Giant Forest Hog Hunt in C.A.R.
by P.H. Flack
Giant Forest Hog in C.A.R.
Early morning. 15 March, 2007. The grey of early dawn is lifting over the huge, two and a half kilometre long glade, on either side of the Batou River, in the north central region of the Central African Republic. Around me, as I sit in the 20 foot high machan, built around the stem of a tall, sturdy Ngreki tree, the honey brown bodies and purple wings of a dozen or so bright, yellow billed, broad billed rollers zoom, dart and stoop after their insect prey. The waking calls of a huge variety of birds, some melodious, some harsh and croaking like the goliath heron I can see poised, still as a statue, in the shallow water to my left, reverberate to and fro across the forest clearing and create a clattering cacophony. Underlying it all is the steady but the rising hum of bees, drawn to the Batou river by the shrinking pools of water in the savannah and the mineral rich, dove grey mud which my professional hunter, Christophe Morio, has enriched with salt.
I am a hunting with Christophe for the second time - the first was in Benin some five years ago – and I have followed him to his new job with Idongo Safaris, so named after the tiny village in the south of this 270,000 hectare concession, almost due south of the regional town of Ndele, originally home to some 10 000 inhabitants but now swelled to at least three times that number by refugees from Sudan and Chad. The concession is well known as it was established by Ecofac, a European Union aid agency. Matthieu Laboureur, who took over from Georgio Grasselli, is the current owner and is also well known as the ex-Conservator of the now defunct Manovo-Gounda-Saint Floris National Park, which neighbored the concession and which was declared a World heritage Site by UNESCO. The Park of some 1,7 million hectares used to receive almost 1000 overseas tourists per year but persistent and heavy poaching, predominantly from Sudan, caused Ecofac to stop its funding and the C.A.R. government, as per usual, did nothing.
Given his extensive local knowledge and expertise, my research has shown that Laboureur and his fellow professional hunters have produced excellent results over the seven years he has owned the concession. This year, for example, everyone scored on giant eland before our arrival and my immediate predecessor in camp took giant eland, forest sitatunga, giant forest hog and bongo in four, exceptional, consecutive days of hunting. This must be some kind of world record especially as all were outstanding trophies. These successes have been aided no doubt by Laboureur’s strong conservation roots and the efforts of L”Association pour la Protection de la Faune de Centrafique (APFC) which is funded by the local safari outfitters and authorized by government to conduct anti-poaching operations, unfortunately, only against foreigners For foreigners, read Sudanese.
Family of Giant Forest Hog in C.A.R.
Yes, this is one of the very few areas in Africa where you can hunt both the forest and savannah animals out of the same concession and is at the heart of why my regular hunting companion and good friend, GT Ferreira, and I were here. Lord Derby’s eland was at the top of his wish list with bongo as number two. I wanted to try, for a fourth and last time, for a forest sitatunga, red river hog and yellow-backed duiker, in that order, and then, with whatever time I had left over, I wanted to indulge myself in my all time favorite hunt for giant eland.
C.A.R. is one of my favorite hunting destinations and ranks right up there with the Kalahari, the Karoo, the Okavango and the major valleys that form part of the Great Rift Valley. The savannah areas often remind me of an overgrown golf course and its gentle undulations and absence of thorns and rocks allows me to walk at my natural pace and stride and, in these circumstances, I can still comfortably walk the six to eight hours a day which are what is usually required on this hunt of all hunts.
The forests have also, for the most part, been mercifully spared from logging and, while still thick, dense and, at times, even claustrophobic, are not as cloying as those of Cameroon with their dense secondary growth and infestation of thorns.
But it is the variety and differences in the bird and animal life that draw me like a magnet. There are bushbuck but they are harnassed not Cape. There are hartebeest but they are Lelwel’s not red. There are waterbuck but they are Sing-sing not common. And then there are the major prizes like bongo, forest sitatunga, giant forest hog, yellow-backed duiker – I can go on and on.
