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.
A Dangerous Game
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 1.5–6×42 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.”
Our own rifles were as much danger to us as they were to the buffalo. A trigger can snag, or a muzzle can cross a human back, and that is as good as a horn through the chest. A PH with whom I hunted years ago, as careful an individual as you would want, shot a colleague while trying to stop a leopard charge. The man he shot lived but will never really recover.
Theo and Clive yelled at us to come up on the bank. We lurched out of the reeds and into the shade. A water bottle was passed around and I took a couple of swallows, but it made no difference. It was like pouring water on a hot stove top. There seemed to be nothing else to do, so the four of us prepared to wade back in.
“If she gets her head into you, grab her horns and twist,” Theo said. “She can’t stay on her feet with that missing leg.” I waited for him to smile and show he was kidding, but he was not. Back we went. By now we had crowded her into the end of the reedbed. She had perhaps 2 acres in which to maneuver, but all she had to do was keep a few steps ahead of us and pick her time to charge.
She did. There was no warning at all. There was simply a crash of reeds and a massive gray shape blotted out the sun. Wayne fired at it from a crouch; I shot across my chest while falling backward. Then the shape vanished. I could almost have touched it with my rifle barrel. There was a patch of blood on the ground and Elias was smiling. “Did we kill her?” I asked.
“No,” he said, and I realized he was smiling because she had not killed him. I think the combination of nearly impassable reeds and the missing leg saved us. She could not keep her footing in that tangle, fell, scrambled up with possibly one or two bullets in her, and fled. If she had charged with four legs, she would have killed one of us.
We kept going, and after only a few yards Willard froze. “Shoot,” he said, pointing into the reeds.
I couldn’t see beyond my rifle barrel, but I fired.
“Shoot again,” he said, now pointing in a different direction, and I did.
“Reload,” said Willard, but I was doing that.
We stumbled onward, and Wayne suddenly lurched back in agony. A reed stalk had speared him in his eye, and he was now down to one usable eye and one round of ammunition. Wayne, Willard, and Elias had a short talk in Ndebele, the sum of which was: “We’re not going to get lucky twice. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
So we left the reeds, and Theo summed up our efforts perfectly: “Man, that was stupid.”
There was only one thing left to try. Willard and Elias climbed an acacia tree while Theo and I stood on the roof of the truck. We would try to look down into the reeds and shoot from above. Clive blocked off the end of the reedbed, and Wayne, who has a wife and two children, borrowed ammunition from Clive and headed back into the riverbed.
We could see the reeds waving as the buffalo maneuvered, and Clive got a glimpse of her. He shot and was sure he had connected, but it was a standoff. She would not leave the reeds in daylight, and we could not go in after her. Theo called an end to it.
An Unhappy Ending
A few days later I asked Theo if he would ever know what happened to her, and he said no, something would drag her down and she would vanish. In fact, she was almost certainly dead as we spoke.
So be it. We failed. I would like to think that we got a few bullets into her and at least shortened her suffering if we could not end it outright. There is one thing more. I would like to think that somewhere in one of the nastier neighborhoods in hell there is a wire loop waiting for the foot of the poacher who snared her.
This story was published in the April 2009 issue of Field & Stream.