Tracking buffalo in the dense West African bush isn’t easy. Thomas Nissen endures one hunt that lasts more than five hours.
The print of a lion foot in the red sand of the track is not particularly clear. As we pass it at relatively high speed, 45-year-old tracker Omaru Peka sees it several metres before the four-wheeler reaches it. Omaru is sitting on the front bumper while we drive – from here he sees everything, and has over the past few days demonstrated his abilities several times.
He is an excellent tracker, yet extremely humble about his skills. With an easy jump, he lands just in front of the vehicle, draws a circle around the print and sets himself back up on the bumper again.
Now the other PH of the concession cannot miss seeing the track if he gets past with his client, who is on the lion hunt. We continue about a mile ahead of the track before Omaru sees sign of the game we’re after. The tracks tell him that two old buffalo bulls have crossed here recently – now the real hard work begins.
Quickly we prepare the rifles and camera, then the water in bags – plenty of water. The first hour the track is easy to follow… for the tracker. If I personally have the luck to spot a buffalo foot print in the hard soil, it’s a big success, but for the trackers a broken blade of grass, a microscopic break in the hard surface or a worn twig is an easily legible and perfectly clear sign – they instantly know which way the buffalo have gone.
Slowly, the bush closes, the grass becomes higher, the tracks seem harder to follow. The pace drops and soon we completely lose the track. Omaru, the PH Francois Guillet and the two assistant trackers complete an exhaustive search of the terrain in front of them. Then an oribi antelope suddenly runs out from the high grass.
The little antelope disappears forward, where it creates such a big disturbance that thundering hooves from something else – something big – can be heard in the bush, quite close. Glimpses of two black shadows are visible as they slide through the area; white dust rises behind them. Damn!
Francois throws a hand sign to Omaru with a quick move. We can’t afford to miss this opportunity… forward, find the track, continue the pursuit – now! It’s still early in the morning and the temperature is already almost completely unbearable, but after sunrise, it just becomes warmer and warmer.
My palms moisten with sweat, while salty drops fall from the tip of my nose and chin. The sun is ever-present on our backs and we all drink about one litre of water per hour to stay sufficiently hydrated. It may sound like a lot, but even that doesn’t feel like enough.
West African savanna buffalo
This buffalo subspecies (Syncerus caffer planiceros) has a shoulder height up to 125cm and weighs on average 400kg – with significant variation. Both buffalo shot on this hunting trip were a live weight of around 650kg. The West African savannah buffalo is smaller than the Central African savannah buffalo. Body color varies from brownish black, reddish, tan, and other colours.
Big game of the concession
The hunting concession it is estimated to hold a stock of 60-80 lions, and one licence is granted for a lion per year. Lions can’t be shot over bait in Burkina Faso, which is why the hunting is predominantly tracking. Unfortunately, lions shot in the country cannot be imported into the EU.
There are many elephants in the concession, but no old bulls with ivory, as these were shot away by poachers. The elephant is considered by locals, to some extent, as a sort of nuisance as it continually overturns trees alongside the 800km of trails in the area.
It adds no real value, other than aesthetics and visual appeal to travelling hunters and a dwindling number of photographic tourists. Otherwise successful is the management of the ‘little’ West African savannah buffalo. For this subspecies, 18 licenses are sold annually to foreigners and two to Burkini citizens.
The concession we were hunting in is 80,000 hectares, which equals something like 16×50 km. It is one of 11 hunting concessions in Burkina Faso and borders the Arly National Park, which borders Niger and Benin. The way things get serious in a hot, dry, desolate and in many ways unrestricted bush was underlined in 1996, when trackers from the concession found a car with four deceased tourists.
The four tourists – mother, father and two children – had a few days before been reported missing in the park. It took some days before expanding the search to the surrounding hunting concessions, but it was too late. The mother had left a letter in which she described that the children died first, then the husband, and that she knew she would die.
What happened isn’t clear – If they drove wild and ran out of gasoline, or if the car got lost – but surely, they did not have drinking water, they did not know the bush well enough to find water, and they found fate in the cruellest way.
In the days after the disaster, the car was stripped of valuable components by poor locals, but the rusty car case still stands at the river bed as a gloomy monument to the tragedy.
Wild buffalo, living in wild nature and being managed in reasonable numbers, won’t graze a given area aggressively. They are constantly on the move during grazing, which spreads the pressure. The West African savannah buffalo also has this behaviour and can continue for several hours, moving carefully forward.
