by Kevin Thomas
The first time I was hunting and saw blood spots caused by a dropped shot, I must have been about 11 years old, and I was the cause of the blood spots. It was just after I’d wounded an African wild cat in the Sabi* River riverine at a place called Chibuwe Irrigation Scheme in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), mid-way between Birchenough Bridge and the Mozambique Border. I shot the cat at last light – the setting sun across the wide sandy river bed to the west, seemed to hang above Humani Ranch, silhouetting the tree tops and Illala palms against a crimson sky. Forty-seven years on I still get nostalgic when I recall that distinctive orange light during a Sabi Valley summer sunset.
Following on the whiplash crack of my old hand me down .22 Remington – a rifle that had belonged to my late grandfather, and my Dad – Tekeshe my black minder, fully five years older than me, myself, and a handful of eager Ndau kids my age, crawled under the hanging bush willow branches and on hands and knees scrunched our way towards where the wild cat had been standing on a carpet of dry leaves. The cat had acknowledged the shot by leaping into the air, before bounding off into the gloom deeper inside the thicket.
When we reached the place where I’d shot at the cat, we found spots of still wet blood on the dead leaves, it was splattered over about a half square metre area, before leading off into the scrub, a red spot every few feet to our front as we crawled along following the trail. It didn’t take us very far before we found the dead wildcat lying on its side as if in a deep sleep. Low down behind the left shoulder blood had stained the yellowish ochre fur a dark crimson. It was a lung shot although at that young age I wasn’t too knowledgeable on shot placement.
During that period of my life in the mid-1950s into the sixties we bought our ammunition and guns from a guy who owned a combined gun and liquor store in Chipinga. He went by the name of Tee Dee Dunster after his initials TD. In this day and age it would probably cause an anti-gun league protest if guns and liquor were sold over the same counter. I seem to recollect the only ammunition he carried for my .22 Rem was Eley Kynoch and we always bought hollow-point .22 Long, although my Dad also occasionally topped up on 7x57mm Mauser or .303 Enfield and particularly so in the winter months when it was hunting season – kudu were a favoured antelope for biltong (Africa’s version of jerky).
Getting back to the cat story, Tekeshe dragged it out of the brush by its tail and as the daylight finally faded, we sat in a circle on the sandy riverbed and he and I skinned it out using his old Okapi knife – a knife brand later banned in Rhodesia because with the locking blade, the police felt the Okapi knife was the cause of too many stabbing deaths during drunken brawls at tribal beer drinks.
After we’d skinned the cat, we triumphantly carried the carcass and the skin back to the Chibuwe camp where my Dad was based. I salted the skin out and in time tried to make a Davy Crockett hat, although it looked more like dried out road kill than a hat. We also attempted to grill the cat on the donkey boiler fire behind the camp kitchen. After covering our portions of meat with coarse dairy salt we clustered around the leaping flames and bright orange embers, and thrust our hastily cut skewers topped with the cat meat into the fire.
Thinking back I don’t remember raving about the flavour and since then I’ve never attempted to eat cat meat again, even though during a safari, a PH colleague once tried to talk me into trying some leopard fillet. I declined.
Wounded animals and blood trail is not something any ethical sportsman likes to experience, but the wounding of animals is a reality when it comes to hunting. I once heard a hunter boast to some colleagues that he’d never wounded an animal and although I didn’t respond out loud, my thoughts went something like, “You obviously haven’t done enough hunting”.
At about age 13 I was with a school buddy, Keith ‘Donks’ Donaldson. We had an exit weekend from boarding school at Umtali Boys’ High in Rhodesia’s Manicaland province and were on Donk’s stepfather’s tobacco farm at a place called Odzi. His stepfather Charles had let us go hunting with his 8x60mm Mauser, and although we didn’t even register on the type of bullets we were using, I do recall that they were soft point, probably of about 159grs.
