A Sinners’ Safari in the Okavango Delta
Verrill: You’re either crazy, or the most egocentric, irresponsible son-of-a-bitch that I have ever met. You’re about to blow this whole picture out of your nose, John. And for what? To commit a crime. To kill one of the rarest, most noble creatures that roams the face of this crummy earth. And in order to commit this crime, you’re willing to forget about all of us and let this whole god damn thing go down the drain.
Wilson: “You’re wrong, kid. It’s not a crime to kill an elephant. It’s bigger than all that. It’s a sin to kill an elephant. Do you understand? It’s a sin. The only sin that you can buy a license and go out to commit. That’s why I want to do it before I do anything else in this world. Do you understand me? Of course you don’t. How could you? I don’t understand it myself.”
‘John Wilson’ (a thinly disguised John Huston) from Clint Eastwood’s 1990 film ‘White Hunter Black Heart’
Today safaris are big business in Africa. It seems that every well-heeled university graduate or young professional sees a ‘safari experience’ as one of those things to tick-off from his or her list of things to do, while gaining the obligatory portfolio of ‘life experiences’ in order to show in their CV that they are well-rounded individuals who have seen something of the world. However, ‘safari’ today is a word that most people attach to a guided tour of a game reserve or a photographic experience attached to a safe, modern base camp, from which daily sight-seeing excursions provide an up-close experience of the animals that are now so familiar from our TV screens.
The wonder of Africa is undisputed and the conservation of her natural habitat and species is the concern of every thoughtful ‘world citizen’. The tented, on-foot, months-long, kill what you eat, extended safaris of John ‘Pondoro’ Taylor, Walter ‘Karamojo’ Bell, James Sutherland, Blaine Percival and their like have been consigned to the dustbin of history in the minds of many, if not most, modern African travellers. Today a ‘safari’ is undertaken from luxurious camps with photography as the main goal. Timid excursions from vehicles or short ventures into the bush under close supervision are the order of the day.
It was not always thus: between 1890 and World War 2, the heart of Africa was still being awakened by the encroachment of white Europeans, and the quest for ivory drove some of these great men of their time (for we cannot fairly judge their exploits with modern views of morality, based on hindsight) to magnificent feats of personal courage, organisation and achievement. Entering the great wilderness with little more than ambition, pluck and a rifle, they made fortunes for themselves by living off their wits and opening huge expanses of untamed territory, where the great herds of game roamed in seemingly inexhaustible quantities.
The tales of these men live-on in their writings like the 1926 classic ‘The Wanderings of an Elephant Hunter’ by Walter Bell and 1947’s ‘African Rifles and Cartridges’ by John Taylor. However, their world has long gone and 21st century critics see their combined slaughter of thousands of elephants for the prized ivory as a shameful period of European pillage. Reading their books provides a better perspective but one cannot deny one’s uneasiness, naturally felt, at the image of corpse after gargantuan corpse rotting in the African sun, having been stripped of its prized tusks and left, worthless and wasted, where it fell.
Men like Taylor and Bell lived in their time and their tales of the thrills of life in the bush, far from civilisation, with only firelight and rifle to keep away the beasts of the night still stir the blood of some men as powerfully as they repulse others.
Is there still a place for the elephant hunter in modern Africa? Are those who pursue these magnificent beasts, of which we now understand much more, in terms of their social structures, intelligence, nervous systems and lifestyles than ever before, at all justified in wanting their small piece of 19th century adventure? Is hunting the ‘big tusker’ today truly a ‘sin’ or does it provide the true hunter with a rare and beautiful opportunity to, once again, tread in the footsteps of the Victorian adventurer and taste the essence of life by challenging the biggest animal treading the earth to mortal combat on his own turf?
This is the story of my own adventure into the heart of Botswana to discover the truth. I knew nothing of elephant hunting and little of Africa before embarking on this journey but I was certain that eighteen days in April would teach me a little about both and a good deal more about myself. Perhaps I would uncover something in my rendezvous with a bull elephant in the dark heart of Africa that would, in turn, reveal either light or darkness within my own heart. It was not a road to be travelled lightly.
As a confirmed bird shooter I was in something of a quandary when Michael’s invitation arrived on my desk one morning in late January 2008. ‘Have booked an elephant hunt in the Okavango Delta and paid for an observer – would you like to come?’
I ignored it and trawled through some more messages; dealing with those related to work and noting others for later attention. My gun dealing business had started to encroach on my work as Academic Director of Golders Green College, a nicely self-contained English language school in north London. Following what would be described in a press conference as ‘a frank exchange of views’ with the owner over Christmas, I was mindful that I needed to separate personal and work related activities more carefully. I was slightly edgy as a result.
Consequently, I pushed the invitation to the back of my mind and it was not until the next day that it returned to my thoughts and I re-read it in my office over a paper cup brimming with an overpriced café latte. My musings reached the point where they called for action – I called my mate Kiri Kythreotis. I knew Kiri to be a keen hunter of African plains game (also knew that his desk in the City was not overburdened with work thanks to the sudden economic downturn) and asked if he had heard of this ‘something-or-other delta’ in Botswana; I had not yet committed its name to memory.
Kyri knew it very well indeed, by reputation. “Oh mate, you have to go; that’s the best place to hunt on the planet”. Kiri was most animated and immediately began bashing his keyboard to get some of his African hunting references on screen. “Who are you going with? Mark Kyriakou? He was with Safari South, he’s a legend”. With no serious work on offer, Kiri was most animated in finding out more about where I was headed. He had by now decided I was going. I was not so sure but I was starting to think about it.
Further calls followed: first to my father, who has been everywhere, from the Galapagos Islands, to Antarctica to the Amazon Basin. It was a good bet he had been there and, indeed, he had. He was not especially impressed with the elephant shooting part but was hugely enthusiastic about the Okavango Delta “The best place to see game in Africa – and make sure you go after the tiger fish”. “So, you think I should go?” I asked. “Absolutely, it will be the trip of a lifetime”. He replied. Back to Kiri: “Oh mate … it’s a no-brainer. You have to go. I’m so jealous I want to kill you!” By now Kiri was pestering me about our professional hunter “Clive Eaton, yeah, great reputation, you’ll be in good hands there”.
Until then I had assumed I would not go, I was just going through the motions of ‘due dilligence’. I run all the academic programmes at the college and, generally, don’t take more than the odd day off. This suits me and the college. I go shooting on a Wednesday in the season and, therefore, have a day off every couple of weeks. I get mid-week shooting and the college gets a steady hand on the reigns and continuity. It suits us both.
Besides, I hate ‘holidays’ in the conventional sense. Without something to do, I’m bored within the space of a long weekend and detest the enforced relaxation that such holidays imply. I become frustrated and stupid (losing my wallet in Cuba and leaving my luggage in the airport in Barbados).
My early life saw me on extended wanderings in Europe, India and Thailand and this always seemed to me the only way to travel: if you can’t take six months, don’t bother. This philosophy ensured that I had not been on a break of more than five days in ten years.
Now, it began to look as though I should be considering this trip as a real possibility. Michael needed the courtesy of a prompt answer at the very least so I had to tackle the issue sharpish. A word with the boss followed and he was surprisingly positive about the idea. He felt I should take a ‘proper holiday’ like a normal human being. The other ‘boss’ was also positive when I broached the subject; “Good, I’ll go to India and do yoga” she said. This has since become a running joke among friends; “Dig and Federica are going on holiday in April.” “Oh, where?” “Well, Dig is going to Africa and Federica is going to India!” For some reason they think this rather an odd state of affairs.
I was running out of excuses so, after a bit of thought I replied to Michael by e-mail: ‘I can get the time off. I’m in; are you sure about this?’ Michael was sure; he even went as far as saying he was ‘thrilled’ I was coming and sent me details of Hunters’ Support to get the requisite licences for the shotgun and ammunition I planned to take to knock over the odd guinea fowl along the way. Then followed the airline tickets to Johannesburg and on to Maun in Botswana: once they were paid for, it all started to look real, rather than distant or hypothetical.
A trip to the doctor to get jabs for typhoid and Hepatitis followed but advice from my sister-in-law (a G.P) to take Malaria tablets fell on deaf ears. I had previously spent ten years living in the tropics in India, Thailand and Malaysia and never bothered. Keep on long sleeves in the evening and slap on a bit of Autan and the mozzies generally stay away. I should be able to manage eighteen days. Besides, anti-malarial tablets invariably make me throw-up in the morning, like a pregnant woman.
So, who was this ‘Michael’ I mentioned earlier? The Magwitch to my Pip in this hunting Great Expectations that I was suddenly to be a part of? We had met a year earlier.
My writings for the American quarterly The Double Gun Journal led to a phone call asking me to find a .410 hammer gun. The caller was Michael Joseph, an airline pilot from San Antonio, Texas. He was hugely enthusiastic about the project and when I found him the gun, an Army & Navy, at Sotheby’s that March and bought it for him, then managed the refurbishment to a very high standard, Michael was even more excited.
Project completed, he came to meet me to collect his gun and we went pigeon shooting in Oxfordshire, bagging 97, and followed that with some driven partridge shooting at my regular shoot in Hertfordshire. Michael loved the experience; “This is big fun” becoming his well-worn catch phrase for the week.
Michael began his working life as a special agent working for the US Government. There he learned to fly and, no doubt, developed a taste for derring-do and travel. Now, well-settled into a lucrative second profession and domiciled in his self-built ranch in Texas, with a friendly oil company topping-up his income via exploratory drilling, Michael is well able to fund such projects as please him. He has no family ties, being divorced and free from the constraints that children impose and being a free spirit, he organises adventures that test his mettle against whatever nature can offer. Among these is flying across America in his 1960s single-engine, propeller-driven plane. He also hunts dangerous game.
Michael prepared by hunting a mountain lion on foot with an ordinary bow and arrow, finally killing his beast with a heart shot after hours of tracking it in deep show at high altitude. Treeing the big cat and considering his shot, Michael confessed to almost being unable to take it. “I’ll never hunt lion again” he told me, reflecting the dilemma of many hunting men when, following the trials and tribulations of the hunt, they are faced with pulling the trigger on a beautiful creature after a connection between hunter and hunted has developed during the pursuit. The end is bitter-sweet for most true sportsmen and many a hunter has reached the point in his life where he can no longer do it and he hangs up his gun for the last time.
My preparations were a good deal more mundane and consisted of preparing my mind rather than my body. I had to find out what this elephant hunting lark was all about. As I have said before, I am a bird shooter by inclination. I am reasonably capable with a shotgun and can hold my own with a .22 rifle when crawling the hedges in summer on rabbit shooting expeditions, or when shooting them from a quad bike or Land Rover, when lamping at night. I have also shot the odd fox in the same manner with a .243 at ranges out to around 180 yards.
I am familiar with large calibre rifles and have helped set-up such things with friends before their own African adventures. The formidable .416 Rigby being the most powerful rifle with which I have yet become acquainted. However, I do not consider myself a regular or expert rifle shot.
I have many opportunities to shoot deer, should I wish to do so. We have muntjac in the woods at our Hertfordshire shoot and Kiri has invited me numerous times to shoot fallow or roe in Kent. It has never really appealed and I have, at the time of writing, never shot a deer. In fact, I have never shot anything larger than a fox.
