To smoke or not to smoke:
The view in front of me is tranquil. The low hills offer a perfect vantage point when you climb onto a big rock and glass the dry open Mopane veldt beneath you. I rest my legs and lean back against the old Rock-fig tree that has been here before man. Far below me an Impala Male is grunting. He is spoiling for a fight to prove himself to the ewes. A Yellow billed Hornbill is making an awful noise to my left.
I lit up a cigarette and looked at the smoke as it drifted away on the light breeze. This made me wonder about the different beliefs and superstitions that we bow hunters follow for some or other reason. Some hunters believe that to smoke while hunting is just as bad as to hunt with day-glow camouflaged clothing because you will be exposed to all.
Other hunters do not share the same sentiments and smoke whenever they feel like it. Be it in a blind or out for a stalk. Both groups produce trophies or meat at the end of the season. Some non-smokers do not mind burning Cow-dung around their blinds and even believe that it masks the human scent and that would help animals to calm down or not to be so jumpy. Why then are there two opposites that both enjoy success in hunting?
Most plains game animals use their noses, eyes and ears in that order to gather information about their surroundings. These three senses also make up an animal's mind as to be curious or to flee. Take a big Kudu bull for example. Those big ears are like radar dishes absorbing every sound in the bush.
When next you sit in a blind and a kudu walks in, take a good look at him and look at how he uses his senses. He will stand dead still and listen for an hour before he takes a few careful steps. He will do this the whole day. Younger bulls and cows do not listen so intensely or so long before they move. If he hears something he will freeze and be motionless for as long as it takes. Cows and young bulls will often stretch their necks or take a few steps to get a better view of the origin of the sound. This sometimes is the cause of them being shot.
If a big bull sees something, he will also freeze. He will slowly turn his head to follow a person that walks diagonally past him. His ears will be poised so as to confirm what his eyes saw. If the hunter is outside his personal space, he will not run. By standing like a statue he believes that he is invisible and he will keep his pose for a long time and not even blink an eye. Young bulls and cows will move and walk away. This is why they often get shot especially by rifle hunters seeking Kudu.
When the wind turns and a Kudu smell danger the whole picture changes in an instant. There will be a loud bark and the sound of breaking branches will be heard as he runs flat out through bushes with his curling horns laid back along his back. No Kudu will ever stand still if he smells you even at a distance. He will put as much distance between himself and the source of the smell in as sort a time as possible.
Will it help to prevent him from running by burning dung then? Look at reality. There are literary thousands of different smells out in the bush. Water, soil, grass and trees have all got their own smell. Bushes and trees all smell differently and even more so during spring time. All the animals and birds each have their own smell. Some insects have such a strong smell that some of them can be detected at a great distance even by us humans.
Then there is the smell of fires, fuel and civilisation all around.
Each of these smells means something to an animal. He detects every one of them and then analyse them all from instinct. If he smells a human he is gone. By adding the smell of burnt cow dung will not disguise any other smells but just add to the ones already there. Some animals ignore certain smells. That does not mean that they did not smell it.
Even within the same herd of animals, some might feel threatened by a certain smell while others ignore it.
This is evident when you look at a herd of Buffalo. When a Cheetah or leopard walks past a herd of Buffalo, some will lift their heads and take a good sniff while others will not even bother. When a Lion walks past you can immediately see all the cows and young getting restless while the big bulls will stand there with their heads held high deciding on the next move.
Animals can also determine how far the origin of a smell is from them. Elephants will stand with their trunks in the air and bunch up if they smell a human at a distance but when the same human is close they will often trumpet and move off in a hurry. This is even more evident in areas where they are hunted or poached a lot.
We humans are blessed with a mind that can calculate and reason to solve problems and to sometimes predict events. We like to transfer those human thoughts into animals so that we can explain the things they do. Animals do not behave or think the same way as humans.
An animal with a broken leg does not lie down and feel sorry for himself. He goes on doing what he has to do in order to survive and many times the broken leg will heal even if it leaves the animal with a disability. This does not make sense to humans as we will lie down and cry when we break a leg and we will not be moving around doing our everyday things in such a state.
Some animals are even attracted to the smell of smoke. In the Kafue area of Zambia, the burning season starts in mid-May. Thousands of hectares of tall elephant grass are burned down so that new growth can start. Many times I have witnessed Common Reedbuck and Oribi actually following the flames to feed on the burned grass to get much needed salt and minerals that they otherwise would not be able to. They sometimes even move through the flames.
Whatever the effect of smoke is to animals is something we can debate for years. We shall never know the true answers to it all. To many hunters it is taboo to smoke or even smell of fire smoke while others want to smell like the camp fire in order to mask the human scent. To each his own as both do hunt very successfully and it does provide us with something to argue about over the aroma of good coffee and the smell of the meat on the grill.