It was an old military rifle and had an aperture sight (ghost ring) but the rifle was proven and Charles, a keen hunter used it for most of his plains game hunting. His other rifle was a .375 H&H and he loved to tell us the story about a lion he once shot in the Zambezi Valley. It was sound asleep on its back under a bush and never even woke up when his bullet whacked it.
Hunting with us was an old black farm laborer who I’m sure Charles had told to tag along more to watch over us than for his tracking skills. We hunted the drainage lines that led off the higher ground, tall ‘thatching’ grass as we called it, grew in abundance and covered much of the low ground. At our young ages we could hardly see over the top of it. Suddenly the old black guy who was walking to our front stopped, shielded his eyes against the fierce sunlight, and then turned around beckoning me, whilst crouching at the same time.
Clutching the rifle I moved forward and then saw what our minder was looking at. Out in an open patch of grass, about 100m from us a male common reedbuck was sunning itself. It had no idea we were there, so after squatting down on my haunches, I quietly chambered a round and then moved across to a tree to use the fork as a rest. By the time I’d poked the rifle barrel through the fork my adrenaline had kicked in and I was overcome by a gigantic tsunami of ‘buck fever’. Up until then, the biggest antelope I’d ever shot were common duiker. Trying to get a grip of myself, I attempted to pick up the reedbuck through the aperture sight, it was almost impossible but after sucking in a huge amount of air I held my breath, steadied, obtained a good sight picture and let go.
With the noise of the shot still reverberating around us, the reedbuck took off without even acknowledging being hit. Convinced I’d missed it and cussing myself for having succumbed to buck fever the three of us moved forward and after reaching where the buck had been standing, we cast around for blood. Initially we found nothing, but casting wider, the farm laborer suddenly bent over and said “ropa” (blood). It was a spot of blood about the size of a shirt button. We picked up the dry stalk of grass and studied the blood before casting it aside and looking for more sign – it was there but spread out – and never more than a small splotch.
In our young minds we followed the blood trail for what seemed like miles before eventually losing it and feeling guilty made our way back to the farmhouse. It was lunchtime when we arrived, tired, thirsty and hungry. Charles listened to our story of woe, and being an ethical sportsman bade us eat some lunch, get something to drink and then go out and find the suffering reedbuck. As an afterthought he added that we needn’t bother to come home until we’d accounted for it. With me having fired the shot, I felt guiltier than Donks.
It was a long afternoon and we did more of a sweep through the tall grass than a tracking exercise. Eventually however, we flushed the wounded reedbuck and as it ran off we saw its left front leg waving around, with some exposed bone, I’d obviously shot low and the bullet had smashed the leg just above the knee. Where it’d been lying up there was quite a patch of watery blood but having had a visual of the wounded animal we pressed on and very luckily after about another two hundred meters I managed a shot as it stood looking back down the trail towards us. It was standing at an oblique angle to us and the bullet went in behind the shoulder. Although relieved that we’d accounted for it I also felt uncomfortable at having caused the animal unnecessary suffering.
That common reedbuck was my first ‘real’ trophy and I kept the horns, although not a massive trophy by any means, hovering on 13”, for over 25 years until during one of our frequent moves they got mislaid. Out of that early hunting experience came the lesson, always try to use a killing shot or don’t shoot at all. In the highly competitive rat race that is the commercial African safari of today, wounded trophies are expensive trophies – blood sign equates to a wound, and whether you anchor or lose the trophy, you pay. Losing a wounded elephant on a 21-day safari hurts.
Throughout the rest of my school years I never wounded another antelope and things on the hunting front were going well. After leaving school I joined the Rhodesian National Parks & Wildlife Department under their two year in house cadet game ranger scheme. At the time I was yet to turn 18. As was the norm, we were introduced to the hunting of dangerous game right from the onset of our careers; most of our exposure to this was on PAC (Problem Animal Control), hunting problem animals on commercial ranches and in the tribal areas. We also shot buffalo on a regular basis for staff rations and if lucky from a point of view of gaining experience, on culling operations.