So, how do I feel about moving from rabbit to elephant in one enormous leap? OK, so I won’t be pulling the trigger but I will be a part of the hunt, following Michael’s every footstep right up to the fatal bullet placement. I will also probably have the opportunity to drop the odd antelope for the pot during our three weeks in the bush. I’m fine with the antelope; I figure they are the African equivalent of rabbits and if I shoot within my capabilities, I should have no problems humanely killing any of the species likely to be encountered with a well-placed shot. If I can head-shoot a rabbit at 60 yards, I should be able to connect with the vitals on an antelope at 100. Just to be sure, I studied ‘Doctari’s’ ‘The Perfect Shot’ to give me the confidence to put the bullet in the right place, whatever beast I should find myself viewing through the cross-hairs.
These were peripheral thoughts though. The central theme was that we were deliberately going abroad (at great expense to Michael) to find and kill the biggest land mammal on the planet. Was this admirable? Was it ethical? Was it dangerous? Was it morally defensible? Rather like Verrill in Clint Eastwood’s film ‘White Hunter Black Heart’, a quote from which is the starting point of this book, all these questions ran through my mind. I had no Wilson (Eastwood’s character) to bounce these questions off so I thought I had better look into the mechanics of elephant hunting and see what I was in for; and into the ethical questions surrounding sustainable herds, limited living space and issues relating to the killing of ‘endangered species’.
I wondered whether there were parallels with the management of deer herds in Scotland and England. Here the deliberate and sustained shooting of thousands of deer every year is absolutely required in order to minimise degradation of habitat for deer and other species and to manage the inevitable disease epidemics that run rife in un-managed and over-populated areas. For deer, a programme of shooting maintains a healthy and manageable population in our small island. I wondered; was the same true of elephants in Africa?
Most people I know think elephant shooting is illegal. The international ban on the trade in ivory products has led to a general perception that there are hardly any elephants left in the wild and that killing one must be morally corrupt and against all the laws concerning wildlife that the international community has enacted over the past twenty years.
I started to research the data available on the African elephant to see the ‘lie of the land’ with regard to elephant populations and the part that trophy hunting currently plays in helping or hindering their well-being. Estimates for Africa suggest that Southern Africa holds between 246,000 and 300,000 elephants, Eastern Africa has at least 118,000 elephants, and possibly 163,000, Central Africa, has large areas of unprotected elephant range and somewhere between 16,500 and 196,000 animals and West Africa holds between 5,500 elephants, and 13,200. Botswana today, I am assured, is home to some 200,000 elephants and what shocked me was the estimate that the habitat available was capable of sustaining only 40,000 before environmental degradation was the inevitable consequence.
Some of these figures are pretty sketchy and it seems that the methods used for counting and estimating elephant numbers in Africa are not very reliable. There is no doubt that African elephant numbers, estimated to be 10 million in the late 1700s, had plummeted to dangerous levels by the 1980s and international conventions led to a ban on the sale of ivory products in 1989 to try and arrest the devastation caused by poaching. In 1999 Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa were allowed to sell-off some stockpiles of ivory and it is generally recognised that the populations of elephant in these countries are now largely resurgent due to good conservation efforts and the decline in poaching.
Kenya, one major country to ban all sport hunting, immediately saw an increase in poaching and decimation of all its major species as a direct result. Elsewhere, hunting provides local people with a source of valuable income. If they poach the wildlife the short term gain to a few individuals is set against major income for whole communities. Social pressure in areas where sport hunting pays big bucks is firmly in favour of protecting the game. Besides, why poach an elephant for meat for your village if someone is prepared to come and pay you $20,000 to shoot it and then gives you the meat as well?
Now, the ethical and practical debates that have surrounded the hunting of large beasts over the last fifty years are many and complex but they can be summarised in a few paragraphs by examining the essays of a few key writers on the subject. I shall do my best to this end in the coming pages:
Trophy hunting is largely vilified by the wider public, reflecting the natural reactions of my close friends and family, including many of those who shoot large numbers of birds, rabbits and deer. Academia mirrored this attitude for much of the last 20 years, for example, Vitali, writing in 1990, was typically critical of trophy hunters and the negative impact they had on animal populations. He noted that the trophy hunter shot the better looking animals; the better the specimen, the more likely he was to shoot it. This action, he claims, leads to an inevitable decline in the presence of ‘genetically prime animals’. Natural predation conversely tends to remove the sick, old and weak, therefore ensuring that the best bloodlines become dominant in a population. Uncontrolled hunting in the past has, Vitali believes, led to poorer genetic populations being present in many habitats today.
So, is the hunting of a ‘big tusker’ depriving the gene pool of its prime blood-stock and weakening future generations? Hunters argue this is not the case in managed trophy hunts because the targeted animals for the trophy hunter, carrying big ivory, will have their prime mating years well behind them and have had half a century to spread their genes, via the local cows, onto the next generation of elephants. Most trophy elephants shot are of an age where they avoid cows and have nothing more to offer in genetic terms.
Vitali mentions the prevalence of ‘tuskless elephants’ in parts of Africa as a counter argument. Historically, ivory hunters naturally shot the elephants with the best tusks. The remaining elephants bred because they survived. Future generations of elephants were, therefore, predominantly tuskless or inherited the gene for smaller tusk growth. A survey in Uganda in the 1930s showed only 1 percent of adult elephants without tusks, due to a rare mutation. However, in 1998, the Uganda Wildlife Authority reported that 30 percent of adult elephants in the same area were without tusks. The hunting of breeding-age elephants for ivory was likely to be the reason for this.
As a hunter who also believes strongly in the conservation of species and habitat, the evils of the unrestricted hunt for ivory that took place in the past seem indefensible today and I share the concerns of many environmentalists in this respect. However, we must also consider that hunting in Uganda during the period was not trophy hunting for big specimens; it was commercial ivory hunting and unrestricted poaching for overall quantity, not individual trophy quality. In those days, hunters commonly shot bulls with 25lb ivory for its commercial value added up with each new animal shot. Today, the trophy hunter seeks the 70lb tusks of an old bull.
As a rule, I am not squeamish about the killing of an animal and I attach no particular value to an individual beast. Clearly many people do and you will never convince them that hunting anything is justified. To the vocal minority of animal rights extremists, there is no justification for killing an animal on any level that they will listen to. They anthropomorphise animals and value each individual as they (should) value every individual human being.
These peoples’ opinions are beyond my grasp and of no concern to me in seeking the truth about the ethics of hunting for an elephant. But there are arguments about the social structures of elephant families and their special status in the animal kingdom that do interest me. After all, if there was nothing special about an elephant, we could save a few thousand dollars and go and shoot another rabbit! Western conservation groups certainly focus on certain mammals to protect from hunting, and these are the very animals which trophy hunters wish to shoot. These beasts are often referred to as “charismatic megafauna” by commentators. This term derives from the monumental quality of these animals that ‘so dwarf us and make us appreciate our place in nature’.
There is undoubtedly something majestic in the sight of an elephant in its natural habitat. To be in that habitat, stalking him through dangerous terrain on foot, trying to outwit him and finally, bringing about his instant death with a well-placed brain shot must appeal to some primeval instinct of the hunter within some human beings. Does this argument hold any truck?
Another writer, Ann Causey believes it does: “The genuine sport hunter, due to his earnest regard for his prey, is usually highly sensitive to the animal’s pain and suffering, and makes every effort to minimize both. Proper weaponry and hunter training can minimize both”. It is ironic that of all the hunters operational worldwide, the African ‘big game’ hunter is the most likely to meet Causey’s criteria. A well-placed shot to heart or lungs will put a rapid end to the life of all plains or dangerous game and weaponry and tactics these days are well regulated to ensure the hunter and his rifle are up to the job.
The idea of hunting as a noble art is entwined with the idea of the difficulty of the hunt or the preparation for the final placement of the mortal shot. Vitali regards the hunter as exercising distinctive human skills; intelligence and virtues such as “emotional discipline and patience”, in contrast with someone who simply wants to acquire a trophy. I know Michael to be a possessor of these qualities. He is no lazy trophy hunter and has steeled himself for a true test of man against beast and environment that makes the hunt a deeper, more spiritual adventure than the simple pulling of the trigger implies to the casual observer.
Causey describes the “sport hunter”, like Michael, as distinct from the classic ‘trophy hunter’: “the drive in sport hunting is to be a link in the chain of nature, connected as predator to prey”; the hunter “regards his prey with admiration, reverence and respect.” The “shooter,” in contrast, kills in order to achieve some benefit, including trophies. Most “shooters,” she thinks, “would, if possible, dispense with the hunt altogether and go directly to the kill, thus they tend to adopt any and all affordable shortcuts to the shooting gallery”. I think Causey may be polarising the two types for expediency but broadly recognise the distinctions she makes.
The ‘trophy hunters’ about which Causey writes are largely embodied in the participants in the much derided ‘canned hunts’ in which a guaranteed result is written into the contract. The animal is in a known location, often within a fenced enclosure, and the client is driven to that location. From there he shoots his beast and has future bragging rights over his credentials as a ‘great white hunter’ to take away with him, along with the trophy to hang on his wall. In his defence, such a ‘hunter’ may simply be an ill-informed novice with good intentions and delusions of machismo who is duped by an unscrupulous ‘guide’ into bagging his game in this manner to provide an easy outing and quick profit for the outfitter.
Alastair S. Gunn identifies motive as a key part of the morality of a hunt; ‘Trophy hunters, who kill purely for the sake of acquiring prestigious evidence that they have killed an animal, surely act immorally, because they achieve a trivial benefit for themselves at the expense of the life of an animal. Unlike professional cullers, they may also be considered to exhibit serious character defects. They want to control, to have power, to reduce animals to easy targets, to kill, and to brag about it.’
To separate the hunter from the killer is a subjective viewpoint that we humans are susceptible to. Presumably the animal has no opinion. He is unlikely to be impressed by the exploits of the true hunter or notice the casual killing meted out by the ‘canned hunter’. These factors inhabit only the heads of humans. However, I am sensitive to these factors. My self imposed rules of hunting are that the quarry must have a sporting chance and that my qualities are pitched against his in as equal measure as possible. The outcome must not be certain. Success and failure must fall according to skill and fortune, while both hunter and hunted do their best to outwit one another. Otherwise, what is the point?
Gunn’s remarks regarding the motives of some trophy hunters strike a chord with me; I remember commenting last year to my friend, the noted shooting instructor Mike Yardley, of my distaste for the posed photographs of safari clients with their kills “pasty faced fatties with their dead cows” is how I put it to him at the CLA Game Fair, as we perused the displays of the numerous African outfitters touting for business. I have always been sceptical about the easily-bought ‘instant game hunter’ status acquired by the city dweller with ambitions to be seen as a bit of a Hemmingway character. Peter Capstick may have managed it. To my mind, most people do not come close and the ‘canned hunt’ is all part of selling the deception to those willing (indeed wishing) to buy into it.
In terms of the less emotive and more dispassionate arguments for and against the hunting of large game in Africa, Gunn, notes that ‘Hunting in general is not a major threat to biodiversity…..the millions of species around the world that are currently at risk are threatened not by hunting but by habitat destruction and pollution, loss of food sources, and human disturbance. Opposition to hunting, on its own, will do little to protect ecosystems. In most of Europe and the United States humans have exterminated large predators, but control the populations of ungulates by culling and sustainable hunting. We should not allow opposition to hunting to deflect us from the much greater threat to biodiversity posed by habitat loss and degradation.’
This, I find persuasive. It cuts away the nonsense so often spouted by opposers of hunting as ‘morally wrong’, who spuriously add weight to their moral arguments by making assertions about its negative impact on the environment. In fact, the Botswana case reverses the charges. Botswana needed to implement a culling programme in the late 1990s, when the elephant population was clearly becoming too large for available habitat. International pressure groups effectively blackmailed the Botswana government into inaction with threats of a boycott of the diamond industry should they start culling elephants. Now we are seeing evidence of widespread habitat loss, impacting on other species, because the elephants are eating or destroying more than can naturally replenish itself. We shall explore this later.
