The World’s Most Dangerous Hunt by Tim Herald
The World’s Most Dangerous Hunt
Hunting elephants in the Zambezi Valley of Zimbabwe is possibly the world’s purest, and most dangerous hunt.
By: Tim Herald
I recently returned from a safari in the Zambezi Valley of Zimbabwe where I led a group of friends and WTA clients for a mixed bag of buffalo and elephant. I know elephant hunting can be controversial, but I would like to get a few things straight.
First, elephants are not endangered. CITES issues permits in many countries, and if they were endangered, this would not be the case. Furthermore, where elephants occur, they are usually over populated. Zimbabwe has parks that are absolutely over run with elephants. One park has over 10,000 elephants and the carrying capacity is about 1500. Botswana’s Chobe National Park is drastically more overpopulated. What happens in these situations is the elephants leave the park for food and water, and there is lots of human conflict.
Secondly, elephant hunting provides income to impoverished local communities (helps to build schools, water wells, etc.) and supplies them with virtually all the protein they will get through the year. Funds from elephant hunting also pay for anti-poaching that helps protect and manage the overall elephant herd as well as the other wildlife in an area.
Finally, elephant hunting is not easy, and in my opinion is the most dangerous hunt on earth (where the animal is concerned). If done right, most tracking elephant hunts require a hunter to walk dozens of miles tracking elephants through rough and thick terrain in search of the right animal. Then you must get in close (generally 15-30 yards) for a good shot. I don’t think there is any other animal that is more likely to charge (and kill you) when unwounded than an elephant. Every time you go in close on elephants, there is a true sense of danger, but there is also awe at being so close to such huge and majestic creatures in the wild.
The reasons I think elephant hunting is the purest of all hunts are:
- It is a tracking game that requires lots of miles. You would think anyone can follow elephant tracks, but it is amazing how little sign these giants leave when walking through grass or over hard ground. The general consensus in Africa is that there are good trackers, and then there are guys who can really track elephants. It is an amazing part of the hunt.
- The true danger factor mentioned earlier. Often you have encounters with elephants you do not want to shoot, and every encounter is a potential charge.
- The shot is tough. Shooting an elephant is easy, but making a brain shot is not. The brain is fairly small, and the aim point changes with every angle or movement of the head. It sits well back in the skull, so you have to be able to visualize where the brain is no matter how the elephant stands. A relaxed elephant requires a shot right between the eyes to hit the brain from the front, but if the elephant lifts its head to look at you, you may have to shoot a foot down into the trunk to properly reach the brain. All this must be done while a hunter controls his nerves being a mere 20 paces from one or more huge animals, often in thick cover. It is a tough shot that is very executed improperly.
On this trip, I was hunting with two good friends, Skip Nantz from Kentucky, and professional hunter (PH) Buzz Charlton of CM Safaris who is a serious supporter of DSC. I have traveled to hunt with Skip for 20 years (including to Buzz’s camp), and I shot my first elephant and leopard with Buzz many years ago. So it would be 3 old friends getting together for a double elephant hunt.
Skip was hunting a non-trophy bull. That means an old, mature bull, but one with inferior ivory. This gives the hunter a full elephant bull experience, still supplies the community with meat and food, but the trophy fee isn’t as high as a trophy bull. I had a cow tag, and we wanted either a tuskless cow, or one with very bad genetics as far as tusks go, and obviously an old, past breeding aged elephant. Again, the community and conservation benefits are there on this type hunt.
We had 10 days to hunt, and the plan was to follow big, old bull tracks every morning, and just try to get into elephants in general in the afternoons. We tracked and approached elephants every day. There were single bulls we walked away from, and there was a mixed group of cows and bulls that numbered nearly 50 that we just couldn’t get a shot at the big tuskless in the middle before they winded us.
One morning we followed some bulls that eventually joined a herd, and tracking them took us over two mountains before we found them in a secluded valley in open forest. We got on a high spot in front of a small group of about 12 animals, and I will never forget seeing a line of huge foreheads emerging over a bank, headed straight at us.
One big bodied bull stepped up on our level at about 17 yards, looked at us, and then we were in a stare down. Buzz whispered to me, “if he comes, shoot in self-defense”. Wow, what an adrenaline rush!
Buzz yelled loudly at the bull, and thank goodness, he turned and retreated, taking the others in the group with him. It was a true highlight for me.
We had another standoff with an ornery cow at about 15 yards the next day, and again Buzz gave me the green light to shoot if she came. She too decided to retreat into a thicket, but it was tense for a number of minutes.
