The toughest track

When tracking a wounded buffalo, let caution prevail, warns Kevin Thomas

If statistics are anything to go by, it would appear that more hunters are killed or injured as a result of running after a wounded buffalo than those who track it cautiously and slowly.

Blindly running through thick cover after a wounded buffalo places the hunter at a distinct disadvantage, and for a number of reasons. Humans are noisy things, and if the buffalo has stopped fleeing, the noise of its pursuer will carry to it easily. And then when it suddenly launches an attack on the hunter from extremely close quarters, the hunter will probably be out of breath, have sweat stinging his eyes, and be caught off guard, leading to a botched shot. There won’t be time for a second shot.

Wounded lion and leopard by their very nature and reputations tend to see hunters exercising extreme caution during any follow-up action, and following a wounded elephant is a totally different scenario.

Why then do so many hunters throw caution to the wind and make the cardinal error of sprinting after a wounded buffalo? Is it perhaps a momentarily lapse of common sense during the immediate adrenaline-charged aftermath of the shot? When seeing their trophy disappearing in a cloud of dust.

During 1968, when I was a young cadet game ranger with the Rhodesian Department of National Parks & Wildlife Management, we had it drummed into us by our mentors to never run after a wounded buffalo or any dangerous animal if it had disappeared into thick cover.

Cover, by way of thickets or other habitat types, will dictate how quickly a follow-up takes place. Obviously too, common sense must prevail, and as an example, in extremely open knee-high grassland with a few scattered trees, the ‘never run after’ rule wouldn’t necessarily apply. In this case visibility would be good, and an animal the size of an elephant or buffalo would be clearly visual.

It would be folly to try and run after a wounded buffalo in this kind of cover. Although it can’t be seen, there is an elephant cow standing in the centre of this photo

Unless the animal you’re following is attacking you, shot-placement during a follow-up can be tricky too. Unless you spot it first during the follow-up, a fleeing buffalo offers few shot-placement options. They’re normally either a raking heart/lung shot as the animal breaks away after the first shot or from cover, or the proverbial ‘Texas Heart’ shot. This latter shot should ideally be placed at the root of the tail – not easy when your target is disappearing at a bobbing gallop through brush and dust.

After the first shot, if the buffalo doesn’t go down and run off, the golden rule of waiting for about 30 minutes is a wise one. It is specifically to allow the fleeing animal to hopefully slow down, and if badly wounded lie down and bleed out, or stiffen up. At times, when you’re waiting and listening, inexperienced trackers might show impatience and want to follow immediately. This mustn’t be allowed, and the full 30-minute wait should run its course.

While waiting, you may well hear the buffalo thrashing around in the brush, or the tell-tale drawn out death rattle (it doesn’t always happen). However, if you hear this last noisy expulsion of breath from the dying buffalo, then moving forward isn’t an issue, because you will invariably find your quarry dead.

Always try to approach the dead buffalo from behind with your rifle at the ready. The animal may not be dead despite lying on its side motionless. If it is still alive, getting a tracker to throw a stick at its rump usually elicits a response. During the stick throwing it’s wise to have your rifle ready and aim at the buffalo’s brain. Touching the eye pupil with your rifle muzzle is also a good test – if the buffalo blinks, put another bullet in immediately.

Once in 1996 I was hunting on one of Zimbabwe’s Matetsi blocks with a Japanese client. He’d shot a buffalo that ran off and disappeared into some scrub mopane. After the obligatory half-hour wait, we took up the blood spoor and eventually found the dagha bull lying in a heavily grassed riverbed. It was motionless, stretched out on its side and looked dead. As we approached from the rear a tracker lobbed a stick at it, which connected. In response, the ‘dead’ buffalo leapt to its feet, spun through 180ᴼ and immediately attacked us. Thereafter, followed the last Matetsi Banzai, a noisy two-minute joust with a lot of excited yodelling in Japanese (from the interpreter and client) as we shut the buffalo down.

Having waited for 30 minutes before following up, and then tracking cautiously we’d been fortunate to catch the dying buffalo unawares – until the stick hit its rump. The adage ‘it’s the dead ones that kill you’ is certainly a truism when it comes to buffalo. Had I run after it following on the client’s first shot, the scenario may well have turned out differently.

 

Another reason for not having to run after a wounded buffalo is because you’ve usually got discernible spoor to follow and, quite often in the case of a wounding, some
blood spatter too

Some years back, a South African colleague of mine (at the time in his fifties) once eagerly sprinted after a wounded buffalo as it disappeared into a sea of eight-foot high elephant grass. However, after about 70m his Olympian dash came to an abrupt halt because the buffalo was waiting for him. Hyperventilating badly, he only managed to get one ineffective shot off with his trusty .505 Gibbs before the buffalo clobbered him.

Fortunately, and because he was a South African PH he had an experienced Zimbabwean PH, Kontella Banda, ‘fronting’ for him on the safari. Banda had wisely shouted “Don’t chase it!” when the buffalo first took off into the long grass with the eager PH hot on its heels. Unfortunately, Banda’s shouted warning floated away on the breeze, ignored.