Gunn continues: ‘Most writers also agree that hunting is sometimes justified in order to protect endangered species and threatened ecosystems where destructive species have been introduced or natural predators have been exterminated.’ This ties-in with my understanding of the need to keep elephant numbers commensurate with available habitat, for elephants are indeed destructive and they now have a restricted environment due to human encroachment. Shooting them is the only ethical means of control, since they have no natural predators. If left to nature, overpopulation leads to environmental degredation and in a drought tens of thousands of elephants die of starvation because there are too many of them to survive on the limited food available.
Gunn continues his commentary with an exploration of the benefits in personal developmental terms of hunting to the hunter: ‘Others accept hunting as part of cultural tradition or for the psychological well being of the hunter, sometimes extended to include recreational hunting when practiced according to “sporting” rules.’
Now, these ‘ideas of ‘cultural tradition’ are normally restricted to allowing the otherwise outlawed practices of ‘indigenous peoples’ but in this ever-more globalised world in which we all live, it is hard to expect those with a natural or cultural ‘hunting gene’ to exercise it only on their own doorsteps. Inevitably, as with all other activities man pursues, the act of hunting a wild quarry will lead him to new territories and new horizons. As a person who definitely benefits spiritually from escaping the city and spending time hunting or shooting in the woods and fields of England, I totally identify with the therapeutic benefits to certain individuals contained within the act of hunting.
With regard to the question of the desire in a human to kill his quarry, hunting proponents like Jose Ortega and Paul Shepherd have made a case for the act of killing the animal to be seen as a key part of the hunt and regard it as ‘essential to the participation in the life cycle of nature’. This is why viewing or photographing animals does not fulfil the hunting instinct in the same way.
Gunn is not convinced of the justification of hunting as a ‘human need’ but concludes his investigation by saying that despite his general opposition to the morals of hunting for fun or for trophies, he takes a pragmatic view of the situation; ‘… trophy hunting is essential in parts of Africa for the survival of both people and wildlife.’ For him, the practical arguments about the benefits managed hunting brings to the habitat and wellbeing of the population outweigh his personal distaste for the act of killing wild animals for sport.
Gary Varner has also argued for the benefits of what he calls ‘therapeutic hunting’. Therapeutic hunting is ‘morally required’ under certain circumstances, where fewer animals would die “than if natural attrition is allowed to take place”. Therefore, he would support the idea of shooting sick, genetically weak, or old animals in order that a stronger, more sustainable herd continues to thrive. Vitali also notes “Wildlife requires management, and hunting is at this time the most efficient means to do it”.
By hunting a very old elephant, Michael is not negatively affecting the gene pool, since his quarry is no longer sexually active. Since the animal in question is surplus to the beneficial requirements of the habitat and the elephant population and is on borrowed time due to its age and the deteriorating condition of its teeth, according to Varner’s criteria there is a ‘moral requirement’ for it to be hunted.
Many would not accept the ‘moral requirement’ argument but Richard de George (writing on business ethics) acknowledges that, though there may be some moral arguments against hunting, “not every prima facie immoral practice must be avoided, since some such practices may be the least bad of the available alternatives”. If we don’t shoot the old beast, he will starve to death. Shooting is the ‘least bad’ option, even if you object to the idea of sport hunting on moral grounds.
Gunn accepts this argument : ‘The most obviously persuasive argument is that sustainable hunting kills only animals that would die anyway….a proportion of the population will die each year, usually much more slowly and painfully through predation, starvation, or disease. This is particularly the case in much of Africa where the available habitat for animals such as elephants and lions is limited by the human population, so that “surplus” animal populations will have to be culled anyway.’
I was convinced by now that sustainable trophy hunting of some big elephants was justified and I know very well the thrill of the hunt. I needed however, to satisfy myself that the hunt on which we were to embark would be a truly sporting affair and that it was being organised in an environmentally responsible manner.
I discovered that Botswana had doubled the allowed quota on elephant for the 1998 season; meaning approximately 100 beasts were shot on license that year. In 2008 the quota is 280. The move was at the time considered a good one in some respects and not so good in others.
On the positive side, Botswana certainly had enough elephants to support this level of harvest. In fact, many observers felt Botswana’s elephants (until then heavily protected) needed to be reduced by much more than 100 per annum. The higher number of permits issued also provided a good flow of income that could be invested in future conservation measures.
Critics of the expanded quota worried that the limited number of truly big bulls would quickly be shot, therefore reducing the quality of the best beasts remaining. They predicted a decline in the numbers of big-tusked bulls in the country within a few years and worried about the effect on existing trophy hunting operations in the country.
The elephant as a being of myth, culture and religious significance
The exploration of the cultural and ethical issues surrounding the hunting of wild animals, dangerous animals and pray species were obvious and opinions easy to find on them. However, I was intrigued more by the almost instinctive negativity that the layman has to the killing of elephants in particular. I found myself pondering what it is that makes this particular beast so special to people on a subconscious level and began to suspect there may be deeply-buried attitudes formed below the conscious level through an accumulated socialisation in which the symbol of the elephant inhabits a place of special reverence. If this were to be explored as a factor, I was going to have to seek information in the cultures and religions of the world as to the symbolism of the elephant and what it represents to humans on a spiritual level.
The elephant belongs to the animal order Proboscidea (possessed of a trunk) and to the sub-order of ungulates (hoofed digitigrade mammals). Two species of elephants are now extinct: the mammoth (Elephas premiginius) and the mastodon (Elephas odontos). The two species still occupying natural habitats are the Asiatic elephant (Elephas maximus) and the African elephant (Elephas africanus).
Elephants have long been popularly endowed with supposed special social rituals and levels of behaviour which elevate them from the base savagery of the usual beasts of the animal kingdom. One such myth is the enduring concept of the ‘elephant graveyard’. Any schoolboy who watched the old black and white Tarzan films will know of the hidden and remote place in the jungle where old and wounded elephants wander off to die. Such places became a put of gold at the end of the rainbow to early explorers. Surely it would be littered with huge tusks of fine ivory, ripe for the taking and making a fortune for the discoverer.
Such places do not exist. Walter Bell explained the discovery of large numbers of dead elephants to the presence of poison gas around certain drinking places in times of drought. Ivory is an organic substance in any case and if left in the open deteriorates and biodegrades like bone or hair.
Perhaps more significant than these relatively recent myths of the early Victorian era are the roles elephants play in Asian mysticism and religion. Ted Andrews explored this in his book ‘Animal Speak’. According to Andrews; “In India and south east Asia elephants are venerated and the symbolism of the elephant is multiple. It is a symbol of royalty and fertility. The Hindu god of wisdom and success, Ganesha, is usually depicted with an elephant’s head. The god Indra held several roles in which an elephant plays a part. As the king of gods, the elephant was the royal mount. As the god of warriors, the elephant was Indra’s super weapon. As the god of rain, Indra used the gray elephant to bring forth the monsoons.” Here we can see the elephant loaded with positive symbolism, powerful, high status, awesome in battle and bringer of life.
Christian cultures have long considered the elephant to symbolise temperance, patience, and chastity. Some Christian paintings show an elephant stepping on a serpent. The serpent symbolises Satan and the elephant represents Jesus Christ and his benign yet awesome power crushing evil.
African cultures have had closer proximity to the living beasts and attributed symbolic meaning to the animal in its personification of variously: patience, dignity, pride, royalty, strength, honour. Asiatic elephants are different in size, temperament and behavior to those of Africa and Asian cultures have considered elephants embodying happiness, longevity and good luck.
There are traditional fables among many African peoples featuring elephants. In many of these the elephant is cast as the wise chief who impartially settles disputes among the forest creatures. In one story, a hunter in Chad found an elephant skin near Lake Chad and hid it. Soon he saw a lovely, tall, strongly built girl crying, saying she had lost her good ‘clothes’. The hunter promised her new clothes and married her. They had many big children, for the son of an elephant cannot be a dwarf. One day when the grain store was empty, the hunter’s wife found the elephant skin at the bottom of an urn, where the hunter had hidden it. She put it on and went back to the bush to live as an elephant again. Her sons became the ancestors of the clan whose totem was the elephant, which they do not fear.
A myth of the Kamba people in Kenya tells us how elephants originated. A very poor man heard of the benevolent and rich lvonya-Ngia,a man known as ‘He that feeds the Poor’. He decided to go and find Ivonya-Ngia but it was a long journey.
When he finally arrived, he saw uncounted cattle and sheep, and there, amidst green pastures, was the mansion of Ivonya-Ngia, who received the poor man kindly, perceived his need and ordered his men to give him a hundred sheep and a hundred cows.
‘No’, said the poor man, ‘I want no charity, I want the secret of how to become rich.’ Ivonya-Ngia reflected for a while, then took a flask of ointment and gave it to the poor man, saying: ‘Rub this on your wife’s pointed teeth in her upper jaw, wait until they have grown, then sell them.’ The poor man carried out the strange instructions, promising his wife that they would become very rich.
After some weeks, the canine teeth began to grow and when they had grown into tusks as long as his arm the man persuaded his wife to let him pull them out. He took them to the market and sold them for a flock of goats. After a few weeks the wife’s canine teeth had grown again, becoming even longer than the previous pair, but she would not let her husband touch them. Not only her teeth, but her whole body became bigger and heavier, her skin thick and grey. At last she burst out of the door and walked into the forest, where she lived from then on.
She gave birth to her son there, who was also an elephant. From time to time her husband visited her in the forest, but she would not be persuaded to come back, although she did have more healthy children, all elephants. This was the origin of elephants and it explains why elephants are as intelligent as people.
In many African fables, the elephant is usually described as being too kind and noble, so that he feels pity even for wicked characters and is badly deceived. The Wachaga in Tanzania relate that the elephant was once a human being but was cheated out of all his limbs except his right arm, which now serves as his trunk.
The Ashanti of Ghana believe that an elephant is a human chief from the past. When they find a dead elephant in the forest, they give him a proper chief’s burial.
Modern societies apply qualities to the elephant from observance of its social interaction with others of its species. Elephants care for and assist both older and younger members of the herd, therefore symbolising responsibility and unselfishness as elements of natural order, not just human socialisation. The social fabric of elephant society also encompasses the presence of such qualities as defending members of the clan from outside aggression and standing united in the face of outside threats.
Elephants also express sensitivity and social awareness, particularly during times of death. They display distress when discovering the remains of a dead fellow. They will help a stricken colleague and will abandon a water hole or similar place if it carries memories or evidence of the death of another elephant. This sensitivity and loyalty attaches to the form of the elephant and the cliché that ‘an elephant never forgets’ endures as evidence of operating on a higher level of consciousness from the baser beasts.
European acknowledgement of the elephant as a beast of significance dates back to the Greek historian Polybius (BC 201-120). Venetian traveller Marco Polo (1254-1324) write of them and , the British poet John Donne (1571-1631) preceded his compatriot Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) in doing so. Russian poet Firdousi (940-1020), and the British novelist David Herbert Lawrence (1885-1930), both meditated on the magnificence of elephants and George Orwell found symbolism in the killing of an elephant as an embodiment of the emasculating and will-sapping futility of empirical rule.
Indian scholar and poet Neelakanta said that the ‘creation of the elephant was holy and meant for the profit of sacrifice to gods, and specially for the welfare of kings’.