Although for a number of years I never had the problem of a wounded animal, my run of luck finally ran out when I was hunting a buffalo for rations on the Zambezi Valley floor. In my haste as it ran off I never gave enough lead and I gut shot it. After finding blood and waiting for about 30 minutes we only had time to locate one other blood spot before the wounded buffalo attacked us from very close quarters. With it virtually on top of me, I managed to kill it with the last round in my .458 Winchester.
For the rest of my time spent as a game ranger I never had another wounded animal to contend with that I myself had wounded, however, I had to deal with a number of buffalo wounded by sport hunters, and in one incident an elephant cow wounded by a sport hunter. In every case it was blood trail that ultimately led us to the animal. With a wounded elephant finding blood is often difficult because their vast area of surface skin quite often retains the leaking blood on the outside. Invariably you find the blood sign on leaves and branches, high off the ground where it has been rubbed off as the animal passes by. When tracking insurgents during the Rhodesian Bush War, any above ground disturbed sign, such as leaves, cobwebs, branches and blood smears from passing passage, was referred to as “aerial spoor”, a handy turn of phrase to use when hunting too.
Once I’d turned to professional hunting as a career, my coming up against the problem of locating wounded animals increased some what – not surprisingly I guess given that you are hunting non stop for a full 6-month season and at times even longer. Visiting international clientele too, differ widely, from those who are truly dedicated shooters and hunters who when not hunting spend hours at the bench shooting at paper. Most of them reload and their ammunition like the optics on their rifles is all finally tuned to aid in one shot efficient kills. Despite this dedication even these disciplined hunters may have a bad shot. Too far perhaps, too quick, not a good sight picture – it happens.
Wounding by clients who are indifferent hunters, is often the norm rather than the exception, because this type of hunter spends little or no time at the range, and possibly only opens the gun safe once a year to take out a rifle and go hunting. When eight out of ten animals taken on safari are wounded it becomes a trying task for any PH and his trackers.
Leaking blood normally tells the hunter a fair amount about the shot placement, lung blood is bright pink and frothy, always a good sign when you get to the place the animal took off from after acknowledging the shot. As a rule of thumb, a lung shot animal with severed arteries and punctured lungs seldom runs for more than about ten seconds, but with fleet-footed antelope they can cover a lot of ground in those ten seconds. In thick bush finding them becomes an exercise in tracking, carefully following the trail of bright pink blood. Until, invariably you come upon them crumbled up and dead.
Lung blood is normally on the path taken by the fleeing animal, because as it runs, it is blowing the blood from its mouth and nose that is filling the lungs due to an artery inside the lungs having been destroyed. If a lung shot does not destroy or hit an artery, the animal may survive, and if not, it is capable of covering a huge distance before succumbing. Bright red blood will tell you an artery has been hit.
A few seasons back I had a client from Montana who shot brilliantly – being a lawman probably helped towards that – he shot at an impala that we ranged at a little beyond 250m. It was a good trophy that we’d hunted for nearly five days, and with it being Chuck’s last day of the hunt, we decided it wouldn’t be giving us another chance, so after getting settled on the shooting sticks Chuck did the deed.
We clearly heard the ‘thump’ of the bullet striking the impala and after spinning around it disappeared from sight into the thick stuff on a ridge below our position. When we got down there, a quick cast around soon came up with blood, a fair amount of frothy lung blood freshly leaked onto grass and the ground. After following it for a while, we lost it; at that point I released my Jack Russell, Bounce. There were a lot of warthog in the vicinity and we kept flushing them as we searched on for blood, the hogs also distracted the dog – he hates them. Suddenly the dog gave tongue in the thick bush some way to our front, but visibility was down to about a metre.
By the time we’d forced our way through the brush towards where the dog had started to bark, he’d gone quiet and no matter how much we called, he didn’t respond. I was of the opinion that he’d flushed the wounded impala and had run after it. Eventually Bounce returned but there was no blood on his face or his white body hair – he likes to lick any wound on shot animals and he rolls in their blood if it is on the ground – so we continued our search and again found blood spots scattered along a narrow game trail headed downhill.