There are, however, many problems to hunting in C.AR. and they have put me off from returning for this my third hunt for almost fourteen years. The grossly corrupt, incompetent and criminal governments that have tormented this sparsely populated, 1400 kilometer long country, smack bang in the middle of the continent, has produced a series of presidential kleptomaniacs who have bled the country dry. So much so that civil servants, other state employees such as teachers and hospital staff and even military personnel are not paid for months on end resulting in local tensions boiling over, civil unrest, rebellion and, ultimately, in one coups-des-etat after the other.
Picture of Giant Forest Hogs taken from a high tower blind
On my first hunt, people were gunned down in the street outside my hotel on the evening of my arrival. On my second visit, on my return from the hunt, I had to shelter in a private house for seven days – all flights in and out of the country were cancelled – while the army ran amok and shot and killed people indiscriminately in the streets. The hotel where I had stayed on my arrival was closed and someone had lobbed a mortar bomb through the window of the hotel bedroom I had occupied. As such, careful and up to date research is necessary if you want to hunt here and, it goes without saying, that only reputable safari outfitters should be used. There are no bargains when you hunt in C.A.R.
The various immigration, customs and police officials in and around Bangui use any and all means possible to extract bribes even when I was assisted by local “meet and greet” services, One of the favorite ways is to argue that any three on any permit is an eight and vice versa and, therefore, the permit is not valid. That can, of course, be cured by the ubiquitous bribe.
To my pleasant surprise and amazement, Mme Felicite Ngama, head of the “meet and greet” service used by Idongo Safaris, was the most cheerful, friendly and efficient person I have met in this role and our time in Bangui was limited to a total of 45 minutes before we were on our way to the dirt landing strip at Sangba, only eighteen kilometres from our base camp on the banks of the Bangoran River, in the middle of the base of the triangular shaped concession.
There is some game in the forests on either side of the Bangoran River but my immediate destination was a small fly camp, some three hours away over a dusty, two-tyre track, in a northeasterly direction, on the banks of the small, fast flowing, ice cold Manovo River. This served as our re-supply and R and R camp when we returned from spending our days and nights in the machan in the bako along the banks of the Batou River.
A bako in the local Sango language simply means forest but is used by the local professional hunters to mean a stretch of rain forest on the banks of a river which penetrates the savannah. These bakos can vary in length and width depending on conditions such as rainfall, strength, width and length of the river and so on. In our case, the Batou River extended for some 40 kilometres into the concession but we were concentrating on a much shorter section, only some two and a half kilometers long, where three machans had been built overlooking natural salt licks which were regularly freshened by the addition of salt. It was going to be the complete opposite of giant eland hunting and one which I had never tried it before. In fact, I have always been opposed to this kind of hunting. I did not consider it “real” hunting, waiting for the animal to come to you instead of vice versa. In fact, I considered it almost unsporting. But then again, when I considered Christophe’s original invitation to come and hunt in this particular manner, I thought of a hunting lions and leopards over bait. Of the European “high seat” hunts. Of bow hunters shooting from blinds situated at water holes or over game paths, and was not so sure I could be categorical in my condemnation. In the end, I decided to give it a try as much because it was something different and on the “don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it” principle. I should also add, that after my four previous walk and stalk attempts, I was ready to try a change in tactics.
Our three machans were at either end and roughly in the middle of the two and a half kilometer glade. On foot, the three were roughly an hour and half an hour, respectively, from the middle machan which I occupied. We posted two man tracker teams in the other machans, although only one pair had “talky walkies” as my French PH call them and once we missed a huge giant forest hog - if the tracks were anything to go by – as it took just too long for the tracker to reach us, give us the news and for us to return with him.
Picture of Giant Forest Hogs taken from a high tower blind
Personally, it also took an effort of will on my part to sleep, night after night, on these small, unstable and wobbly, wooden platforms with their fragile reed screens for walls – I had broken my back in two places some years ago when a machan collapsed on a hunt in northwest Tanzania – and it tested my nerve, patience and endurance. Being an impatient person to begin with and a ”walk and stalk” hunter by preference, it was difficult in the beginning to sit silently, for hours on end, gazing at the same scenery, even if the bird life was so varied and prolific.