Alexander the Great (BC 356-323) encountered elephants as weapons of war in India, where the presence for four thousand of them among the army of the defending ruler effectively prevented his invasion from venturing further into the sub-continent. In 250 BC, Pyrrhus, the king of Epirus (now North Albania), augmented his 25,000 strong army with 20 war elephants and defeated the might of Rome at Heraclea. With the battle in the balance, Pyrrhus ordered his elephants to charge and legions crumbled. The Romans present, who had never seen elephants before called them ‘Lucanian Cows’.
Perhaps the man who really set the elephant deep into the European psyche was the Carthaginian General Hannibal (BC 247-182). He crossed the Alps with his army and 38 elephants, improbably and devastatingly taking the war to the Romans on the Italian mainland rather than staying at home to defend against Roman aggression there. The elephants proved a strong psychological weapon and were initially effective but the invasion was a success mre because of Hanibal’s military genius than the presence of the pachyderms, many of which died in the harsh. When Scipio (BC 185-129) invaded Carthage and defeated Hannibal at the Battle of Zama in BC 202, his soldiers panicked the elephants with clever manoeuvring and the judicious use of arrows, causing them to stampede among the Carthegenian infantry, inflicting chaos and casualties.
Back to religion and we see that in Buddhism, the dream of queen Mahamaya, the consort of king Suddhodana, features an elephant in an auspicious role. In the dreram, a young white elephant, holding a lotus flower in its trunk, enters the queen’s womb from the right. This was interpreted to mean that she had conceived a son. Many years later, it was an elephant that looked after the Buddha, providing him with food and shelter in the sylvan solitude of the Paraleyya wilderness. Again, the elephant features in Buddhism in the form of Nalagiri, who charged furiously at the Buddha, only to fall prostrate at his feet in complete subjugation when in his presence.
The elephant’s place in Buddhism is unlike that of any other animal. It is the only animal permitted to carry the sacred vessel containing the ‘Danta-dhatu’ (Tooth-relic) of the Buddha, in the annual Esala Perahera in Kandy. All Buddhist temples follow the same procedure in choosing an elephant to carry the relics in procession. The chosen beast is bedecked in splendid cloth and decorations as it parades through the streets.
Just in case it looks as if the view of the elephant is beginning to swamp our narrative, a dip into the Old Testament tells us ‘Behold behemoth whom I made with thee. He eateth grass like an ox. His strength is in its loins, and his force in the navel of his belly. He setteth up his tail like a cedar, the sinews of his testicles are wrapped together. His bones are like pipes of brass, his gristle like plates of iron. He sleepeth under the shadow in the cover of the reed. Behold! He will drink up a river and not wonder that the Jordan may run into his mouth’. (Job 40:10-18). Shelley and Milton refer to ‘Behemoth’ as being an elephant.
With so much legend and myth involving the elephant as a potent symbol of good, it is perhaps unsurprising that humans face mixed emotions when facing them as hunter and hunted. By what right do we endeavour to destroy this most symbolic and majestic beast, which embodies so much of what our underlying culture and civilisation has for generations held dear, noble and valuable in terms of physique and character?
It is as if our pact with the gods to do battle in ancient and untamed wilderness with a being verging on the ethereal as well as physical in its grandeur. To engage with Behemoth in mortal combat is a struggle of biblical proportions to the soul of the hunter and victory will inevitably be tinged with regret and sadness. Yet, venture into this territory we do: For better or worse. The compulsion to sin drives the hunter on and the magnitude of the act must stir deep within his psyche even as he plans the most mundane steps en-route to the fateful meeting.
I thought it wise to learn a little about our destination before heading off and began to research the Okavango Delta. It appeared, from available literature, to be an oasis of verdant fertility on the edge of the enormous Kalahari Desert. The great Okavango river flows from Angola to Botswana, where, instead of emptying into the sea, as do most rivers, it is swallowed by the desert sands.
The Kalahari Desert is the largest continuous stretch of sand in the world and it is amazing to find such a lush and vibrant sanctuary of flowing waters and densely growing vegetation within its vastness. But here it is; an enclave bursting with flora and fauna, surrounded on all sides by the moonscape of the Kalahari. In total, the delta covers some 18,000 square kilometres and it is teeming with game of all descriptions, sustained by the waterways, which in turn are kept flowing by the activities of numberless herds of hippos.
The Okavango River originates in Angola, where it is known locally as the ‘Cubango’ River. It flows southeast through Namibia as the ‘Kavango’ River and finally enters Botswana 1000 miles later as the ‘Okavango’ River. Once in Botswana, the direction of the river is determined by fault lines below the desert surface. After passing over the first fault line, known as the Gomare fault, it divides into numerous smaller waterways, which fan-out ahead. When the water reaches the Kunyere and Thamalakane faults, it is essentially dammed (and damned) to vanish into the sands of the Kalahari.
Apart from the permanent waterways, the Delta is covered by shallow water, flooded grasslands, backwater swamps, ox-bow lakes and hidden lagoons, mostly interconnected by narrow canals. The region is a complex of perennial and seasonal swamps and floodplain grasslands. The seasonal swamps are only flooded during high water, when the rivers spill their banks and inundate vast tracts of land. The floodplains are only intermittently covered, depending on rainfall or the direction and intensity of the river’s flow that year. Change is the only constant in the delta.
Around 50,000 islands dot the delta and constitute an area about equal to that covered by its water. These islands, of all shapes and sizes, rise just high enough above the surrounding reedbeds and floodplains to support the growth of trees. With a ready water supply, these grow tall and strong. Date palms, jackalberry, mangosteen, knobthorn, and sycamore fig are among the common flora but each island seems to support its own unique mixture of species. Termite mounds abound and some contend that termite activity was the genesis of the islands that sustain non-aquatic flora and provide a platform for trees and shrubs to take hold.
Towards the southern end of the Delta, the islands are quite different. They are known as sandveldt tongues and are made up of Kalahari sands which penetrate deep into the Delta. Among them, Chief’s Island extends over 1,000 square kilometers of the central Delta and supports vegetation and animal life more typical of the dry deciduous Kalahari woodlands to the east and north. All the larger islands are fringed by a wide margin of floodplain grassland which is flooded annually, only to reappear green and replenished once the waters have passed through.
July to October seems to be the favoured time to see a variety of wildlife because it is drier and the animals are easily seen visiting waterholes. However, the wetter periods from December through to March offer a greater variety of colours and greenery, as a result of the tropical rains which fall during this period. For this reason, photographers prefer it. Many of the hunting concessions spread out into the badlands of thick mopane scrub on the outer edges of the delta. Too impenetrable and monotonous for the photographic safari, these areas harbour buffalo, kudu, rhinoceros, hippo, duiker, elephant and steenbuck in the early part of the season, when the pans are full of water and the vegetation lush. It also harbours black mamba, the fastest and most aggressive snake in the world, venomous puff adders and large pythons.
March 29th to April 18th; the period in which we were to travel, falls somewhere between the wet and dry seasons. With this in mind, I started to plan my wardrobe (or more correctly kit-bag).
My mind’s eye conjured fanciful images of long daily treks into the wildness of the bush, surrounded on every side by impenetrable thorns and long grass hiding God knows what. The tracker leading the way, following spoor, Michael behind, with his gun bearer a pace in front of him, carrying the big rifle muzzles-first on his shoulder, then the PH (Professional Hunter) and myself, camera in hand. I had been told the hunting of elephant is done entirely on foot and it was common to walk for eight or ten hours per day in African heat and humidity.
I started to check for sources of suitable clothing. The obvious army surplus option was limited because of the distaste for camouflage fatigues in Africa. One does not want to be mistaken for a poacher or insurgent and shot by a soldier or game warden in error. I favour long-sleeves for mosquito protection as well as protection from the sun. You can always roll them up. For the same reason I favour long trousers, though in Thailand a vest and shorts was my kit for the jungles. However, my pale Irish skin has not been treated to regular tropical sun for ten years or so and three weeks is not long enough to acclimatise.
Having paid my girlfriend’s way through university for the past six years, I was in no position to splash out a lot on bespoke clothing and equipment. I was also mindful that weight should be kept to a minimum since there would be limited space on any transport we used in the bush.
Essentials included three separate complete outfits: one to wear, one ‘in the wash’ and one clean and ready to change into. One jacket would suffice and I chose a Beretta safari jacket in khaki as an all-purpose item. In addition, I purchased three light cotton shirts, two with vented mesh backs to allow air-flow and rapid drying. A pair of British army issue desert boots at £39.00 followed, since we were going to be walking a good deal and comfortable feet are a high priority. Nothing makes you more miserable than sore feet – just about anything else can be bodged up with a bit of imagination but footwear can’t be made or adjusted ad-hoc and needs to be right. I spent the next three weeks breaking them in.
Socks had to be right for the weather – quick drying and non-blistering. I got some double-skinned ‘1000 mile’ socks and some army-issue ‘desert socks’. Four pairs should see me OK.
The rest of the gear was straightforward: first aid kit, cameras, batteries, belt, underwear and a few luxuries like whisky and cigars. A knife had to be packed – I took my big kukri-bladed ‘camp knife’ because I had no funds available to buy a conventional hunting knife.
I was told to expect some bird shooting while we were there and decided to take my trusty 12-bore. This is an 1870s vintage hammer gun by J. Thompson, which I rescued from oblivion some years back and have nursed back to health after its discovery in a dreadful state at the bottom of a pile of old guns deposited by a widow with Bate’s gun shop in Stafford.
I paid £50 for it and, following renovation, re-proof and numerous cosmetic jobs it is now probably my favourite gun. By some quirk of fate, it fits me to a tee and I shoot as well with it as I do with anything else. When in an unfamiliar situation it is wise to bring a gun you are comfortable with and confident in. Before departure, it was given a full strip, clean and tighten by Dave Mitchell, my Purdey-trained gunsmith.
I was restricted to 100 cartridges and stuck to my usual load of Gamebore ‘Pure Gold’ fibre-wad shells. I had a load of 28g No.7s; so I took those, as well as my UK Shotgun Certificate.
The final list of kit is shown below:
|Outfit for Outward TravelDesert boots
|Outfit 1(hunting)Beretta jacket
1000 mile socks
|Outfit 2(hunting)Safari shirt
1000 mile socks
|Outfit 4(resting)Polo shirt
|Outfit 5(sleeping)Draw-string trousers
Zegna long-sleeve T-shirt
|PeripheralsFirst Aid Kit
Lighter x 2
Needle & thread
Notebook & pens
Flannel & Towel
Shampoo & Soap
12-bore hammer gun
Gamebore 28g no.7 (x100)
Spare batteries AA
Spare batteries AAA
|LuxuriesCigars x 50 Cuaba
x20 Cohiba, x10 Edmundo
Camera x 2
Sporting Shooter x 4
3000 S.A Rand
The Piccadilly line takes you right from Finsbury Park in north London to Heathrow Terminal 2, in the west, and I was definitely out of sartorial step with the majority of early-morning commuters as I sat on the hour-long ride to the airport dressed in desert boots and shooting vest and carrying an ancient leg-of-mutton gun case, canvas game bag and leather hold-all.
With train journey completed, once at check-in there was no fuss from South African Airways staff. Guns come and go as part of the standard luggage of many a visitor to their country and they dealt with the formalities with courtesy and efficiency. Resplendent with red ‘Firearms’ stickers, my bags vanished into the custody of the airline carrier. After an uneventful eleven hour flight, at Johannesburg I was met immediately by reps from Hunters’ Support who whisked me easily through customs, collected my bags and delivered me to the driver from African Tribes, who was waiting in the terminal. Michael arrived later in the day and we checked the guns, talked about the plans and went for dinner locally. Our lodgings were undergoing extension and there was something of a building site atmosphere about the place but the rooms were well-appointed and clean and the car service and welcome from staff all made up for it.