A short while later, Bounce took off once more and as we came round some bushes, still following the blood, we came across the dead impala. Judging by the dog tracks it seemed as if Bounce had been there previously but after losing interest in the dead trophy, chose to come and look for us. He’d probably chased it before it collapsed hence his barking. Without the dog we would’ve still found Chuck’s impala, the blood trail was consistent aside from our having temporarily lost it in the thick bush. It was a good trophy, just over 25 ½”.
Trackers following blood can sometimes have too much faith in their PHs shooting ability. Back in the mid-nineties I had in my employ an old Ndebele tracker called Moyo – he was a scoundrel of note and had been a notorious poacher with a lengthy criminal record. I once arrested him for snaring on the concession and after his jail time he came and asked me for a job as a tracker. Despite my other staff muttering that he couldn’t be trusted, I took him on. He’d been a poacher for so long that he habitually stepped from one tuft of grass or a stone, to the next. Quite simply he didn’t want to leave his own tracks in the gusu sand for the game department to follow. One thing he could do was track and I used to joke that he could follow a spider across glass.
During one of our safaris in the Matetsi, my Brazilian client shot a buffalo which as is often the norm, acknowledged the bullet then disappeared into shoulder high, in leaf, scrub mopane. Visibility was under a meter, but where the buffalo had been standing, we found good blood, bright pink and frothy. I decided to wait for about twenty minutes before tracking the buffalo, but when we started off on the follow-up Moyo took off on the blood trail like a greyhound. I had to keep slowing him down and cautioning him even though every indication was that the buffalo was probably already dead.
To my extreme annoyance, no sooner had I whispered to him than he’d once more accelerate along the spoor, I’m a firm believer in the old adage, “It’s the dead buffalo that’ll kill you” hence my caution and although I’d been quietly confident that we’d find it dead due to the amount of lung blood, I don’t believe in unnecessary risks. As things turned out we found it about 100m into the scrub mopane but it had turned through 180º and bled out facing back down the blood trail. Quite clearly, it had been waiting for us and had expired before we got there. Had we not waited those 20 minutes we probably would have had a joust.
After the congratulatory handshakes and other hunt rituals like photographs, I headed back to get my rig and took Moyo with me. En route I chastised him for tracking too fast and noisily, this latter aspect the most annoying factor. He quite casually retorted that if the buffalo had charged he knew I’d drop it, so why go slowly. Moyo had a lot of confidence in my shooting given that all he carried on the hunt was my day-pack and the ash-bag to test the wind!
Another good example of lung blood that comes to mind was after a Scandinavian client of mine had shot a leopard. The cat, a big male, fell out of the bait tree and plummeted into the sandy riverbed below. It was late afternoon and not yet dark so I cautiously approached the steep sided riverbed by way of the shooting lane we’d cleared through the reed bed, fully expecting to find a very dead leopard on the sand. My client had remained in the blind upon my instruction because he wasn’t a young man, but more importantly couldn’t speak a word of English.
All I found in the riverbed was a pool of bubbly pink blood being rapidly absorbed into the soft sand. On the opposite clay bank where the leopard had clambered up; there was a smear of blood, then just a thick wall of reeds and scrub.
When my hunting crew eventually arrived with the rig I took one tracker and with the light rapidly fading, we slowly followed the blood trail up an extremely steep hillside covered in thick scrub and thickets of wait-a-bit thorn. It was not easy going and I tried to move uphill whilst keeping my Browning pump action 12ga 3” Magnum loaded with Double 00 Buck, hard in my shoulder whilst sweeping from side to side looking along the game barrel into likely cover so as to help my tracker if things went pear shaped.
Luckily there was no need to use the 12ga because we came upon the leopard facing the direction we were approaching from, but it was dead. The bullet had hit the back of the lungs, and another inch further back would’ve seen a gut shot leopard and undoubtedly a very different closure to the hunt.
