Professional hunter Kevin Thomas considers the varying attitudes towards hunting giraffes, and recalls one particularly memorable giraffe hunt he witnessed.
In his book A Hunter’s Life in South Africa, first published in 1850, Scotsman Roualeyn George Gordon-Cumming described a giraffe hunt as follows:
No pen nor words can convey to a sportsman what it is to ride in the midst of a troop of gigantic giraffes: it must be experienced to be understood; they emitted a powerful perfume, which in the run came hot in my face, reminding me of the smell of a hive of heather honey in September. The greater part of this chase led through bushes of wait-a-bit thorn of the most effective description, and my legs and arms were covered with blood long before I had finished the giraffe; I rode as usual in the kilt with my arms bare to the shoulder – it was Chapelpark of Badenoch’s old grey kilt, but in this gallop it received its death-blow.
Granted, we don’t hunt giraffe in as exciting a manner as that anymore, losing our kilts in the process, however we do still hunt giraffe. During June 2010 I was hunting with a good friend from the US, Bill Haslett, who wanted a giraffe. This wasn’t merely a trophy, mind you, but an assessment of the terminal velocity of his .404 Jeffery, purchased through Custom Gun Imports, out of Dallas, Texas. The rifle was built on a Satterlee Mauser action and his choice of optics was a 1-6×24 Swarovski scope with European claw mounts. Bill loads his own ammunition, and for our safari he’d loaded up a batch of 400-grain Woodleigh Weldcore round nose soft point bullets and a batch of Woodleigh 400-grain solids. He’d used Norma brass and 76 grains of IMR-4064 powder with CCI-250 primers.
A lot of folk are a bit queasy about killing giraffe, and I’ve even had clients saying they don’t show non-hunting friends any dead giraffe photos. And yet from an ethical perspective, and if it is wildlife management related, I don’t see any difference whatsoever between the shooting of an impala or giraffe. This unease about hunting a giraffe no doubt stems from their Disney image and portrayal on celluloid and in kiddie stories, not to mention the fluffy toy industry. Personally, I’m not entirely comfortable seeing a giraffe shot either, however one has to be both objective and pragmatic. When it comes to wildlife management on enclosed properties, whether they’re 1 million acres or 8,000 acres, the rifle at times has to become the regulator. When this happens, there is no room for emotion, and be it a wildebeest, zebra, impala or giraffe the numbers have to be regulated. Giraffe only have two predators to worry about: man and lion. More often that not in the Africa of today, when it comes to giraffe, the rifle rather than the lion becomes the regulator.
On Zimbabwe’s one-million-acre Bubye Valley Conservancy there is a healthy lion population and, relative to them, an equally robust prey species population. Giraffe are predated on by lion prides, and on my last safari we witnessed a young one being killed by lion. Management, however, also periodically offers the option of two giraffe per client on certain safaris, such as a 10 day buffalo and general plains game safari. In simplistic terms, rather than using their own staff they’re wisely utilising the paying sport hunter as a management tool to reduce giraffe numbers. There is no wastage at all, and the meat is processed through the BVC butchery.
Under these circumstances, and knowing the giraffe reduction program is for the good of the species, I have no qualms about guiding a client to hunt a giraffe. Contrary to common belief, however, shooting a giraffe is no walk over. If the shot is miss-placed or the wrong bullet type used you will, unless lucky, invariably lose your giraffe. The stalk can be extremely easy, or else you can end up conducting numerous stalks only to see your quarry lope away in their signatory gait, with tails curled up over their rumps.
Giraffe too, not unlike the ostrich, can cause havoc when you’re trying to stalk other game. Given their height, they have a distinct advantage over other species when it comes to spotting any threat. And when they thunder off as a group in a noisy stone-kicking gallop everything goes with them, even if it doesn’t know what the cause of disturbance was – frustrating for the hunter.
A mature bull giraffe is invariably much bigger than the female, being almost twice her size, and considerably darker in colour. Their ‘horns’ are better developed, too, and they often have a median horn in the centre of the forehead. Older bulls are often solitary, and because of their distinctive odour known as ‘stink bulls’. The penis sheath is clearly visible below the belly line on a male giraffe.
Bill and I hunted east of Nyati dam on the BVC’s Nengo section and, after encountering numerous bulls, we decided on a particularly good looking one off to one side of a group of cows and sub-adults. Bill was using a Woodleigh 400-grain solid and he was very keen to see how it would perform against his heavy boned giraffe quarry, so at about 80 metres he used the sticks and placed a shot into the shoulder. In acknowledgement the giraffe did a kind of rodeo kicking leap into the air, recovered, and took off. Convinced that it would go down within about 200 metres we followed it, but found two tiny spots of blood – nothing else.
We looked for that giraffe for three entire days and never found it. My eventual contention was that the solid bullet must have deflected off the heavy leg bone and lodged in the brisket – however, not having found it, we’ll never know for sure. As upset as we were at losing the giraffe, one has to be philosophical when hunting – these things occasionally happen.
About four days later, Bill and I had been tracking a herd of buffalo for a good few hours when, on a tributary not far from the Bubye River, we entered a patch of tall acacia and bumped into an extremely old stink bull. We’d previously discussed Bill’s option to take a second giraffe, and he had decided that he would. Using a 400-grain Woodleigh soft point from about 50 metres, he placed the bullet on the line of the shoulder, going in behind the heavy leg bones and into the heart/lungs: the giraffe ran about 15 metres before crashing to the ground dead.
I later had a Spanish client wound and lose a giraffe. He was using a .338 Winchester with European ammunition of some sort and fluffed a high spine/neck shot – normally devastating if placed correctly. Hunting out of the BVC’s Samanyanga Camp in 2011 with PHs Ade Langley and Paul Zorn, we had a Croatian father/son group, and the father wounded his giraffe using a .375 H&H. Ade and his trackers did a sterling job in locating it, although it took them virtually the entire day to do so, much of the tracking being the following of minute specks of blood wiped off high up on the mopane leaves – aerial spoor. We then had to cut a track in to where the giraffe had died, and only got out of there well after dark.
In June of this year I was hunting on the BVC with another good friend, the Pensylvanian Glenn Baker, and he too decided to shoot a giraffe. By this time I’d become fairly convinced that .300 calibres are marginal on giraffe unless the shot has been placed with absolute precision, and into a vital part of the anatomy, with a .400 calibre being a better option.
Glenn was using a .416 Ruger with 400-grain North Fork cup point monolithic bullets. After a fairly short approach on a solitary bull feeding with it’s back to us, we took him down. A single shot at 100m, on the line of the shoulder as he turned, devastating the lungs and leaving the chest cavity flooded with blood. The giraffe ran for about 80m before going down. This was my introduction to the .416 Ruger, an impressive calibre that I saw perform on buffalo and a tuskless elephant cow later in that same safari. We’ll be seeing a lot more of it on Africa’s hunting fields in years to come.
Photography by Dennis Thomas