Shadows in the Bush: Part One

There is no hunt more dangerous or more thrilling than a walking safari for cape buffalo in Africa's selous game reserve. If you come back at all, you won't come back the same.

Field & Stream Online Editors

"Cape buffalo do not bluff a charge. When one of them comes at you, he's not voicing an opinion-he wants to meet you personally." My mental tape recorder played back those words when, on the third morning of a 10-day walking safari in Tanzania's Selous Game Reserve, the trackers found the fresh spoor of a lone Cape buffalo bull. The commentary on the animal's personality had been delivered earlier by my guide, Wayne Stanton, a professional hunter, or PH as they're called in Africa. Several species of plains game were on my license-wildebeest, impala, hartebeest, zebra, warthog-but they were to be afterthoughts in a quest for the black-hided beast that is called Syncerus caffer caffer in scientific argot, mbogo in Swahili, and nyati in Ndebele, and is by any name one of the most dangerous big-game animals on the planet.

Awesome in size-a big bull will weigh 1,600 pounds-armed with sharp, curving horns that average a yard from tip to tip and form a boss resembling poured concrete, the Cape buffalo can be highly aggressive when surprised and vindictive when it's wounded or merely in a bad mood. It is also cunning, despite its dull, bovine appearance. Pursued by man or lion, its only predators, it will retreat into dense scrub, wait in ambush, then conduct the "personal meeting" of which Stanton had spoken, doing all in its considerable power to gore and stomp its pursuer to death.

I don't know how many people have been killed or badly injured by Cape buffalo in the annals of African hunting. I do know that the casualty list numbered four in the weeks prior to my arrival in Tanzania: one dead, three seriously hurt-ample evidence that the animal is not a cow on steroids.

**Fair Chase Means "Walk" **
Safari is a Swahili word derived from the Arabic for "traveling on foot." Since the 1930s, however, both hunting and photographic safaris have become motorized. In the hunting variety, the client rides about until game is spotted. He or she then gets out, toddles off a short distance, and pots it. In Tanzania, the rules of fair chase require the hunter to be only 200 meters from a vehicle when the quarry is shot. That didn't strike me as hunting; it was shooting. If I was going to kill an animal like a Cape buffalo, my personal rules of fair chase stipulated that I should pay for it in the currency of sweat, effort, and risk.

I wanted to make the most of the experience, believing that in hunting, as in most things, you get out of it only what you put into it. Miombo Safaris Ltd., an outfitter started 10 years ago by an American, Scott Coles, and a Tanzanian of Greek ancestry, Michel Mantheakis, went out of its way to accommodate me. Our hunting party, consisting of eight men, would be supported by a 10-man logistics staff, responsible for transporting food, tents, and heavy equipment by vehicle to a series of fly camps.

On the first two days, the hunting group trekked some 8 miles from Miombo Safaris' base camp to a fly camp near a water hole, overnighted, then walked another 11 miles to a second fly camp on the Ruaha River. Stanton and I soon realized we could not imitate the African hunts of yore, when safaris lasted weeks or months and the hunter had the leisure to march from one campsite to the next. With only 10 days, I could well use up my limited time merely traveling from point A to point B. So we decided to modify our plans by scouting for tracks and sign in the Land Rover and doing everything afterward on foot.

We had driven about 3 miles from camp on the third day when the trackers, Pius Raphael and Fabian Mora, spotted a solitary bull's hoofprints, leading down the road before they turned into a patch of low trees bordered by tall, yellow grass. Pius opined that the buffalo had passed through the previous night.

[NEXT "click here for more..."] Looking at the prints, each roughly the size of a coffee saucer, I felfear and excitement, apprehension and anticipation-an emotion that mimicked one I had experienced on patrol in Vietnam. I was reminded of a remark my friend and sometime marksmanship coach, Ted Fedun, had made a few weeks before I left the United States. Fedun had urged me to so familiarize myself with my rifle that it became an extension of myself. "Because you're not going hunting," he had explained. "You're going into combat."

Pius, Fabian, and Stanton pushed off into the grass, followed by me, then gun bearer Hassani Msologoni, photographer Hendrick "Stoney" Steyn, Andrew Walden, the assistant PH, and finally a Tanzanian government game scout who was there to record what was shot and where, and to make sure we complied with the country's game laws. He carried a .375 Holland & Holland. Stanton and I were each armed with a .458 Lott, his a Brno with express sights, mine a Ruger Model 77 with a Leupold 1.5X¿¿¿5X scope-a concession to my 63-year-old eyes and to the bushveldt. (That's a general term for scattered grasslands and mixed forests, in the shadows of which a whole herd of buffalo can be difficult to see.)

Several friends experienced in hunting dangerous African game had advised me to bring the .458 Lott, a formidable gun firing a 510-grain bullet from a cartridge resembling an anti-aircraft round. The first time I shot it at the range, I felt as if I'd been punched in the shoulder by the young Mike Tyson. Smaller calibers down to the .375 H&H; are adequate for Cape buffalo so long as nothing goes wrong. However, when they do go wrong, they go dreadfully wrong, and the hunter will be thankful for a rifle that will stop the charge of a quadruped pickup truck pumped full of adrenaline.

**The Story in the Dirt **
We followed the buffalo's trail for well over two hours, through swales of grass 6 or 7 feet high, through patches of light woods, into thick riverine forests bordering the dry sandy-bottomed streams called korongos. I should say that Pius, Fabian, and Stanton followed the trail, while I followed them. For me, interpreting the confusing language written in the dirt by half a dozen different species was like trying to make sense of Finnegans Wake. I would look right where the trackers and Stanton looked and could not for the life of me see whatever it was they saw.