Which talking about gut shots, an early indicator of one of those mishaps when trying to assess where the bullet went, is if one finds bits of masticated gut content and on the smaller antelope and pigs, possibly a bit of intestine. Sometimes though, a gut shot may not produce anything viable for the trackers to go by as in the story below.
Early in the 2008 season I had a client gut shoot a warthog sow during a combined trophy/management cull hunt. She was standing below us on a grassy river bank and whilst watching through my binoculars over the client’s right shoulder as he took the shot from the shooting sticks, I clearly saw dust come away from the bullet’s impact exactly halfway along her body, right in the middle of her body.
Although I can’t recall the bullet type and weight, my client had used a .270 Weatherby Magnum and when the hog swung through 180º to head back into the brush I could see an exit wound between her middle ribs. The shot had been at about 80m. When we got down into the riverbed and the thick stuff, we couldn’t find any blood or gut content – nothing – just dry tracks. We’d clearly heard the bullet hit and I’d seen the entry point and the exit, so we knew the hog was hit hard and feeling it. My worry was that she’d head into a hole and die underground without being recovered.
After casting through 360º looking for sign, and still not finding any, I decided to release Bounce. He soon found the warthog sow in a very dense thicket about 40m from where she’d first been shot. She was lying ‘doggo’ but still very much alive, and we’d already walked past her. Bounce tore into the brush and despite my shouting tried to grab the sow by a hind leg, this move on the Jack Russell’s behalf immediately provoked a determined attempt by the sow to kill him.
Leaping to her feet, she spun round and her sheer momentum sent the tenacious little terrier flying, then as he regained his feet she charged him. Quicker than Jack Flash, Bounce darted behind her and had another go at her hindquarters. He was in his element but the hog chased him into a donga and with determined sideways scythes of her head tried to slash him with her knife sharp teeth. We couldn’t shoot because due to the fluidity of the fight, we may well have hit Bounce; their joust was fast and furious. At one stage the hog chased Bounce out of the donga and gave such a vicious upward sweep with her head, she lost her balance and toppled back into the donga. Bounce immediately leapt back into the fray and managed to get a firm grip on a back leg, and whilst he hung on growling, and with the client’s approval I was able to get a bullet into the hog and bring closure to the struggle.
It is probably out of incidents like these stories of wounded game that the myth has evolved whereby many sport hunters think African game is ‘hard to kill’ and ‘tough’ compared to elsewhere on the globe. I don’t really prescribe to that chain of thought, any game that is wounded – be it African, Asian or North American – becomes hard to kill when wounded and trying to escape the hunter. Adrenaline obviously surges through the wounded animal’s system and helps keep it going, but irrespective of where you hunt in the world, two words differentiate between whether your trophy becomes ‘hard to kill’ or not, those words are shot placement.
No matter how well constructed the bullet is, or what caliber you are using, if your shot is incorrectly placed, in the aftermath you will be left looking for blood spots and if the resultant chase becomes a full day’s exercise or longer, you too, will probably join the ‘African game is tough and hard to kill’ fraternity. If a hunt has been conducted correctly by the PH, a well placed shot on an unawares buffalo for example, will put it down with the same lack of fuss as if you were shooting a domestic ranch cow to put in the freezer. A well placed brain or heart shot on an elephant will do the same thing, and irrespective of what species you are hunting, that is how it should be.
Sometimes, and no matter how hard the hunter perseveres, he may lose a wounded animal. It happens. A few seasons back I had a good friend from the USA hunting with me, he is an excellent shot and long time hunter, but he unfortunately dropped a shot on a kudu bull. It wasn’t an easy shot and afterwards we didn’t think his first one even connected, but as the bull headed for thick cover in a drainage line, he quickly ran another shell into the chamber and the second 7x57mm follow-up bullet certainly did connect.