In fact, as I wrote this, a movement in the trees on a small island –maybe 40 metres in diameter and to my right –has just caught my eye. I take a look through my 10x25 Leica pocket binoculars and am greeted by the sight of a beautiful, big bird that I have never seen before. It is the shape of a loerie but about three times bigger, with a bright green head and neck, purple black body and big eyes dramatically outlined in red and white. Extraordinary! Wonderful to see. Later I look it up in a bird book and discover it is a green-crested turaco.
Despite my fear – in the beginning I froze at every creek and sway in the platform and prepared to dive for the tree trunk behind where I sat on a comfortable, fold-up safari chair – my second stay in the machan, as so often happens in hunting, provided me with an unexpected and unlooked for but, nevertheless, exciting present and I decided that this was one gift horse I could not look in the mouth.
As I wrote the first few words of the preceding paragraph, our head tracker, Deme Charles, a member of the Banda tribe from Ndele, appeared barefoot and wearing only shorts. He and Luc, our drive-come-spare-tracker-and water-carrier, have been sitting in the machan to the east of us, about 30 minutes fast walking away. His right arm is wind milling frantically. From these and other signs he makes, we know he has spotted a sounder of giant forest hogs and wants us to come with him. NOW!
Giant forest hog boars are aggressive. They are the biggest of all the wild pigs in Africa – the others are warthog, bushpig, red river hog and Barbary wild boar - and can weigh as much as 275 kilograms. The most distinguishing feature of the males are the grotesquely swollen preorbital glands of the face, which give the boars a mean and squinty look. And the bigger the boar, the meaner it looks. The Behaviour Guide to African Mammals by Richard Estes states that the boars are mutually intolerant of one another and I guess that is one way of putting it. The Kingdon Guide to African Mammals is a bit more explicit and goes on to add that although “most confrontations ended in one male withdrawing... stalemate among larger, more evenly matched, mature males culminates in both backing-off and charging from about 30m distance. When their massively reinforced foreheads meet in such clashes the impact rocks one or the other back on its haunches. If the concave foreheads meets in exact opposition a loud rifle-like report is produced by the escape of compressed air. Repeated charges may continue for up to half an hour with jaws champing, spittle flying and urine squirting every time.” Can you just imagine watching that!
Major H.C.Maydon, in his classic book, Big Game Shooting in Africa, the “bible” that became the forerunner to Mellon’s great African Hunter, as usual, provides some practical information for hunters about giant forest hogs, “if the male sees a is sow wounded, or is hit himself, he can be counted upon to make a determined attack, and once he succeeds in knocking a man down, not even a cutlass will induce him to leave his victim.” He goes on to add that, “These Hog seem to be one of the most difficult of the forest animals to stalk, for they can travel a great distance in a single night. They go under bush so thick that time and again they hear one and clear right away.”
In Rowland Ward’s Records of Big Game, the minimum length for a single tush is 7 and 7/8 of an inch and the world record, shot by Dr Rodriguez, in Semliki, Uganda, in 1963, measures a whopping 15 ½ inches. Over the 114 year existence of The Book, there are only 91 entries and the top ten are made up of a five from Kenya, three from Ethiopia, one from Uganda and one location is unknown. This compares, for example, to the 467 entries for that other rarity, bongo.
Trophies from left to right, Giant Forest Hog, Red River Hog, Giant Forest Hog and Warthog
The giant forest hog, whose taxonomic name is Hylochorus meinertzhagen, was first described for science only in 1904, from a specimen shot by the British staff officer and well known author and naturalist, Brigadier Richard Meinertzhagen. Probably the reason for the late discovery was that, although they are scattered across tropical Africa in localized populations and through various vegetation types, from sea level to nearly 12,000 feet above sea level, and from hot lowlands to cold uplands, their range resembles that of bongo. To compound the problems in hunting them, they like dense cover, feed in open areas usually only at night, are low to the ground (less than a metre at the shoulder) and are black in colour making them almost invisible in their chosen habitat. One saving grace for the hunter is that, like bongo, they love mineralized and salty earth which they excavate mainly using their lower incisors.
I dropped my writing pad and pen, fastened my cartridge belt around my waist, quickly changed my ankle length boots for running shoes - if the hogs were near the eastern machan we would have to wade, calf deep, for about 100 metres along one stream and nearly waist deep through another.