The next day, again with the help of Hunters’ Support, we checked-in to the flight via Air Botswana to Maun. A couple of hours later we disembarked on the tarmac in the Botswana capitol and went through the formalities of checking through customs and collecting our firearms permits. As we did so, I marvelled at the array of fellow travellers around us. Plenty of large, be-hatted American sportsmen (and one woman), glamorously preserved and designer-safari attired middle-aged women with their husbands on photographic safaris and a party of natty looking Spanish hunters, whose coiffed locks, new kit and expensive luggage did not appeal to me, though I doubt they found me all that appealing! The Spanish have a reputation among PH’s as killers rather than hunters. For many of them it is still a numbers game. They come, they kill, they leave. For Africa, for experience and for personal enrichment they have no time. Their approach to the whole business does not sit well with more involved sportsmen. “They want to kill three buffalo in one day and have a photo taken ‘cos they think it makes them look cool”, Michael remarked, “but they just look like assholes”.
Mark Kyriakou was there to meet us. He saw papers got stamped, permits signed and visas issues, then hurried us through various doors and check points and onto our charter plane to begin the final phase of the journey with the parting words “Clive won’t be your PH, he’s got some problems with his vehicle and some elephants on his ranch. You’ll be with Grant Albers”. Michael was not pleased, he did not know Grant and the sudden change of plan did not amuse him. Too late to argue, we piled onto the single-engined, prop-driven charter plane, piloted by a young New Zealander and headed low out over the delta in the direction of our concession.
First impressions began to wash over me – wildlife began to emerge from the greenery below. I could make out elephants standing by pans, herds of red lechwe on the flood plains and submerged hippos in the clear, free-flowing rivers. Waterbuck and impala dotted the green spaces and giraffes loped with awkward grace in no particular direction at the sound of the engine.
Within the hour we were sweeping left, over yet more hippos, stuttering ground-wards and bumping to a stop on the 300 yard dirt strip cut out of the browning grass, to be met by our Land-Cruiser mounted guides and PH Grant.
Once landed, off came the supplies; fruit, vegetables (which I was to learn later that neither Mike nor Grant would eat), beer, soft drinks, eggs, oil and all manner of general commodities required to cater for a sixteen day camp numbering as many people as days duration. Once aboard the Cruiser our places were secured and, thought we did not yet know it, that first journey set the pattern for the next three weeks, Grant Driving, Michael beside him in the front seat and me standing on the back with Jackson, the head tracker to my right and his side-kicks, Matite and Junior seated behind us.
As we ploughed through the foot-deep sand track that passes for a road in the bush, I got my first taste of the swaying, bracing and rocking motions that were required to stay perched atop the vehicle as it sped-up, slowed down and lurched from side to side, often halting abruptly as Grant slammed it into low drive.
At the end of our journey we pulled into camp – neatly arranged thatched dining area, fire plate with surrounding camp chairs and sound-looking tented sleeping quarters. The ground was brushed clear and dusted with a coating of sand, which would prove useful for reading the tracks of whatever nocturnal visitors might decide to patrol the spaces between our temporary dwellings while we slept.
Our greeting party swayed and chanted in Tswana as we pulled up and disembarked. The whole of the camp staff had turned out and in the midst of the black, chanting, clapping bodies was a small, blond Zimbabwean in her mid 30s, clearly comfortable in her environment and in full tune with the chanting of the locals. This was Mel, our camp organiser and the organisational mastermind of the logistical issues that go into running, and keeping running, all the facilities and operations. No small task in a spot where supplies were a plane flight away and the environment tends to break things or wear them out with great regularity.
As a woman in a male environment, Mel faced her challenges with infectious enthusiasm and humour but with a clear resolve to make everything work and keep all the cogs turning. Whether facing the cajoling and politicking necessary to keep the local staff on-song or giving clear, direct instructions to mechanics, handymen and others, she never lot her temper nor her control of the situation.
The tour of the camp conducted by Mel started with some hilarity when Mel enquired as to our preferred sleeping arrangements and whether we wished to share a tent. Michael and I both found this rather amusing and dropped a few choice words to the effect that we were friends but not ‘friends of Dorothy’, as my grandmother may once have said.
The tented accommodation was a revelation to me. My own experience of jungle living was so-far restricted to living for six weeks at a time in a hut built from banana leaves and split bamboo in the tropics around the Cambodian coast of Thailand. There we slept on a wooden floor of rough-sawn boards with a thin mattress stuffed with cloths and we washed from a big standing urn, using a saucepan to pour water over ourselves.
Here, at ‘Splash’, as our camp was known, we had big, rigid tents with solid, tiled floors and plumbed-in en-suite facilities. We even had propane fuelled instant hot water in the showers! Bedding was an actual bed and the sheets were changed daily. Upon our return every night, we would find the previous day’s dirty clothing had been washed, ironed and laid-out on the end of the bed. Every tent had electric light, fed from solar-charged batteries and just before dark, a smoking mosquito coil appeared under the bedside table to repel the pesky critters, for the Okavango Delta is a malarial zone.
Michael and I are confirmed addicts of the vintage gun and we were keen to stick to our convictions for the hunting of African game, as we do when pheasant or duck shooting at home. We had licences for elephant, red lechwe, impala and warthog, guinea fowl, francolin and waterfowl. We both tend to travel light and restricted ourselves to three guns between us to do the lot. What we settled on may surprise some, but I think it proved a logical choice and enabled us to always have the right gun to hand, whatever we were hunting.
The most important part of our battery was the gun with which Michael would hunt his elephant. This was our reason for being here; and elephant hunting is a serious business. Early elephant hunters like renowned explorer Samauel Baker hunted elephants with single muzzle-loading 4-bore duck guns, the barrels shortened and loaded with a ¼ lb ball of soft lead.
From the late 1880s until 1908 Walter Bell used small calibre rifles to shoot most of his elephants but that was long ago. However, elephant hunting has changed since Queen Victoria’s reign and these intelligent animals have adapted to a world in which they are liable to be killed by humans. They have become warier and more prone to attack their pursuers. Therefore, by 1947 most hunters were using big bore nitro express rifles, such as those advocated by John Taylor in his classic African Rifles and Cartridges, published that year. Besides, the legal minimum for elephant in Botswana is currently .375.
Taylor believed in the benefits of the ‘knock-down’ power of a well placed 500 grain bullet and the superiority of the double rifle over the bolt action for dangerous game hunting. So, in accordance with the great man’s advice, Michael was to equip himself with a big double. His gun of choice was made in 1926 by Manton & Co of Calcutta. It is a beautifully preserved example of a high-quality, fully engraved, side-plated boxlock ejector in one of the most popular big-game calibres ever made: .470 nitro express.
The .470 round was reputedly introduced to the market by Joseph Lang in 1900 to replace the .450 calibres that were banned for non-military use by the British authorities in the Sudan and India. Taylor called it ‘a killer’ and also owned one by Manton & Co, using it for three solid years. He thought his Manton .470 with 26” barrels among ‘the most perfectly balanced rifles I have ever owned’ and claimed to have killed over 100 elephants with it. Michael would agree with Taylor’s statement regarding his rifle’s balance but his head count is not quite up there with his predecessor’s.
The ballistic performance of Michaels Manton is still impressive today, despite the fact that it is eighty-two years old. The bullet case is drawn brass, 3 ¼” long and loaded with 75 grains of smokeless powder. The bullet is a 500-grain, metal-jacketed solid with a muzzle velocity of 2,125 fps and ‘knock-out blow value’ (using Taylor’s own charts) of 71.3. It is a more powerful weapon than the widely used .416 Rigby, which delivers an equivalent value of only 57.25. The .470 is a ‘stopper’ in the true sense of the word.
It may not deliver the devastating force of the .577 (126.7) but neither does it weigh 14lbs! Michael was going to have to carry his rifle and that could (and did) mean several hours hauling it through thick mopane scrub in the oppressive heat of the African afternoon and still being in a fit state to shoot straight when the time came. At 10 ½ lbs, the .470 is a good compromise. It is well capable of dealing with all the dangerous game on the planet; provided, as both John Taylor and Walter Bell point out, the bullet is placed in the correct area to do its lethal work. A big bullet in the wrong place will still get you into trouble.
The engraving on the pristine locks of the rifle and the pre-war German proof marks indicated its likely origins. It seems probable that it was made to order for Manton & Co by the firm of Heym and sold from the big Manton & Co store in Calcutta. The model is clearly illustrated in the 1926-1927 Manton & Co catalogue and cost 1250 Rupees (which Manton claimed to be a ’very low price’). It was described as a ‘.470 Double Hammerless Ejector High-Velocity Rifle’ and was supplied in a leather case with accessories and takes the form of a boxlock ejector with well-disguised dummy side-plates to give the impression of a sidelock. Like many double rifles designed to fire heavy charges at high speed, the Manton has a Greener-type cross bolt extension as well as Purdey bolts fixing the barrel lumps to the action table. It also has side clips to the fences to prevent lateral flexing.
In most respects the Manton is what one would expect of a British double rifle. It is beautifully constructed of fine materials and balances in your hand ‘at point’ effortlessly and without waver; as only properly made double rifles can. It has a pistol-grip stock with grip-cap with chequered hand and forend. The forend is released through a Deeley & Edge patent catch and the ejectors are of Southgate type.
The 26”chopper-lump barrels have three ‘express’ leaf sites for 50, 100 and 150 yards fitted into the matted half-rib.
The gun retains all its original colour and many purist collectors would cry ‘shame’ to see it dragged through the scrub and carried daily, exposing that pristine exterior to wear and the elements. However, we are hunters and our guns are used for hunting, just like the makers intended. For this we make no apology.
The butt of the Manton is a classic rubber pad. Michael prefers the grip this provides on recoil, though defers to the looks of a leather pad. When elephant hunting, practicality is of the utmost importance.
The name of Manton is old and a classic in English gun making circles. However, it is one that can be confusing. The great Joseph Manton was apprenticed to his equally gifted elder brother John Manton. Joseph became most famous through his friendship with the great sportsman, war hero and diarist, Lt Col Peter Hawker and, in his turn, apprenticed the likes of James Purdey, Charles Lancaster and Thomas Boss, thereby setting the foundations for the most successful period in British gun making history, which ran from 1850 to 1900, Manton’s old apprentices foremost among the best in the trade. John died in 1834 and Joseph followed him a year later.
So, how is it that we were heading out to Africa with a gun bearing the Manton name but made in 1926? The answer lies in an off-shoot of the firm started in 1825 when Joseph Manton’s son, Frederick Manton, went to India. Frederick established Manton & Co in Lall Bazaar, Calcutta. He managed the firm until 1828 and was then replaced by the youngest of Joseph Manton’s sons, John Augustus Manton, who conducted business until 1833. John Manton’s son, Edward, took over from him and was in charge until 1846, when the company was sold to a certain W.R Wallis.
Wallis also bought the business of another gun maker, Samuel Nock, and therefore had premises in London, which is how the name Manton & Co reappeared in Jermyn Street in 1859, as well as maintaining an outlet of significant size, selling a wide range of guns and accessories by a number of makers, in Calcutta and, later, in New Delhi. The firm traded well into the 1930s but the exact date of closure is unclear.
What is clear is that at the time of manufacture, 1926, Manton & Co had a thriving business on the sub-continent. The Raj was still in its pomp, well-managed forest areas teemed with game and shooting was a popular pastime amongst the army officers and administrators living there. A sporting goods outlet had a ready-made market and Indian princes could also be counted on for orders. Some had enormous arsenals of extremely fine quality guns.
