By Craig Boddington
The Africa bug bit me hard when I was quite young. I saved my pennies and managed to get there in my 20s. My intent, honest, was to get Africa out of my system once and for all! That hasn’t worked out very well; ever since I’ve scrimped, worked my tail off, and even orchestrated my career so I could keep going back. It’s all wonderful, and all amazing. In part this is because of the variety.
In North America we go deer hunting, elk hunting, or possibly bear hunting. Africa has 100-plus varieties of antelope…and all the rest. No region has them all, but most African hunting areas boast at least a dozen types of “big game” ranging from very small to very large. Perhaps the best part of a day in Africa is you truly have no idea what you might see. Sometimes nothing, sometimes everything, often what you least expect! Today, unlike when I started, the most common African hunt is what we call a “plains game safari,” a week or ten days with several varieties of antelope, plus warthog and zebra, on the menu.
Such a hunt is the best bargain in the hunting world, surprisingly affordable for what Peter Capstick correctly described as “the last great adventure on Earth.” This type of short, inexpensive safari didn’t exist 40 years ago; nor were Namibia and South Africa, today’s most popular counties, on the hunting map. Back then the average safari was three weeks, with several opportunities for dangerous game on license. These longer safaris still exist, but are costlier today…and, these days, how many of us can get away for three or four weeks? So, the short plains game safari is a wonderful opportunity, and incredibly successful. In ten days you should take seven or eight great animals…pretty much at the cost of a mid-range guided elk hunt. A screaming bargain, and a life-changing experience.
If you can swing it, I strongly recommend you consider including a Cape buffalo, readily done within many ten-day safaris. If you can’t, don’t worry about it…you’ll go back to hunt buffalo someday, probably sooner than you think! In the past four decades I’ve spent cumulative years in Africa. Like I said, I’ve pretty much arranged my career to make this possible. Now that I’m nearing the end I don’t regret it! Some hunts have been specifically for the smallest antelopes; others have been for the largest game. Some have been normal plains game safaris, and all have been wonderful. But across all the hunts, now in 19 African countries, I should have some idea of what interests me most. That’s a one-word answer: Buffalo!
I’ve been fortunate; I came into African hunting in a different time. I’ve done numerous hunts for Africa’s great cats, and I’ve taken several elephants…although just one rhino. In today’s world I fully understand many hunters saying “not for me.” I will probably never again hunt these animals—but it’s unlikely I will tire of hunting buffalo!
By no reckoning is the buffalo endangered or threatened or likely to become so. Because of the bovine diseases they carry buffaloes have, regrettably, been eradicated from vast areas. But they still occur in varying densities across much of sub-Saharan Africa, and are common where they have value. In my time the South Africans have worked a miracle; they have bred up disease-free buffalo to the point where they are plentiful. Safari hunting’s greatest contribution is that it places value on wild animals that might otherwise be considered a dangerous nuisance. It is a market economy, so as numbers have come up I have seen what I never expected: South Africa’s buffalo, now plentiful with superb genetics, have become competitive with traditional buffalo countries such as Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
No one knows how many wild buffaloes roam Africa, but certainly in the low millions, with opportunities in most countries that allow sport hunting. Unlike the great cats, buffalo meat is highly desired and will be utilized; unlike elephant and rhino they have no value to commercial poachers. Like elk, kudu, wild sheep, and many other horned ungulates around the world they live about 13 years in the wild. Most buffalo bulls taken by hunters are at the end of breeding, but theirs is not a happy retirement. Absent a hunter’s bullet their normal fate, old and alone, is to be pulled down by lions.
Hunted properly in fair chase there is no need for apology in taking the life of an old buffalo bull, although a moment of respect is essential. The buffalo deserves this and more, for he is a great animal and worthy adversary.
He is a large, hoofed animal that typically lives in herds or, at certain times of the year and after his days as a herd bull are done, in bachelor groups. He leaves plain tracks and large amounts of dung, so he can be tracked and his spoor can be aged. He is followed by oxpeckers and cattle egrets, so often the birds will give him away…but when he’s moving the dust from his hooves will do the same. So, on the surface, it seems that it should be easy to find him, walk up on him, and shoot him, sort of like a recalcitrant bull in a pasture.
