One Wounded Zebra
Midway through the second day of my Namibian safari, that was the total result of my efforts. We had tracked what we thought was my zebra for two and a half hours, only to come up on two zebra in the brush that were obviously unscathed.
Although early July is winter in southern Africa, I was hot, thirsty, discouraged and disheartened. No hunter likes to make a bad shot and wound an animal—it is contrary to the quick, humane death that all magnificent game animals deserve in return for the right and privilege to pursue them in their world. The poor hit had also shaken my confidence in my shooting ability. And to rub salt in the wound, a wounded but lost animal still triggered a substantial trophy fee.
The day had started more promising. A brilliant golden-orange sunrise began a morning that awed and overwhelmed me with the beauty of Namibia. In two hours of hunting I had seen numerous birds and animals, including my first giraffe in the wild, before we spotted a herd of eight Hartmann’s (mountain) zebra.
Mountain zebra was low on my priority list when I first booked the hunt, but climbed close to the top as I learned in my pre-hunt research that the animal’s range was more restricted that its more common cousin, the Burchell’s zebra, and the lack of a gray “shadow strip” in the lighter area between the black stripes (which is more golden-brown than white), coupled with stripes that extended all the way down to the hooves rather than fading out on the upper leg, made it a more striking trophy.
The herd stopped, lined out broadside on a hillside less than 150 yards away. I had a steady rest, the sight picture had looked good, and I thought I had squeezed, not jerked, the trigger. The blast of my .300 Winchester magnum was followed a fraction of a second later by what sounded like a good hit.
I was not too worried when the herd ran about 75 yards over a ridge and out of sight. I had read that African animals were tough and could travel some distance even after a good hit. My professional hunter, Andries Smit of Ozondjahe Safaris, trackers Ronnie and Jackson, and I walked up to where the animals had been standing. I was encouraged by the fair amount of bright blood and was confident we would find the animal not too long after we topped the ridge.
Reality struck as we reached the top. The hillside dropped away to a plain that was fairly open for several hundred yards before heavy brush took over, and there was not a zebra—alive or dead—within sight. We followed the blood trail, which was becoming less frequent and less pronounced, down the hill, onto the flat and into the brush. Doubt and uncertainty began to gnaw on me.
Just inside the brush line, the band of zebra had split into two groups. Though the blood sign continued to dwindle, it was apparent the wounded zebra had broken off with two others that went to the right. The sandy, dry soil seemed criss-crossed with all types of indistinct tracks. Andries, Ronnie and Jackson slowly, methodically and confidently followed the zebra tracks, although the blood trail was now non-existent.
It was almost noon and we had gone about two miles when Andries stopped and whispered, “Two zebra!” For several minutes the binoculars went up and the two zebra and the surrounding area were examined closely. Finally, Andries said the wounded zebra was not there.
Andries, Ronnie and Jackson engaged in a brief but animated discussion in Afrikaans. I could not understand what they were saying, but did catch a couple of references to “two zebra” and “three zebra”. “We’ll go back to the lodge, have lunch, and decide what we are going to do this afternoon,” Andries stated.
Back at the Ozondjahe lodge and over lunch, Andries explained the problem. My wounded zebra and two others had split from the remainder of the herd shortly after entering the brush on the plain. The blood trail ceased, but initially there were clearly three sets of tracks. Somewhere along the trail, the wounded zebra had left his two companions, and later there were clearly only two sets of zebra tracks—those of the two animals we ultimately caught up with in the brush about noon.
“Where we made our mistake was not seeing where the third zebra took off,” Andries said. “You have a decision to make,” he continued. “I am going to send the trackers back to look for the zebra this afternoon in any event. We can either go with them to look for the zebra or sit in the leopard blind.”
Leopard was my number one priority on this hunt. However, although I was very pessimistic about the chances of finding the zebra, the ethical hunting decision was really no decision at all. “If there is any chance at all of finding the zebra, we need to go back with the trackers,” I said. Andries nodded, obviously pleased with my choice.
That afternoon, I was despondent as we drove back out to where I had wounded the zebra earlier in the day. Andries returned to the area where the three zebra had veered off, and followed the tracks to the last point where he was certain the three zebra were still together. He then followed the trail until he reached the point where he was certain that there were only two zebra traveling together. The two points were less than 200 yards apart.
Although I had read about the fantastic tracking skills of African professional hunters, I was still amazed at what happened next.
Andries, Ronnie and Jackson spent almost two hours meticulously combing the ground between the two points, working in the direction they believed the animal had gone, searching for evidence of where the third zebra had taken off alone. I could do nothing but follow in Andries’s tracks, trying to avoid stepping someplace where I might disturb some evidence of the path. I became even more discouraged and less optimistic with each passing minute.
Suddenly, Andries was confident he had found the lone zebra’s trail in the loose, dry soil. I still have no idea what he interpreted as the spoor, but we moved forward quickly and surely. Over the next mile and a half, on a couple of occasions Andries pointed out a small, darker brown spot on a dark brown branch and said it was a spot of blood. My confidence began to rise.
After about a half an hour, Andries slowed and then stopped. “The zebra joined up with some others here—probably some of the same ones from this morning,” he said. “They have been milling around in here and we have lost the wounded one’s track.” My hopes and confidence sank once again.
Andries, Ronnie and Jackson then started a methodical combing and search of the area where the herd of zebra had been feeding. After over an hour and a half, Ronnie pointed out a shallow depression in the dust with a couple spots of moisture. “The wounded zebra bedded here,” Andries said.
They once again had tracks of a specific animal, and followed them from the bed. After about 75 yards, Andries and the two trackers stopped in a thicket of bare trees, sorting out the tracks. Unable to discern the tracks, I put up my binoculars and scanned ahead through the trees. Less than 100 yards ahead, I viewed a mound that for a split second I thought was a low boulder or rock, but then realized had definite distinct black stripes. I was struck by the fact the black stripes, not the lighter stripes, was the pattern that caught my eye.
I was certain I was looking at the broad back of a zebra laying down on its side, hoping it was the one I had wounded but unsure if it was dead. I urgently whispered to Andries, and pointed out what I had observed.
We approached cautiously, but soon realized the animal was dead. My one shot was a bit low and back, but eventually had done the job. My emotions flooded with excitement, relief and joy for recovering my first African trophy that earlier I was certain was lost, tinged with a touch of remorse and guilt at having taken the life of a magnificent animal and taking that life with a less than perfect shot.
I am still baffled at how my professional hunter and trackers were able to sort out the tracks of the wounded zebra, and am humbled by the skill and persistence they demonstrated. This day could have been one of the most depressing of my hunting career—the loss of the first African game animal I attempted to harvest. But Andries and the trackers had turned it into one of my most memorable days—the taking of my first African trophy.
Authors’ s Note: Despite this inauspicious start, I went on to take six other trophies on my first safari, including a leopard, gemsbok, springbok, warthog, kudu and impala. With the exception of the springbok (ironically the smallest and easiest to kill), all of these animals were taken with clean, one-shot kills.