From just such a collection came Michael’s .470. That it saw little use is not unexpected because many maharajahs had more guns in their collections than they could possibly use. Many just sat in racks for years. When India gained independence, in 1947, the regional rulers’ privileges and powers were curtailed and many of their guns came onto the market in the UK. Firms like Holland & Holland made excellent capital from this opportunity in the 1970s and 1980s, bringing whole collections back for re-sale.
The choice of firearm for a dangerous game hunt is a crucial, and very personal, one because a poor choice could cost you your life. The rifle has to fit you, feel comfortable and be naturally pointable; and it must not kick you so hard that it induces freezing or flinching. The debate about the relative merits of magazine-fed, bolt-action and the traditional double rifle have raged since the beginning of the 20th century, when the Mauser bolt-action came onto the scene.
Advocates of the bolt-action cite its quicker third and fourth shot rate, its relative cheapness and proven reliability. Counter arguments from the double rifle camp point to the faster second shot and the fact that a double is in fact two rifles, each with separate locks and trigger work so that malfunction with the first trigger leaves the second trigger unaffected and offers immediate relief without having to clear the action or cycle another round.
At 10 ½ lbs, as mentioned earlier, the Manton is portable even in the heat of an African noon and, unlike many hunters of old, and more than a few of today, Michael prefers to carry his own rifle at all times. A bigger calibre weapon like a .577 would weigh five pounds more and that weight is sapping and can unsteady the hunter when the time comes to take the shot.
The casual reader may wonder why someone would choose to carry a heavy rifle on a hot day when there is a gun bearer available, should he wish it. The story of a professional hunter acquaintance of Grant’s makes a sobering case-in-point. We’ll call the chap concerned ‘Dave’ to save his blushes.
Well, Dave was out with a client stalking elephants in the bush when one charged unexpectedly. Dave’s gun was on the shoulder of his tracker, rather than in his hands or on his shoulder. As soon as the charge took place, the client ‘chickened-out’ and ran, as did the trackers, leaving Dave unarmed and with no choice but to bolt too.
As Dave ran, the elephant chased him and as he caught-up with the fleeing, yet still gun-bearing tracker, the elephant reached out for Dave with its trunk. Dave managed to get the rifle but only had time to fire instinctively over his shoulder, hitting the elephant in the head and causing it to flinch and lose concentration on grabbing him. This was enough time for Dave’s apprentice PH to get a clear shot and kill the elephant with a side-on brain shot.
Since that incident, Grant always carries his own rifle; Micheal is in the same camp and will not hunt without his rifle of his shoulder. Dave however, still has a tracker carry his. Perhaps, like was once said of second marriages, Dave’s attitude is a triumph of hope over experience!
Leaving aside the Manton for a while, we shall examine the other guns we packed. We expected not to catch up with an elephant for days or weeks and we needed meat for our dinner every night. Clearly, if bird shooting were expected we required a shotgun. “Take a Beretta” said a good friend and shooting journalist with African experience before I left. So, being contrary, I packed my 1870s J. Thompson 12-bore hammer gun.
My decision was based on the same reasoning that made guns of this type so popular with travellers overseas in their day. The 30” Damascus barrels are bored quite open, with 3 points of choke in the right and 7 points in the left (effectively open and less-open Improved Cylinder) and it weights a comfortable 7lbs. This enabled me to shoot birds with my usual ounce of No.6 and allowed me to load a couple of ‘00’ buckshot shells for night-time security (we had lions, leopards and hyenas pacing the tented camp during darkness) or emergencies like following-up wounded warthog.
The operating system is as simple as it could be: external hammers, double barrels and Jones under-lever lock-up. Not much to go wrong and easy to operate. There was no need for ejectors and I felt ready for anything from lion to francolin, should the necessity arise.
The history of J. Thompson basically does not exist. A number of Thompsons were engaged in the Birmingham and London gun trades but I have no first name and no address to help me, just the original proof marks, which date the barrels to Birmingham in 1887 but, confusingly, the action flat bears London View marks. It is possible that the gun was London-made and re-barrelled and submitted to Birmingham in around 1887, which may explain the absence of address on the rib. The action resembles 1870s styles and shapes more than those of the 1880s and the gun is one of my favourites.
I rescued it from a pile of filthy scrap guns that had been handed in to a Stafford gun shop back in 2004. I paid £50 for it because it was a pretty action. I thought it would make a nice paperweight, if nothing else. The woodwork was invisible under the grime and dents and gouges it had suffered, it was covered in coal dust and dirt and the barrels were so pitted I was tempted to put a ferret down to see if there were any badgers living in them! The forend clearly belonged to another gun and had been bodged into place years ago.
To cut along story short, the barrels cleaned out well, it passed 70mm London nitro proof and I had the forend re-profiled, welded, filed and fitted, then engraved by a Holland & Holland man to suit the action. Dave Mitchell chequered it, re-jointed it and browned the barrels. I re-finished the stock and it is by some good fortune one of the guns I shoot better than any other. When going to Africa, logic told me; take a gun you are comfortable with and confident in. So, I took the Thompson.
.470 Manton and 12-bore Thompson on-board, we still missed something. Michael also wanted to shoot birds and I planned to shoot some antelope. As a compromise, we packed Michael’s Rach drilling. This is a 16-bore double shotgun over an 8x57R rifle. It would be used as a shotgun by Michael when we were shooting guinea fowl and by me for the red lechwe and impala I wanted to bag, both for camp meat and as my first African trophies.
The drilling was a revelation as an African rifle. Designed for use in places like the black forest in Germany, where the bird shooter may encounter a boar or stag unexpectedly, it proved ideal in the Botswana bush. The shotgun barrels and the rifle barrel can all be loaded at once. A lever on the side of the trigger guard allows the rifle barrel to be selected. Pushing this lever forward raises the rear leaf sight on the matted rib and activates the front trigger as the rifle. The rear trigger will still fire the left shotgun barrel. Pull the lever back, the sight falls flat and you have a double 16-bore.Cocking indicators show you what is going on.
Engraving is typically German, with deep carving, the wood is nicely figured with a cheek-piece and semi-pistol grip stock and a useful bullet trap in the bottom, near the butt. Metal to wood and metal-to-metal fitting is good and the whole guns reeks of German engineering quality. The original horn trigger guard is still in place and in excellent shape. Safety is a non-automatic side button in the Greener style.
Unlike many later drillings, this 1930s model was a perfect compromise. It balances and swings as a shotgun and it will shoot flat to 170 yards as a rifle. Originally full choke in both barrels, Michael has opened it out to Improved Cylinder and he fires one ounce loads of No.6 through its 70mm chambers.
The 8×57 is a powerful weapon and we had it zeroed for S&B 196 grain soft-nosed bullets, with a 60 yard sighting target (a beer box) used for adjustment when we arrived at camp. The quickly detachable telescopic sight allowed for fast conversion from rifle to shotgun, once zero was set.
The Big Tusker
Intelligent, warm-blooded and social, like humans, the adult elephant also suffers from a number of similar age-related illnesses to those of humans. These include cardiovascular problems, arthritis and loss of dentition.
John Taylor, writing after WW2, having spent over 25 years as a full-time elephant hunter believed that elephants, left unmolested, could live for upwards of 200 years. Nowadays, we know different, yet despite the onset of the illnesses mentioned earlier, a healthy elephant can live to about 70 years of age in captivity, which is still significant among land-living herbivores. At fifty years of age, a wild bull elephant has largely lost his interest in females and travels alone or with two young bulls for company. He remains a magnificent specimen but few live over the half-century mark in a natural environment.
An elephant’s life span is essentially limited by its teeth. These are replaced as each pair wears out, providing the elephant with a new set to advance him into the next couple of decades. When the final set of teeth are worn out, the elephant cannot digest his food adequately and will slowly starve to death.
When this happens is slightly varied for each individual. An elephant will normally develop his 6th, and final, set of molars at around the age of 30 and this will last until the end of his life. Exactly how long depends on his diet. Wild elephants living in sandy soils with wood as a large part of their diet are basically making a grinding paste to wear down their teeth every time they chew a mouthful. Some elephants develop a 7th set of molars but it is thought this may occur in as few as one in 2000 elephants. Therefore, at 50, an elephant is a tough old beast, but is tipping into a decline, at 60 he is the equivalent of a human centurion.
The elephant Michael was intent on bagging fell into this category. With tusks somewhere between 70lbs and 80lbs each, a body weighing around six tons and standing eleven feet high, the old beast in our minds’ eye was still magnificent but living on borrowed time. With his last set of teeth worn down and now inadequate for crushing the huge quantities of vegetation required to keep his vast body going, our quarry was facing a grim demise if left for nature to bring his long life to an end.
This is why the Government of Botswana had effectively signed his death certificate. Not to do so would serve no purpose; he would die anyway in a short time, and an unpleasant death it would be. To send a government employee out to shoot elephants would cost money and the option of allowing a hunter like Michael to pay a handsome licence fee for the privilege of hunting him would not only ensure a quick and humane death but would provide valuable funds for the management and conservation of the region for the benefit of future generations of elephants and other species. In conservation, the individual animal is of no consequence, it is the continuation of the species and the ecosystem that supports it that really matters.
Despite the quick, relatively painless death that Michael was offering him, our old brute was not going to appreciate his efforts and instinct would ensure he put all his years of experience, wisdom and cunning into evading the 500 grains of lead that were destined to end his days.
To hunt elephant requires knowledge and planning. Knowledge of anatomy is a key part of the successful hunter’s preparation. There are two major options when selecting a first shot. The heart-lung shot and the brain shot. Any follow-up shot will be taken where opportunity presents itself: usually in the heart-lung area, the hip, shoulder or spine as ‘anchoring’ shots or behind the ear.
The most famous hunter of elephant to employ the brain shot methodically was the renowned Walter ‘Karamojo’ Bell. Writing in 1923, he noted ‘its advantages over the body shot are numerous, but among them may be mentioned that it causes instantaneous death’ but he acknowledges the obvious concern of the layman when he says ‘The greatest disadvantage the brain shot has is the difficulty of locating the comparatively small brain in the enormous head’.
Bell was a professional, who shot over a thousand elephants, mostly favouring the brain shot with a small bore rifle like a.275 bolt-action but his between-the-wars era warning should still resonate today with occasional hunters (for that is all the sport hunter of today can afford to be). He advises ‘the novice will be well advised to try the broadside shot only’ (meaning a hand’s width in front of the ear hole). ‘Having mastered this and studied the frontal brain shot, he may then try it’. A brain shot will kill your quarry, a near miss will stun it, a miss will not do it any lasting harm. However, unlike in Bell’s time, today every wounded elephant must be followed up and killed, and that is a dangerous business.
The brain shot is the more spectacular but even that great exponent of the art, ‘Karamojo’ Bell commented “Although the brain shot is speedier in result and more humane if bungled than the body shot, yet the latter is not to be despised”. In fact, those without Bell’s expertise gained through years in single-minded pursuit of pachyderms are generally advised these days to opt for the body shot in most circumstances. Even so, Bell’s warning is one to heed: ‘If your bullet goes too far back and into the stomach you may be in for a lively time, as nothing seems to anger them more than a shot so placed’. He continues ominously ‘If he comes for you meaning business, no instructions would help you, simply because you wouldn’t have time to think of them’.
Such a warning evokes thoughts of a story our PH, Grant Albers, told of a woman out cutting thatch. She encountered a bull elephant in must who took exception to her presence. Unable to avoid his attack, she was plucked from the ground and literally dashed to pieces on the surrounding trees. When they arrived on the scene, the elephant was standing guard over the torso, while arms legs and head lay strewn around. After dispatching the still confrontational bull, they collected the human remains in a basket.