The next thing PH Banda and the client heard issuing from deep inside the long grass, was a single shot followed by loud shouting and an angry buffalo’s bellows and grunts of rage. Not wasting time, Banda forced his way through the elephant grass and found his colleague getting a severe goring from the wounded buffalo. Banda courageously ran up to it, placed his .458 Winchester barrel in its ear and shot it, then with Herculean strength immediately pushed it off the badly injured PH.

Some two months later, I shared a safari camp with the PH, who by then had recovered from his ordeal after having spent time in hospital. He readily conceded that had it not been for Kontella Banda he would have been killed. He also emphasised that he wouldn’t be running after a wounded buffalo again.

During 1992, another wounded buffalo scenario also took place in Zimbabwe, but sadly it ended in a double tragedy. PH Alistair Travers was an exceptionally good young PH and came from a well-respected family in Zimbabwe’s game ranching and wildlife industry. He was guiding a buffalo hunt with a prominent South African banker, Johan Bellingham, who also had his son along on the hunt.

Using a .375 H&H Bellingham wounded a buffalo that took off, and despite every effort no sign of it was found until the next day. When it was located, it immediately galloped down into a heavily wooded steep-sided narrow ravine, and then popped back into view on the opposite side.

 

In that brief window of opportunity when it reappeared, Alistair got off a shot just as the buffalo disappeared over the crest. The trackers later said he thought his bullet had connected with the buffalo’s hindquarters.

A Japanese client with his buffalo after a dusty joust with it. Despite having a Japanese interpreter along on the hunt, it wasn’t easy trying to communicate

Later reports indicated that after the shot Alistair, with the client and his son following in his wake, took off at speed after the buffalo. Obviously he felt his bullet may well have slowed it down, and was intent on anchoring it as quickly as possible. To save time he followed an elephant trail, which also led into and through the same heavily wooded area in the bottom of the ravine that the wounded buffalo had passed through earlier.

 

In the interim, and for reasons not fully clear, the buffalo having disappeared over the crest on the opposite side suddenly turned around, and still at a gallop came back along its trail towards the ravine.

Weighing about 820kg it had momentum behind it as it careened back down into the ravine straight into Alistair and Bellingham, who were hurrying along the elephant trail from the opposite direction. Alistair, being in front, was immediately attacked before he could get a shot in. The buffalo hooked him in the stomach, partially ripping his intestines out before tossing him up into the air. Falling heavily, he rolled off the trail and down into the ravine bed. During the melee Bellingham’s son had shinnied up a tree, and the buffalo next attacked and killed Bellingham senior instantly. It then ran off and once more disappeared, never to be accounted for.

Although not verified, one story later had it that Bellingham had possibly managed to get a shot off and that it’d hit Alistair in the groin. It was a huge tragedy, and the loss of a respected young PH shocked the Zimbabwe safari industry. Alistair, in terrible pain and shock, survived for a short while and was evacuated by air. Bush pilot Ian Piercy was flying overhead on another tasking when he heard the VHF call for an emergency CASEVAC. Unfortunately, Alistair passed away shortly before the aircraft arrived in Harare.

Alistair’s attempt to quickly follow the wounded buffalo after his shot at it was a normal PH reaction given the circumstances. But again, perhaps caution should’ve prevailed. The last thing they’d anticipated was the buffalo deciding to double back. By doing so it had caught them by surprise in thick brush.

In 2013 I was guiding an American client in Zimbabwe, and he inadvertently wounded his buffalo. For the first time in years of hunting I didn’t wait at least 30 minutes before following up. My trackers, who were good and had been hunting with me for a long time, were agitating for us to follow the blood-spoor after a five-minute wait. Against my better judgement I conceded to their wants.

The buffalo that attacked Kevin and his team us after they had failed to wait 30 minutes before following up. They disturbed it as it was about to lie down; had they waited it may well have succumbed to its wound

Complacency coupled with over confidence probably led to me agreeing. However, it was nearly our undoing, because within 100 metres of our start-point on the blood trail we got attacked by an extremely angry and determined buffalo.

 

Judging by the spoor pattern in the aftermath, it seemed as if it had found a place to bed down – and probably die. Our arrival in the thicket disturbed it, which initially led to it running off for about 40m. Moving cautiously forward on the spoor, we’d hardly covered 10m before it charged out of the brush bellowing and at incredible speed, almost getting among us.

It was a noisy affair, but we managed to shut it down, and then watched the sheepish-looking trackers attempting to climb down out of thorny trees that under normal circumstances would’ve been impossible to climb – a case of when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

Patience and discipline are the keys to successfully hunting buffalo (and any other dangerous game). Probably 99 per cent of wounded buffalo will keep trying to flee the hunter. However, if you rush the follow-up on a wounded buffalo, the odds are it will attack you.

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