Omaru finds the track of the two bulls and follows them at a fairly quick pace. Nevertheless, we don’t get into them, as they move as fast as we do. They aren’t stupid – constantly they walk with the wind at their backs while they catch thee scent of us tracking them.
We do not get sight of them in the next three hours. We can only hope they turn a little off the wind direction, opening up a valuable opportunity for us. The shadows have become very short – actually they’re almost non-existent. At the same time, the temperature has reached almost 45 degrees. It is virtually intolerable.
Omaru discovers some buffalo droppings soon afterwards. With his right boot he steps into the soft mass in an attempt to assess the exact freshness. He finds that it’s only a few minutes old. We continue at a pace that almost resembles a gentle run. Suddenly the tracker stops, lifts his right arm horizontally and points forward.
He just stands and points, while the PH whispers to Jens Kjaer Knudsen, who is to shoot the dagga boy, that he has to get ready. One of the two buffalo is lurking in some rare shadow, behind a termite hill that rises triumphantly more than two metres up the trunk of a thick broad-crowned tree. The black contrast stands out between the interesting mix of vegetation.
Some bushes are fresh and green, while others stand with faded leaves and look completely dry. That bush grows here at all is a surprise, but it is a symbiotic interaction with the fauna’s needs. During this ‘rolling’ period of growth, the bush offers fresh leaves, nuts and fruits for the animals over a long period.
The bull rises. It has noticed our appearance, or at least sensed our presence. It is well covered by the bush… Jens does not wait around, and fires a shot at the animal. It thunders through the bush and promptly disappears.
It’s really frustrating. We have followed them for four hours over many kilometres and we are running out of water. During a short break, we quickly discuss our possibilities and distribute the last water – half a litre to each. It is so hot now that we think about giving up, but in this heat even the buffalo will have to stop and find shadow soon – a fact we plan to take full advantage of.
Despite the fact that we are exhausted and disillusioned, we press on. For each step dust rises from the ground and blends with sunscreen, resulting in erratic patches of dirt on our lower legs. We have run out of water and it will take, at the very least, an hour to reach the closest track, from where we can call the four-wheeler to pick us up.
These are the critical moments. The tracker suddenly kneels down and asks us to stop. He has a feeling that we are close to the animals. I too sink to my knees, but the ground starts burning my bare skin, so I rise quickly, brushing the dirt from my knees. Everyone walks ‘African-style’ with the barrel pointing downwards in front of them and the rifle resting on the shoulder.
It is impossible for them to grip the barrel – the sun’s rays have warmed it up so much that you’d think the gun had just fired off 10 shots in rapid succession.
We continue for another 50 metres, before Omaru goes a little to the right and Francois to the left.
Once they get 10 metres between them, Francois manages to observe one bull in the dense bush. The tracker has the shooting sticks, which are deployed in an instant. In three seconds sharp Jens is set up atop them, and in no time at all he puts the first shot in from the front.
The buffalo reacts perfectly and departs, followed by his mate, who apparently had been close by in the bush all along. Jens, Francois and myself all start giving chase. Jens puts another bullet in the bull no more than five seconds later, but it continues to stumble into the open.
The third bullet seals the fate of the robust animal. In a cloud of dust, it falls to the ground with a boom that echoes through the savannah. The death blow reverberates while the hunters approach cautiously. A couple of minutes later, Francois lets the rifle touch the eyeball as a final highlight of a massive success.
The bull is exactly the right one, as Francois does not shoot strong, reproductive buffalo that go with the herd. He would rather shoot older dagga-boy bulls with some substantial patina on their aging horns. A feeling of dizziness creeps up on Jens while we enjoy the sight of the animal – though it is not out of happiness, but more because the body is overheating.
Even I’ve started to get a little headache, which, like Jens’s dizziness, is a bad sign. While this puts a slight damper on events, this hunt has been my life’s biggest challenge. Hunting in the heat, following the tracker’s work through the entire, gruelling, five hour affair was the wildest tracking performance I’ve ever seen.
About the hunt:
Location: Burkina Faso
Organiser: FG Safaris
Best time: December to April. This hunt was in March – temp. up to 45 degrees C.
Antelope in the area: Lion, Sing Sing Waterbuck, Harnessed Bushbuck, Western Hartebeest, Western Kob, Nagor Reedbuck, Oribi, Western Bush Duiker, Warthog, Olive Baboon
Weapons: Brno .375 H&H
Optics: Swarovski Z8i 1-8×24
Bullet: Remington 270-grain SP
Hunt booked with:
FG Safaris by Francois Guillet:
Facebook: guillet françois