So, preparation in the form of repeated practice with the rifle became part of Michael’s routine in the weeks leading up to the hunt. Mental preparation in the form of envisioning every type of shot and every type of scenario runs through the hunter’s head. Come the hour, mind, body rifle and spirit must act as one; without effort, without awkwardness, without fear or hesitation.
By April we were ready. Preparation over, time to face the music. If war is 95% boredom interspersed with 5% terror, hunting elephant is more attritional by nature. It is 50% routine, disciplined concentration 40% nerve-bruising anxiety and 8% confusion interspersed with mettle-testing fear. Only when your quarry lies in the dust does your 2% relief and relaxation enter the equation.
‘To get within hearing distance of these old elephants is comparatively easy. You simply pick up the enormous tracks in the early morning and follow them into their stronghold …you may expect to hear your game at any moment now. You hope to see him, but your luck is in if you do. At the most you will see a high and ghostly stern flitting through the undergrowth, sometimes disconcertingly close in front of you… his feet, softly cushioned with spongy gristle, make no sound. Literally nothing indicates the presence of such an enormous animal…He knows the game and will play hide and seek with you all day long and day after day.’ So wrote Walter Bell in 1908 and little has changed today. Hunting the big, old, world-weary bull elephant in his own environment, on foot with a double rifle and a pair of native trackers is as time consuming, patience trying and nerve shredding as it was in the time of the old master.
To get into the hunting mindset, awake at 6 a.m. before light and grasp your way groggily into the bathroom to splash a bit of water on your face, then dress, walk in the half-light over to the camp fire and knock back a cup of coffee with a couple of biscuits to get the body working. Then, Michael and Grant would join the assemblage and around 7.15, once all the guns, bags, drinks and equipment had been loaded and checked aboard the Land Cruiser, we assumed our positions and headed off into the still cool morning air in search of Big Daddy.
The day consisted of driving the cut paths through the concession. These are largely eight to ten feet wide and sand covered. In the mopane scrub areas north of the waterways, the soil has a clay base and sand top, providing sound footings for vehicles. In other areas the sand gets deep and it takes a practiced and skilled driver not to get stuck. Every day we had to stop at regular intervals to clear trees knocked over by elephants during the night. Do they block our path deliberately? It is uncanny that we never seem to find trees knocked down from roadside into the surrounding scrub, the fallen trees always seem to fall in the most inconvenient manner. So much so that after the six month close season, teams of men are needed to tread the tracks and clear the felled timber before attempting to hunt at the start of the new season.
From our perch atop the Land Cruiser, sun beating down relentlessly, we scanned the tree-line for elephants and we stared at the path ahead for the fresh footprints of large bulls. “How hard can it be to spot an animal the size of a removal van?” one might ask. The answer is, “Very easy”. The nominally grey hide of the elephant is rarely a uniform hue. It habitually plasters itself in wet mud from waterholes. This dries unevenly depending on thickness and how much sun gets to it. The result is a multitude of shades of brown, grey and sand, which combined with the shadows thrown by the overhead sun and the mopane leaves makes it blend in totally with the mottled browns, black shadows, grey mopane bark and sandy floor of the bush. Elephants can be very hard to see.
The footprint of an elephant is like the fingerprint or palm of a human. Every one is slightly different and a skilled tracker will recognise individual animals. An old bull will have worn the skin on the back of his feet and the footprint can be around 23 or 24 inches from front to back. When we spotted prints of the right size and age, we would head off into the mopane to track him and get close enough to the elephant to view his ivory, age and condition. If he was too small, to young or if his ivory was poor, we would back carefully away and make our way back to the track and start again.
Tracking an elephant on foot is a harrowing business. Elephants have poor eyesight but fantastic senses of smell and hearing. They share the bush with other animals but if they hear or smell anything unusual they either move off at a rapid pace and put some distance between themselves and the unknown or they come closer to investigate.
‘Coming closer to investigate’ sounds innocuous enough but, for a moment, let us consider Bell’s warning to the hunters of a century ago regarding the defensive capabilities of elephants; ‘He can in an instant become a roaring, headlong devil. The transformation from that silent, rakish, slinking stern to high-thrown head, gleaming tusks and whirling trunk, now advancing directly upon you is a nerve test of the highest order. With his trunk he lashes the bushes. His great sides crash the trees down in every direction, dragging with them their innumerable creepers. The whole forest is in uproar’.
Allow me now to translate this into an example from our own modest experience bank. On one, typical, occasion, we picked up a big, fresh track early in the morning, before the cool had altogether been burned off, and stopped to follow it into the mopane scrub. Visibility was about ten feet under normal conditions at eye-level but if you found a gap or a rise, you could see thirty yards distant over the tops of the young mopane trees, which stood around 10 feet tall, with the taller acacia trees and the odd mature mopane tree providing taller cover.
Within this cover, our elephant evidently remained hidden not far from our embarkation, because he then turned what is a favourite trick of the old and canny bull; he stood by a large tree and appeared to be nonchalantly eating leaves, when he was, in fact, listening intently for our anticipated approach.
Upon confirming to himself that intruders were on his trail, he abandoned his pretence of eating breakfast and crashed through the scrub uncompromisingly swiftly in our direction, trees falling with a frightening splintering sound as he approached in a direct line towards our exposed position. Twenty yards away, he stopped, thrashed his trunk around and blew dust and debris in all directions. That was intended to scare away any beast stupid enough to bother him. Had we been lions or buffalo, we would have high-tailed it out of the vicinity in no time at all. And we would not be back.
A few minutes later he winded us again as we doggedly followed his retreat into the thick stuff. We had not yet seen his full size nor his ivory and we would pursue him relentlessly until we had these details confirmed. Unused to continued harassment, the elephant again charged, we bolted back out of his way, for the scrub was too thick to see his approach. Apparently satisfied that his second charge had warned us off properly this time, he again retreated. Again, we pursued him but again the treacherous wind, swirled and gave away our position. This time he was enraged and this time he came bullocking forward at a rate of knots. Wood splintered, trees fell, branches swished as he brushed them aside and a huge grey-brown forehead appeared out of the tree line no more then fifteen yards away. The trackers sprinted, like Ben Johnson and Linford Christie, in opposite directions; wisely and instinctively at right angles to the charge. Michael and Grant held their ground, clenched their buttocks and waited, facing the charging monster. And make no mistake; forget your wildlife programmes of friendly social groups of elephants at peace with the world. These are monsters. In the moment you are lost to time and nothing modern matters. The beast charging out of the trees is the dragon of legend, the behemoth of man’s earliest nightmares. It is huge, vengeful and capable of tearing you limb from limb in an instant. There is no way out, nowhere to run once it has come this close. It is a test of wills; yours and his, who will blink? At ten yards the raging bull stopped abruptly, had the mother of all tantrums before sidestepping and crashing away at speed. As suddenly as it had kicked off, it was all over and the forest was again silent.
In those few split seconds Grant and Michael had to make a life changing decision; they had to gauge and act on whether elephant was big enough to shoot or if he was indeed intent on killing us and needed shooting regardless; out of self defence. Grant told us later around the camp fire that his safety catch was ‘off’ in those last moments. That means he was close to pulling the trigger. How close? “Three more steps and he’d have bought the farm” said Grant. That is close. Later that evening, over a beer at the campfire, I asked our other PH, George Kyriacou how you can tell if an elephant is making a false charge as opposed to seriously trying to kill you. He told me, “Honestly? You can only be sure when he stops”.
Back to the hunting; for the hunters and trackers, being winded and consequently having to follow a retreating elephant means long, hot walking, probably for hours before you catch up with him. At any time the elephant could decide to lengthen his stride and keep up an impossible pace for hours, or he could stop and wait for you, hidden in the dense thickets and charge without warning as you approach. On an average day, we tracked three or four elephants and stopped several times to wait while the trackers went off on a fast-paced reconnaissance to check-out a track that looked older than ideal. Some of the most disconcerting moments came at the end of along tracking expedition after one bull, only to find yourself in the centre of a group of three or four, perhaps 100 yards apart and approaching you from multiple directions, often in very thick bush where you could see very little and there was no clear route to safety.
We usually returned to the camp in darkness, brief, beautiful sunsets painted the sky as the temperature dropped for 35 degrees to 20 and we donned jackets and, for the first time in the day seated ourselves, now that elephant spotting was redundant and the night-time bugs were swarming. To remain standing on the back of the Land Cruiser meant being bombarded with insects until you arrived home. By then the stars were bright in the blue-black sky, free from light pollution; Orion clearly pointing the way north and Venus winking knowingly. “The star stuff works with the chicks” said one of the young PHs, as he explained how to use the stars for simple navigation. Since female company in Maun was in short supply, any trick was a good trick.
The lights of the camp-bound vehicle would pick out herds of zebra, giraffes and impala, as well as waterbuck; all the usual species visible during the day. But night also brought with it nocturnal prowlers and the beam occasionally picked out a hyena skulking in the shadows and, once, a leopard, gracefully unimpressed by our manoeuvres, just 100 yards or so from camp. Further afield in the splashes, the sounds of hippos fighting, or looking for love, warmed up into their nightly chorus, to join the laughing of the hyenas “the sound of Africa”.
If we were back at camp by half past seven, we were usually in bed by eleven. The interim was taken up with long talks around the camp fire of close shaves, foolish clients, risk taking hunters and the largesse of the Arabs who occasionally come out in search of big game; entourage complete with wives, hangers-on and thousand-dollar-a-day tips all round. Also amusing were the tales of celebrity hunters, the good and the bad, the generous and the mean, the entertaining and the boorish. They ranged from American Generals to stars of screen and stage, for the hunting of dangerous game in Botswana is a rich man’s sport and with wealth there often comes ego and with it fame or notoriety.
No names, no pack-drill but a well known dancer arrived with two aging South African prostitutes in tow and spent the evenings trying to get the PH’s girlfriend into the sack, until finally told to take up sex and travel in no uncertain terms. Perhaps his endless stories of how much money he had made and how many women he had bedded impressed others less than they impressed him, which they clearly did enormously.
PH’s have a way of dealing with difficult clients and Michael’s number one rule was “never piss-off your PH”. A salutary lesson is that told of one Spanish client who arrived in shiny new boots and designer kit and declared he was not going home with less than 90lbs of ivory. The PH told him they may as well pack up now and not waste either of their time because there was no way to guarantee a bull that big. They got off to a bad start.
Early on the hunt they encountered a large, old, bull. The PH could not believe his luck; well over 80lb, he thought, and said. “If you can guarantee that it is over 90lb, I’ll shoot it”, said the client. Well, the PH could not do that so, after urging his client to take this great beast, he let the bull go and reluctantly stalked back to the Toyota. Back at the truck the client relented, “Maybe I should have shot it”, “Damned right” said the PH. Then the inevitable: “Do you think it might still be there?” The client had decided that he should have taken his PH’s advice, so a second, long stalk ensued.
The PH walked the client in circles, walked him in the mid-day sun until his feet bled into his new boots and he could barely walk. Elephantless, they retreated to the camp at day’s end and the client refused to get out of the vehicle for the rest of the safari. Finally, on the last day they spotted an old bull with ivory of about 50lb.”There’s your elephant, go and shoot it”, said the PH. Hobbling from the truck, the miserable client managed to bag the animal and returned home bitter and, perhaps, chastened.