After we’d made our way down into the brush choked dry stream bed, we found a fairly large amount of blood both on the ground and on the surrounding leaf cover, scattered splotches on the leaves and some branches, which indicated probable bullet damage high up on the front right leg, possibly into the muscle behind the leg bone above the knee but below the kudu’s chest. The blood was all in one place where the bull had obviously stopped about 30m from where he’d first been hit. The bulk of the blood however, was on the ground. It was dark venous blood, which doesn’t tell you very much and larger animals can lose a lot of it and still recover if the bleeding eventually stops.
To the human eye, a pint of blood scattered along the ground looks like a huge amount, but if we stop to consider an eland has got 23 pints of blood in it and is still quite capable of functioning on as little as 15, then that one pint staining the ground doesn’t really amount to much.
Our follow up was a lengthy one and after finding the initial blood on the ground, the blood sign soon began to diminish markedly. From where he’d been lingering in the thick brush in the stream bed, the kudu bull took off uphill – that in itself a sign that he may not have been that badly wounded – often, a severely wounded animal heads downhill towards low ground. Before we’d even reached the level ground on top of the ridge, the blood was what my trackers in Zimbabwe refer to as ‘spot spot’ in other words, strung out individual spots of blood, at times no bigger than a match head, and hard to see and follow as the sun gets higher.
Once on the level ground the kudu had the option of running down into the next valley, but he chose not to do that and continued across the flats, then took off up a very steep incline to a higher level. The ground on the first level was shale covered with areas of low shrub, and islands of bush and grass, by this stage of the hunt it was late morning but we were still able to find the odd tiny spot of blood every 100m or so – there were four of us searching.
Eventually we reached the highest level, which can best be described as a small plateau. By this time too, we had additional help by way of our other hunting colleagues and their PHs sitting at various vantage points in the anticipated direction the kudu would go. They were glassing in the hope of picking the bull up. The odd blood spot soon led us to the edge of the plateau and then down into extremely dense cover known as succulent valley bushveld. It is unique to South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province and anyone who has hunted in it, will know that it is not ‘user friendly’, most of it has thorns; straight ones, hooked ones and others that if they stick you leave a burning sensation. It is difficult terrain to move through and the rocks underfoot don’t make it any easier.
Our last blood sign was found inside this dense vegetation, a tiny dry droplet looking more like a spot of rust than blood, and then nothing more although from spoor we’d managed to ascertain that the kudu was moving north along the side of the plateau about 70m below the crest. By then it was just after 13.30hrs so we broke for a quick bite and much needed water. Inside of forty-five minutes, we were back in the thick stuff, which is probably an understatement because it is almost impenetrable to a human being.
In a situation like this, the search becomes more of a sweep line as hunters and trackers endeavor to find the wounded animal by flushing it. We also had our colleagues above us glassing the area we were sure the kudu had headed into. By late afternoon and with the shadows lengthening, we’d arrived in a huge thickly wooded amphitheater, once or twice we saw a kudu bull but they showed no sign of injury, aside from them, we saw nothing else and with the sun setting gave up the search. I personally believe the kudu survived his wound because it seemed that as the day wore on, the bleeding lessened fairly quickly until ultimately there was no more blood sign. In the afternoon we found no blood and the indications were that the wound had sealed.
There is probably one shot that all hunters like to experience irrespective of where they’re hunting in the world and that is a well placed heart shot. Here in Africa it is a nice feeling for a PH to know that on a prize trophy animal the client is able to get in a good heart shot, our antelope normally career off in a blind run, crashing through bushes before piling up dead. Impala often look lame in the leg on the bullet entry side, as they take off, the leg swinging uncontrollably from the shoulder down. Kudu and bushbuck often ‘flag’ their tails as they leap forward, the white underside clearly visible. Heart shots work and give little cause for anxiety, but so long as we hunters go out in the pursuit of game wounding will occur, like the desert Bedouin would say, “It is in the writing”
*Shortly after Zimbabwe’s independence many towns and rivers were renamed, because with colonial English their Shona or Ndebele names had been corrupted. The Sabi River is now called the Save River (pronounced Sarveh). In this story I’ve stayed with the spelling as it was during my Rhodesian boyhood.