Not quite. Buffaloes and lions have coexisted for eons. The buffalo has good eyesight, exceptional hearing, and sense of smell on par with our whitetail deer. This latter is probably the first line of defense; sometimes you can move or maneuver, and buffalo are noisy feeders so a breaking stick may not be the end of the world…but one slight eddy of unfavorable breeze and it is game over.
This is greatly complicated by the fact that it’s a buffalo. And it must be the right buffalo. Cover, terrain, and vegetation always dictate hunting techniques and shooting distances, but buffalo cannot be sniped like deer, kudu, and sheep might be. You have to get close. First, to be certain of maturity. With buffalo it isn’t the spread of the horns, which can occur at an early age; it’s the complete growth of hard horn at the base, or boss. This is important because, although a buffalo bull is sexually mature at four, he is usually unable to compete for mating rights until nine or ten…which coincides with the complete development of the boss. The tragedy of shooting young bulls with fantastic horn spreads is they have probably not passed along their genes. It’s important to get a good, close look before the decision is made.
Second, the African buffalo is not a deer, elk, kudu, or sheep…he is a buffalo. Most of his life he is a placid herd creature, but he fights other bulls to breed and fights lions to live. He is not “two thousand pounds of black fury.” Few buffalo bulls weigh more than 1500 pounds…but that’s still a lot of bull. Unlike elephants and other animals, unprovoked charges are rare, and usually caused by injury or stupidity (as in getting between a cow and her calf),
However, the buffalo is strong, and I believe the old saw about a buffalo getting a major charge of adrenalin upon receiving a bullet. A first bullet, well-constructed and of adequate caliber and weight, in the right place, will do the job—but if that first shot is off anything can happen. In the Fifties Jack O’Connor wrote about a buffalo that took 14 shots from adequate cartridges. I’ve never seen anything like that, so I figured that was the all-time record.
In 2012 my friend, Zimbabwe PH Owain Lewis, was killed by a buffalo on the third day they tracked it. It was shot just once in the first encounter. This reflects two mistakes: The first shot wasn’t in the right place, which happens; and there was no backup to the first shot. Additional shots aren’t always possible, so maybe not a mistake in this instance, but a quick statistic: I’ve seen a lot of buffalo bulls wounded and lost, including a couple of mine. Sometimes buffaloes lie in wait to wreak vengeance, but often they just keep going. Wounded and never seen again is actually a more likely consequence to a poor first shot than a deadly charge. However, across several hundred buffaloes I’ve seen shot, I’ve never seen a buffalo “wounded and lost” that was hit more than once in the first encounter. Food for thought.
The buffalo that killed Owain was found on the third day through a tracking miracle. It charged through a firestorm, killed Owain instantly, and received 18 bullets before it succumbed. One can assume that not all were in the right places! Bad things can happen, so there must be an extra measure of caution. One does not snipe buffalo at long range! You have to get close enough to be sure of maturity, close enough to be sure of the first shot, and hopefully close enough so that additional shots can be fired.
It would be nice to get within 50 yards, but the buffalo is a herd animal—a wary cow is always watching. Even in bachelor groups Murphy’s Law dictates that the buffalo you want isn’t the closest one. I reckon 75 yards is a normal shot. 100 yards is okay, and in extremely open country there are times when a shot at 150 yards is the only option. This is rare, and really should be the limit. The risks are just too great.
Ideally, your buffalo hunt will give you the chance to watch the great African trackers work their magic. Following the tracks wherever they lead is as good as it gets, but in open or broken ground you may see the herd moving, or see their dust, or birds circling above them. In close cover you may be on their tracks, but you hear branches breaking or their cattle-lowing ahead. Now you have a shortcut, so you get the wind perfectly right and move in. This is what it’s really all about, closing with buffalo, sorting them out, looking for the bull you seek.
Not every group will have a worthy bull…but in larger groups it’s extremely rare to actually see all the bulls in a herd. If you see all the bulls you have won—but between cover and numbers you will rarely claim such a victory. But you’ll have spent long, tense minutes—sometimes hours—smelling the cattle smell, tasting their dung in the dust, and seeing one or another buffalo give you the “you owe me money” stare.
For me there is no game animal in the world like the African buffalo. Hunt him if you can but if it’s a stretch, just make the dream of Africa come true. Impala, gemsbok, kudu, warthog, wildebeest, zebra, and more…they’re all wonderful and they await. Trust me, you will find a way to go back to hunt buffalo!