Another client brought with him his spoilt and demanding teenage son, shot his elephant mid-way through the safari and was instantly bombarded with constant petulant whining that the son now wanted to shoot a kudu and why did they have to watch the skinning and why did they have to bother with the details of preparing the trophy etc, After patiently trying to explain the importance of the process and the expense incurred by the father, the PH finally got tired of the boy and said, “Right, I’m taking junior off to get his kudu”.
The following day, PH and junior spent the day hiking at a fast pace, following kudu tracks that were days old and getting deeper and deeper into the bush, as the sun got hotter and hotter and the boy more and more tired and thirsty. The PH took only six litres of water and by the time the boy got back to camp foot-sore, exhausted and a little dehydrated, he whined no more and slept for twelve hours straight. No chat, no dinner, no bravado, just deep, exhausted sleep. The next day the offer to get out at dawn and find his kudu was met with a refusal “Kudu hunting is over-rated” he pouted and that was the end of his hunting.
“Don’t piss off your PH” is a sound motto indeed! Fortunately, Michael and I were what I can safely call low-maintenance clients. We were happy to eat the food, sleep in the tents and deal with the climate. We travelled light, brought a good stack of cigars and contented ourselves with the scenery, the hunting and the day’s experiences as they came to us. Having initially been irked by the loss of Clive, our intended PH, we found Grant instantly professional and likeable.
Our evenings were relaxed and made all the more enjoyable by the presence of two more African old-hands in the shape of two young men, both in Botswana to forge a living in the safari game.
Josh was 23, tall handsome, blond and English. The long-haired public school type with long, bronzed limbs and an easy smile. He had flown out to Maun aged eighteen intent on becoming a professional hunter and had been unofficially adopted by the fraternity, at first working as a dogsbody for food and shelter and later, getting employment with the camps, while learning all the time about the flora and fauna of the Delta. Now in a position to have his own specially kitted-out Land Rover, replete with BMW 2.8 petrol engine and bush bars, he was settled in to the community of guides and hunters and close to becoming a certified walking guide. His dreams of being a PH had been stymied by the limited number allowed to hold licences, the long apprenticeship, the waiting list to sit the exams and the small number of work opportunities. Still, he planned to open his own business and give Botswana until his 30th birthday to provide him with his fortune.
George had made it to the status of PH at the tender age of 25 and now in his twenty seventh year he was already an experienced and steady presence with a number of safaris behind him as well as innumerable days accompanying his father, Mark Kyriacou, once of the legendary ‘Safari South’ outfit, now running his own ‘Big Game and Bird Safaris’ company out of Maun. George stood around 5 feet 9 inches, with the stocky build and swarthy features of his Greek ancestors and quickly re-acclimatised to the bush after a period back in his childhood home in the United States.
George’s mother is American and he grew up there, attended college and university and now, armed with academic credentials, fluency in the local dialect and first-hand experience of dangerous game hunting he was in a good position to work with his father and eventually take over the family business. George, like many a ‘boss’s son’ came in for plenty of stick. Some PHs found his confident and self-assured manner arrogant, others thought him rash, others yet were jealous of his early entry into a guarded profession. Whatever the reasons, George had it tough sometimes but rode the waves in a manner belying his years.
Between them, George and Josh added jollity and companionship to our little band of hunting friends and we quickly bonded into a tight unit. I had been warned by friends that relationships in the bush can become strained and that the stresses of being in the middle of nowhere for long periods affects people in a way others rarely experience. We were free from any such strains, the days passed with hard hunting and cheerful banter as days merged into weeks and the pressure to contact a good bull built.
As an interlude, we hunted guinea fowl between territories. Upon coming in sight of a flock, “shooting guinea” Jackson would shout; Grant would stop the Land Cruiser and out I would leap, Thompson 12-bore in hand and head off in pursuit. The guineas run rather than fly and soon disappear into the thick bush if you don’t move fast. The best technique was to walk as fast as possible into the flock and spook them into a flush. You then had a chance at a quick right and left before they were all gone. A follow-up was then possible if you could hear them cackling in the next bit of scrub.
When the blood is up, the brain all too easily shuts down. All your faculties focus on the hunt. On one occasion I found myself deep in the open bush, thigh-length grass all around and patches of acacia scattered every fifty yards. I had chased a flock of guineas from thicket to thicket and now I had lost sight of the track. Trying to make a line for the return route I must have missed it because ten minutes later I came to another, mistook it for the one I sought and turned left, expecting to come across the Land Cruiser around the next bend, then the next, then the next. Half an hour later I realised I was in the middle of nowhere, isolated and vulnerable, on the wrong track.
I had no water, the mid-day sun beat down and I knew I would dehydrate before long. I had maybe three hours. Once that starts, your judgement goes, as do your senses, then you lose all sense of direction and, eventually, consciousness deserts you. The bush all around me looked the same. Thickets, long grass, occasional tall trees. I knew I had to track back the way I had come. As I did so, I drew arrows in the sand occasionally, to indicate my direction; an empty cartridge was placed in the head of each one for identification.
The empty cartridges prompted me to reflect on the severity of my situation. We had encountered sleeping lions on several occasions and I knew that every small tree or patch of scrub could contain one or more. You simply do not see them from ground level until you are on top of them. I had three shells left. Each filled with one ounce of No.6 bird shot. Why had I not packed a couple of the home-made buckshot loads I had put together earlier in the hunt to guard against camp marauders at night? To be of any use against a big cat my weapon would now have to be kept until a range of five yards or less separated hunter and hunted. From there a head-shot should have sufficient power to stop a charge. Any further and it would only enrage. Not very good margins to contemplate but survival instincts kick-in and each scenario must be processed in order that it can become a plan in extremis.
Hindsight is great, I thought, but I had only planned to shoot a couple of guinea fowl, then hop back on the truck. No water, no adequate firearm and no idea where I was. Do I wait on the track? No, too many tracks, too remote a chance that searchers would find me here before I succumbed to the lack of water in the 35 degree heat. I began to doubt my reasoning; should I climb a tree to scan for the truck? No, too much energy would be wasted, the trees were too steep and they were branchless low down. Besides, God knows what may lurk in the undergrowth at their bases or in the hidden folds of the canopy. You cannot climb with a shotgun.
There was nothing else for it: I had been headed the wrong way down the wrong track. I was right to go back way I had come and see if I could re-locate the correct one, or at least have chance of coming into ear-shot of the others. I considered firing a shot to indicate my location but with only three shells I did not want to be stuck out here with my stocks any more diminished. Who knows when I may need them, I reasoned. Decision made, I pressed on. Tracking my own footprints for fifteen minutes, I then took a sharp right and headed back into the long grass. I figured that at this angle, if I calculated correctly, I had to come to the right track; then I had a chance.
My bet was that Grant would stay with the vehicle and the trackers would fan out from it seeking me. Fifteen minutes of steady walking followed, stopping to listen and look, senses hightened but panic still abated; concentrate and I should be OK, I told myself. Then I heard a noise ahead; a shout? I strode closer, called out in return and heard, then saw Jackson. Relief! Matite also came into view. Heading in their direction I came upon the Toyota, Grant and Michael next to it.
“Did you get lost?” Michael called out as I approached. A half smile; “No” I lied. Nothing more needed to be said. It could have been bad, we all knew it. But it wasn’t. Lesson learned. Africa can bite you in the arse if you give it a chance. It was a scenario which could have been ended by an encounter with a buffalo, a lion, a leopard, a mamba or just plain old dehydration. Any one of these and the hyenas would be giggling as they fought over my bones that night. As it turned out, fortune was in my favour. Forget about it: crack open a tonic water. Back to hunting elephants.
The pressure during the whole hunt, I have to admit, largely fell on Grant’s shoulders. It was his job to ensure everything worked. Every occasion he passed up on a decent bull in the belief that time and effort would deliver a better one, he added to the likelihood that by day sixteen we would be without an elephant. Michael would go home trophy-less and being a gentleman, he would have made the best of it. However, as the days wore on, Grant’s cigarette smoking became more frequent, until he was lighting his next one from the stub of the last before it went out. Still, he kept his pecker up, the smile never slipped, the fun never left the party and morale was sustained. This is as much a part of the job of the PH as the tracking of a beast or the straight shooting needed to get a client out of a sticky situation. The whole hunt succeeds or fails on the character of the PH. He is the backbone of the hunting party and his strength and belief feed the lesser mortals and breathe life into the whole venture.
By Day Eleven we were eating into our comfort zone. Two notably decent elephants had already been turned down after much debate. The first was found close to the camp in the first week and the second came wandering into the open ground in front of our pan just as we finished lunch at the start of Week Two. Both were around 60lbs per side, one was short and thick, the second long and thin. This second bull was very tempting. Micheal was impressed by the length and evenness of the tusks and the elephant was in an ideal place to stalk up close and take a frontal brain shot.
Grant and Michael stood in hushed consultation behind a couple of scrubby trees, Jackson and Matite the trackers, interjected with whispered words occasionally and eventually, after what seemed like ten minutes, the group silently backed away from the elephant, leaving him to graze peacefully, none the wiser that he had been seconds away from death. He was not quite thick enough to be ‘right’ and Grant staked his reputation on finding a bigger beast.
Four days later we were all wondering out loud if we should have taken ‘long tusks’ and talk turned to the dim likelihood of his still being around. We had spent the time since in dogged pursuit of every big bull in the concession but every one either evaded us, turned out to be too young or was in possession of broken tusks.
The strain was starting to tell on Michael too. A particularly close call in the morning had us all in reflective mood. A call from George had seen us heading at speed in his direction. He had spotted some bulls and they were holed-up in some thick stuff close to where he was waiting. Twenty minutes later we pulled up to George’s Land Cruiser and watched a young bull heading off in a hurry but George told us there were three more, one very big, in a patch of acacia trees surrounded by thick bushes about two hundred yards from where we stood.
Quickly but quietly we disembarked from the Land Cruiser, Michael’s .470 came out of the slip, he loaded and shouldered it. Grant’s .416 was handed to him and we made for a patch of cover with two low trees immediately facing where George had seen the elephants. Once in position we had a dilemma. The bull was big. He stood oblivious to our presence, the wind blowing in our favour, side on and presenting a side-brain shot, except for one or two small problems.
The first problem was trees. A large acacia trunk blocked the heart-lung shot completely and an overhanging branch covered his head. The side brain shot must be precise, for an inch in the wrong place can smash the ivory and not kill the elephant. Then you have a very cross pachyderm to follow and a broken trophy. The second problem or, more properly, problems came in the shape of two younger bulls. They stood to the rear of the old chap but directly facing me, one behind the other.
Startled elephants run in the direction in which they are facing as a general rule. I was crouched under a small tree about fifteen yards to Michael’s right, with the game scout accompanying me. Michael was part of a small group consisting of him, Grant, George and the two trackers, Jackson and Matite. Grant and Michael were in hushed conversation as they tried to work out where and when to take the shot. The elephant was big, probably 68 lbs or so, maybe more on one side but the ivory was not very pretty, the tusks being uneven. From my position I could not make out his features but the thumbs-up from Michael showed me the bull was a shooter. But the situation could not be more risky. I was unable to see the two younger bulls at all from my vantage point but to Grant it was clear what would happen if the shot was taken- they would head straight for me in a panic and he would hope they spooked and turned away rather that take the direct route over the top of me.
We never got to test my luck in this respect. While awaiting the right opportunity to shoot, the swirling mid-day wind caught us out again. The bull caught a whiff of human scent and abruptly turned and ran in the opposite direction, accompanied by his mates. We ran down wind and tried to get the right side of him but he gave us the slip and headed over the track and into ever thicker scrub. We gave chase for three or four hours, took evasive action when we encountered some cows resting in the shade and had to give them a wide berth%