On day 8, we were on elephants in the morning, but we didn’t get in on a suitable animal. In early afternoon, we found fresh sign leading into the hills, so off we went tracking the small herd. It was about 90 degrees, and luckily we caught up to the elephants after only about two miles. There was a young cow in the open to our right, and a group of about 8 elephants in front of us standing under a shady tree. There was brush between us, and Buzz and I glassed the animals
The closest elephant was a very old cow, that had no tusk on one side and only a few inches of ivory sticking out on the other. Buzz told me she was a perfect candidate, so we moved in. At 15 yards we stopped, and the elephant was broadside. It would have been a perfect side brain shot, and that is the easiest angle. The problem was there was another elephant directly on the far side, and when shooting a big solid bullet on a side brain shot, there is a decent chance for a pass through. We could not chance hitting a second elephant.
We waited for what seemed forever, and I knew the slight breeze would shift, and the herd would blow out. The breezed did shift, but it was the young cow to the right that caught our scent and began walking away. The elephants in front saw that, and they moved a bit to see what was going on. The cow I wanted turned my way, and gave me a hard quartering to angle, but we knew there would be no pass through.
I lifted my Verney-Carron .470NE double rifle, took quick aim with my Trijicon RMR Type 2 sight, and touched the front trigger.
When the 500-grain Cutting Edge Bullets solid hit her just beside of the eye socket, she went straight to the ground, and the hunt was over, the right way.
There is always sadness when an elephant is down, and it is just because we respect them so much. She was a perfect elephant to take, as she her last molar was almost gone, so she was on the road to literally starving to death. By tooth ware, she was estimated at 63-65 years old, and Buzz thinks she is the oldest elephant they have ever taken.
She provided tons of protein for the local villages, and people of the area were beyond thrilled to have the meat.
By GPS we had walked about 67 miles before we took my elephant, but we still had one to go, and time was short
We got out before daylight the next morning, and just at dawn, we found fresh tracks of a group of eight bulls leaving a village area and headed back to the safety of the thick bush to spend the day. One track had some very distinct cracks that were easily identifiable, and Buzz told us it was definitely an old bull and we needed to try to find him.
We tracked the first two miles at almost a jog, and then a huge herd of cows and calves crossed over the bulls’ tracks. This made things very rough on our trackers Criton and Nyati, but they were persistent, and time after time, they found our unique bull track.
The elephants got into some really thick stuff, and a couple of times we found where they had smelled us and took off running. We stayed after them, but honestly, it seemed almost hopeless because we were into so many elephants, it was so thick, and the wind was inconsistent. We just could not catch a break.
Then around noon, Criton found the unique track, and it was fresh, within 30 minutes, we slipped in, and all alone under a shady tree was a big bodied bull. Buzz said he was a great management bull as he was fully mature, but his tusks were not good.
He was facing us, but as Buzz and Skip began a final approach at about 50 yards, the wind shifted, and he bolted. We were all really disappointed, but we waited just a few minutes and took up the tracks again.
Unbelievably, within 300 yards, we found the bull feeding. He was moving, so we made a quick dash to spot where we thought Skip might get a shot if he crossed through an opening, and it all worked just perfectly. The elephant stepped into the small opening, Skip brought up his double, and seemingly in the same motion squeezed the trigger making a perfect side-brain shot.
The big bull went straight down, and we had our second elephant in two days.
This one was extra special as I had been on a trip with Skip in 2012 when he lost a 70-75 pounder, and obviously, that was a tough situation. Skip was beyond elated, and it was great to see a good friend have success that meant so much. A first elephant is a huge deal, and I felt honored to have been right with Skip as the hunt played out.
I can’t lie, I was also hugely relieved that I didn’t have to walk any more. I had some major blisters appear on my feet on day two and three, and I had been almost hobbling the last few days of the hunt. I did all I could to tape and pad my feet, but they were a mess, and it made every step miserable. By Skip’s GPS watch, we ended up walking 74.5 miles, but that is how a proper elephant hunt should be.
We spent the last day of the trip on the Zambezi River relaxing and doing a little fishing. Skip’s luck held out and he caught a huge Vundu that was in the 70-pound plus range and a nice tigerfish. It was a fitting way to end a fantastic hunt with great friends.
SIDEBAR: BIG GUNS AND BIG BULLETS FOR THE BIGGEST GAME
On this hunt, I shot my Verney-Carron double rifle chambered in .470 NE using Cutting Edge Bullets (CEB) 500-grain solids. My VC double is my favorite rifle I have ever owned, period. It fits me like a glove, is incredibly accurate for a big bore double, and I have to admit it has classic beauty. My eyes aren’t the best in the world, so I added a Trijicon RMR Type 2 sight to the rifle. This little red dot site is super low profile, and it gives me confidence to shoot way further than I ever could with iron sights. I have killed numerous plainsgame animals at over 100 yards, and for pinpoint accuracy on an elephant brain thot, the Trijicon site makes things quite easy.