Stanton attempted to educate me. "Those are new," he said, pointing at a couple of scrape marks on the pavement-hard earth. "They were made by his front hooves. You can tell he's an old bull because the edges are rounded off." Although he was only 34, Stanton, raised on a cattle ranch in Zimbabwe, had been hunting in Africa for almost 20 years, so I would have to take his word for it. Still, a suspicion lurked in the back of my mind that he and the trackers were faking things, putting on a show for their ignorant client.

[NEXT "click here for more..."] The suspicion faded when we crossed another road. There, clear in the reddish dust, were the bull's prints. He was traveling southeast, conveniently into the wind. I was grateful for that spasmodic wind, and not only because it carried our scent away from our quarry. Between the hours of 7:30 and 11 in the morning, the dry-season climate in the Selous (pronounced Sell-oo) goes from pleasant to warm to hot to very hot to beastly hot. The numerical equivalent of beastly is 104 degrees Fahrenheit, making every puff of breeze feel as welcome and unmerited as grace.

We continued on, the trackers reading the text in the ground, and came across a mound of soft buffalo dung with flies on it. This was sign that didn't require expert analysis-the bull could not be far ahead. But the role luck plays in any form of hunting should not be underestimated. Half an hour later, we found his trail obliterated by the prints of a herd of cows, calves, and young bulls and gave up the pursuit.

"He had a pretty big track on him," Stanton remarked. "It's a pity there weren't three or four with him. It would have been so much easier to follow them."

** Any Old Bull Will Do **
Cape buffalo are gregarious animals, but when a male grows old, he leaves the herd to wander alone or with a small band of other geezers. Tanzanian game laws allow the shooting of females, except when they are pregnant or with calves. As buffalo cows are almost always pregnant or with calves, this effectively limits legal animals to males. Those approaching the end of their life spans-about 20 years-are preferred, and if none presents himself, any mature male will suffice. There are two reasons for this custom: (1) Older bulls generally sport the most impressive horns; (2) Cape buffalo have fairly short breeding lives, so in killing an older one, the hunter does little or no harm to a herd's ability to propagate itself.

I wasn't after a trophy for the wall or the record books. I was collecting horns and skulls for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, as well as liver samples for DNA analysis by researchers in the museum's Department of Mammalogy. I had volunteered my services to this institution because of my early education as a blue-collar hunter in the woods and fields of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

According to the ethic I had been taught, one doesn't hunt purely for the sport of it but to serve some practical and beneficial end. In my youth, that meant putting food on your table or someone else's. We were going to eat whatever I shot and distribute the rest of the meat, but I thought the safari also presented an opportunity to make a contribution to science, however minor.

[NEXT "click here for more..."] It was also a way of paying homage to Frederick Courteney Selous, for whom the vast reserve (at 21,000 square miles, it is considerably larger than Switzerland) is named. Selous came to southern Africa as a young man in the 1870s and is generally acknowledged to have been the greatest African hunter of all time. He was also a keen amateur naturalist as well as a gifted author, explorer, and soldier.

**The Vision Thing **
The day after our fruitless pursuit of the lone bull, we came upon the fresh spoor of a large herd about 10 miles from camp near a dry water hole. We tracked the buffalo for the next four hours. They led us into the tangled forests that border the Ruaha to a depth of 2 or 3 miles. I was becoming slightly more literate in the language written in the earth and could distinguish the scrape marks of recent passage from older prints.

But I was in kindergarten while Stanton and the trackers held doctoral degrees. All three seemed to have superhuman vision that was doubtless the product of lives spent in the bush, away from artificial light, from TV and computer and movie screens. Maybe they saw the way nton remarked. "It's a pity there weren't three or four with him. It would have been so much easier to follow them."

** Any Old Bull Will Do **
Cape buffalo are gregarious animals, but when a male grows old, he leaves the herd to wander alone or with a small band of other geezers. Tanzanian game laws allow the shooting of females, except when they are pregnant or with calves. As buffalo cows are almost always pregnant or with calves, this effectively limits legal animals to males. Those approaching the end of their life spans-about 20 years-are preferred, and if none presents himself, any mature male will suffice. There are two reasons for this custom: (1) Older bulls generally sport the most impressive horns; (2) Cape buffalo have fairly short breeding lives, so in killing an older one, the hunter does little or no harm to a herd's ability to propagate itself.

I wasn't after a trophy for the wall or the record books. I was collecting horns and skulls for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, as well as liver samples for DNA analysis by researchers in the museum's Department of Mammalogy. I had volunteered my services to this institution because of my early education as a blue-collar hunter in the woods and fields of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

According to the ethic I had been taught, one doesn't hunt purely for the sport of it but to serve some practical and beneficial end. In my youth, that meant putting food on your table or someone else's. We were going to eat whatever I shot and distribute the rest of the meat, but I thought the safari also presented an opportunity to make a contribution to science, however minor.

[NEXT "click here for more..."] It was also a way of paying homage to Frederick Courteney Selous, for whom the vast reserve (at 21,000 square miles, it is considerably larger than Switzerland) is named. Selous came to southern Africa as a young man in the 1870s and is generally acknowledged to have been the greatest African hunter of all time. He was also a keen amateur naturalist as well as a gifted author, explorer, and soldier.

**The Vision Thing **
The day after our fruitless pursuit of the lone bull, we came upon the fresh spoor of a large herd about 10 miles from camp near a dry water hole. We tracked the buffalo for the next four hours. They led us into the tangled forests that border the Ruaha to a depth of 2 or 3 miles. I was becoming slightly more literate in the language written in the earth and could distinguish the scrape marks of recent passage from older prints.

But I was in kindergarten while Stanton and the trackers held doctoral degrees. All three seemed to have superhuman vision that was doubtless the product of lives spent in the bush, away from artificial light, from TV and computer and movie screens. Maybe they saw the way