sideways on and seemingly deep in thought. In fact, he was listening and smelling. He must have just become aware that something was amiss. We had no time to lose. Grass and low shrubs covered his lower legs and belly and, for some reason, my initial decision to take the safe shot in the crease behind the shoulder, deserted me and, when Marman put up the two-legged shooting sticks, my focus changed. I was very excited and had to take a few deep breaths, wind my 1,5-6x42 Zeiss Diavari from two to six and grab a hold of myself. The crosshairs jitterbugged then settled and, with that, the shot flowed down the barrel.

I was in time to see the bull's back legs cave in and his head flick up before gravity took over and he thudded noiselessly onto the soft sand at his feet. It was as if someone had shaken a giant, thick, grey hosepipe to get rid of the kinks in it. I stood transfixed before Robert broke the spell and hurried me forward to place an insurance shot through the top of the head and, to my surprise, found the bull had fallen away from us and not dropped in his tracks as so often seems to happen with brain shot bulls.

As I stood next to this my third and last elephant, emotion washed over and through me. He was huge. I felt puny and irrelevant standing next to him in the silence that a newly dead elephant seems always to command. Through the silence, I could hear the door of my hunting career, such as it has been, creaking slowly closed.

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