Down the sixteen rung wooden ladder we fly, across the empty saline to the south and into the forest. We half jog half walk and I struggle to keep up with the two youngsters in front. We jump over exposed tree roots, swing around tree trunks jutting into the rough, leaf littered path and, for some unknown reason, the thought appears in my head that the leaves are the precise colour of a gaboon viper’s skin! My heart is hammering in my chest with the exertion and excitement. Unexpectedly, there is Luc hiding in the forest just off the path to our right. The thought that immediately runs through my mind is that the hogs have left the salt lick beneath his machan and he has foolishly tried to follow them through the dry and noisy forest. He pretends to show us the direction in which they are heading – back to the salt lick opposite our machan. In my heart of hearts, I know that he has spooked them. Despair, the frequent emotion of trophy hunters, washes over me.
Christophe seems to believe Luc and turns to me and says, “We go back now. We must get to ze machan before ze ogs.” We hurtle through the forest, on tiptoe initially and then in the same half jog half walk. As we approach the salt lick, from the protection of the forest fringe, we stop to glass the surrounding area. My binoculars fog up. Perspiration stings my eyes and my shirt is sopping wet. Nothing. We walk briskly across the ankle twisting mud churned up by the buffalo herd from last night and onto firmer ground. Another quick sprint and we fly up the ladder leading to the machan like the tiny, local, grey green, tree squirrels.
PH Christophe Morio approaching a young Giant Forest Hog boar in C.A.R. to take a picture - a rare sight to get so close in the open... the boar did not even realize for some time that Christophe was right there!
I carefully drape my green jersey –it is cold at night here under the stars in the treetops – over the break in the bamboo screen to my front, sit in my chair and balance the bipod of the .375 across the jersey. I am steady. But I know it has all been a waste of time.
We wait. My breathing slows. My pulse returns to normal. Perspiration dries. Every second that passes merely serves to confirm my pessimism. Eventually, I pick up my writing pad and start scribbling. I write what you have just read. Christophe, however, remains on red alert like a pointer over a grey-wing covey in the Karoo koppies.
Five minutes become ten, become fifteen. “See,” I say in my head to him, “I was right,” even though I have not expressed my doubts out loud. Just as well. Next to me he suddenly stiffens and whispers, “They come. See the backs through the grass.” I grab my rifle in disbelief and scan through the scope in the direction in which he points. I see nothing.
“You see the two, straight, thin trees next to one another behind the big green bush?” he points at a slight angle to our left. “Behind them to the right is another straight tree. Look to the right in the grass.” Bingo! About 160 metres away I see a long, dark shape above the new, bright green grass. And then another shape. And another. I apologize silently but sincerely to Luc.
My pulse rockets from nought to 100 in eleven nano seconds. After four rain forest hunts (75 hunting days in total so far) these are only the third giant forest hogs I have ever seen. My breath catches in my throat. The hogs fossick around behind a thick screen of grass, first to the right and then to the left. Just as well as it allows me to grab a hold of myself and steady down. Not so Christophe. This experienced, 42 year old, African pro is wild with excitement. Despite all his years in West Africa, he has never shot one either for himself or with a client. He keeps up a running commentary. “I see seven, no eight. Now comes a big sow. See behind? There is the male! Do you see him?” I do but only for a fraction of a second. He is like a lighthouse – now you see it, now you don’t.
Click on thumbnail to view the video of Giant Forest Hog taking a mud bath in C.A.R.
“I sink zey are going to come to ze salt lick,” he whispers hoarsely. Do I wait until they do or do I take the first available shot? The lick is clear and open but I worry. We have added salt to it only an hour previously. Our scent will be all over the place and giant forest hogs have an incredible sense of smell. What if a herd of buffalo or elephant or even poachers arrive and chase the shy hogs away? All these thoughts tick-tock through my mind as I lock myself away in the tube of my telescopic sight.
I am calm now. Only my steady pulse blips the crosshairs up and down, up and down, as I focus on the gap in the long, thick grass, some 145 metres away according to Christophe, and through which I think the hogs will eventually appear. Suddenly, the boar is there!
