We found the carcasses at 11 in the morning. The Zimbabwean sun had mummified them in the positions of agony in which they died. There were six, a young sable cow and five impala, spaced in a line 200 yards long. Their killer was the principal author of death and suffering among Africa’s wildlife, the poacher’s snare. They had been grabbed by the neck or the leg or the body and had perished from thirst and hunger and exhaustion. Whoever set the snares had never come back to collect the bodies while they were still usable as meat.
Clive Perkins, my PH, watched as our trackers collected the wire and said in a voice as filled with bitterness as any voice I have ever heard: “Welcome to Africa, David Petzal.”
We were, however, to see worse.
Two days later I killed a dry Cape buffalo cow whose hoof had been ensnared at the hock. She had managed to break free, but the wire had dug so deeply that we could not dig it out with a knife, and the whole lower leg was grotesquely swollen. We heaved her into the truck and drove her back to camp, and on the way we saw another buffalo cow that had stepped in the wrong place. This one, however, had amputated her left foreleg halfway up.
Africa deals with the halt and the maimed in the form of lions and hyenas, which do not always bother with the formality of killing what they dine on, and though it would have been merciful to shoot the second cow then and there, we couldn’t. She was only 75 yards away, but she was on another hunting concession, and woe betide the professional hunter who lets his clients trespass for whatever reason. The only thing we could do, said PH Wayne Van Den Bergh, was go back to camp, call the manager of the neighboring concession, and get permission. Then it would be a simple job to backtrack and shoot her.
“Of course,” said the manager, so back we went, and she wasn’t there. We didn’t think she would move far because animals, particularly crippled ones, do not like to travel in the heat of an African high noon. We began to track her.
There were six of us: Clive Perkins; Wayne Van Den Bergh; PH Theo Bronkhorst, who ran our concession; Willard Ncube, who tracked for Wayne; Elias (he pronounced it EEL-ias) Mathe, who tracked for Clive; and me. When you trail game, the trackers normally go ahead of the people carrying rifles, but when you follow a wounded Cape buffalo, the people with rifles stay up front. I was carrying a Jarrett Professional Hunter in .416 caliber, topped with a Swarovski PV 1.5–6x42 scope—plenty enough gun, assuming I had the time to react. The trackers look for sign, and you keep your eyes forward, watching for a gray shape that will come hurtling at you with jackrabbit speed.
Her track led us out of the mopane woods where we began and into the open. She had gotten into a dry riverbed that was overgrown with waist-high grass. Elias shouted, and we got a glimpse of her head. She was cantering on three legs, moving much faster than we could, and there was no time to even snap a shot at her before she vanished into the grass.
We followed, and the grass changed to taller reeds, which soon were head-high. We were now trailing blind, and it was apparent that if we were tracking her, she was leading us. The reeds were so dense that if you thrust your arm into them you could not see your hand. Theo and Clive left the riverbed for the bank; if she came out of the reeds they would be able to see her and shoot her.
Within another few hundred yards the reeds were 12 feet high and we were reduced to crawling through tunnels left by buffalo that used this place as a refuge during the day. Sometimes our quarry left the tunnels and pushed her way through standing reeds, and we were forced to claw our way after her.
That she was going to charge eventually was a given, and there would be no warning, no time to aim. If we got a chance to shoot at all it would be point, pray, and pull the trigger. Wayne made his way back to me.
“Listen,” he whispered, “if you have to shoot her off one of us, for Christ’s sake shoot upward so you don’t hit us.”