He stands square, face on, his huge, oblong disc of a snout raised in the air, mouth opening and closing, almost as if he is tasting the air. I catch a glimpse of two sets of startlingly white tushes against the coal black of his monstrous, distorted, bulbous face, the lower tushes, shaped like curved daggers, are clearly thinner and sharper than the massive, thick, top ones. He moves his huge head slowly from side to side, smelling, questing, testing. Eventually satisfied, he drops his head to take a bite at the fresh, green grass at his feet. It is the last bite he ever takes. The 300 grain Swift A Frame, loaded by Norma, hits just behind his head in the middle of his back, sears through the length of his body, destroying the top of both lungs and smashing to a stop against his right rear hip bone.
Christophe turns to me with the strange look on his face. “You killed him dead,” he says simply. But have I? I look up to see the sounder of hogs, in line astern, led by two, huge, black shapes, stream back into the forest. I look back to where the boar dropped. No boar. I scan the area to the left and right. Could it be? Have I only wounded him? Could he have run off? The hunter’s nightmare freezes my blood and scrambles my brain. But no. Huge relief floods my system. I catch a glimpse (about ten metres to the right of where I shot him) of legs waving feebly in the air as the massive boar – we estimate later that he weighs well over 350 pounds – fights the inevitable. Nevertheless, I rapidly re-focus and fire a quick second shot between the front legs into his chest. I am not convinced I have hit him but the legs disappear from view. Later we find that the bullet has traversed his torso and emerged almost through the first entrance wound, giving it a keyhole shape but, at that moment, doubt re-surfaces. This is just too big a prize.
“I run to him,” says Christophe. He grabs his .458 Lott and heads down the ladder. I follow but am much slower and, from a distance, see him quickly shoulder his rifle and fire. Probably not necessary but better safe than sorry and certainly no one wants to prolong the suffering of any animal. “Unbelievable” he says as I reach him, “as I arrive, he stands and starts to run away.” Unbelievable is right, certainly once we examine the two wound channels from my .375 and note the pink, frothy lung blood bubbling out of the hole behind his head. These are seriously tough animals!
He is a huge, ancient, right handed hog. The four inch thick, right tush is worn down to a nubby stub and the left one, newly broken, is missing at least 1 ½ inches off the tip. Days later, back at the main camp, it still stretches the tape measure to 8 ½ inches while the right hand tush measures only 5 ½ inches. The truly massive protruberances below his eyes give him a mean, calculating look and I would not want to meet him in a dark alley. His big, blocky body is one solid mass of meat and muscle. He makes my first, big giant forest hog boar, which I shot two years ago in Cameroon, look like the before picture in those old Charles Atlas body building advertisements. This hog is Mr. Atlas in person.
Giant Forest Hog hunted in C.A.R. with PH Christophe Morio
As Christophe and I stand arm in arm, in quiet awe and contemplation of the huge dollop of luck that we have been granted, Deme and Luc come running at full speed towards us over the salt lick, hurdling the thigh high, grass tussocks. Along with Christophe, this is also their first giant forest hog and they are besides themselves with excitement, joy and happiness. They hug me, clasp my hands in theirs, beat me on the back, shout “Magnifique!” repeatedly. A torrent of French washes over me in amongst which I recognize the words “ancien” and “gros male”.
Apart from the little rarities in the duiker and dwarf antelope world, giant forest hog are, along with forest sitatunga and dwarf forest buffalo, in my opinion, the three most difficult animals to hunt in Africa. Not because their numbers are scarce but because of their protective forest habitat, acute senses, camouflaged colouring and shy and retiring natures. To have been able to shoot not one but two of these amazing animals counts as a rare privilege and an extraordinary stroke of luck. Suffice it to say, this is the last giant forest hog that I will ever shoot.
I remind myself to store these incredible emotions away for a rainy day when things are different. When I’m stuck in a traffic jam. When the flight back to my home in CapeTown has been postponed indefinitely. When I inevitably miss an easy shot. When I come home from a hunt empty handed yet again. If I can bring back this moment at one of those times, I am sure my broad, ear to ear grin will confuse a lot of people.
Giant Forest Hog hunted in C.A.R. with PH Christophe Morio