Gambril Darts Rhino to Complete Africa's Big Five
Gambril Darts Rhino to Complete Africa's Big Five
by Robert DeWitt
Don Gambril, former University of Alabama swimming coach, poses with a rhino near Kimberly, South
Africa, on May 12, 2008. Gambril shot the rhino with a tranquilizer gun, not a rifle. It completed his
quest for Africa's Big Five.
The rhino Don Gambril shot in South Africa was the final animal he needed to complete Africa's 'Big Five.' Like most big-game hunters, he was photographed with the animal and the professional hunter took measurements.
After the photo session, unlike most big-game hunters, Gambril watched his trophy get up and walk away no worse for the experience.
'It was kind of a good feeling,' Gambril said. 'You got what you wanted and then he gets up and walks away.'
For years, fishermen have practiced catch and release to improve fish stocks. Gambril is among the few hunters to experience catch and release hunting. Instead of shooting the rhino with his .375 H&H magnum, he hit the big pachyderm with a tranquilizer dart.
Gambril, the 74-year-old retired University of Alabama swimming coach, has been to Africa nine times, taking part in safaris in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia. Like all African big-game hunters, he wanted to shoot the Big Five — lion, leopard, cape buffalo, elephant and rhino.
Gambril shot his first cape buffalo and leopard in 1989, while collecting a lion in 1994 and an elephant in 1995. He felt fortunate to get a good deal on an elephant hunt but never figured he would get the rhino.
Most South African safari companies charge hunters $250-$300 per day to hunt, fairly reasonable considering the accommodations, Gambril said. But they also charge a trophy fee for each animal shot. That may range from $450 for a plains game species to $10,000 for a cape buffalo and $35,000 for an elephant.
Hunting in Africa has gotten more and more expensive over the years. Gambril estimates he spent $14,000 on his two-week, 1989 safari to Zimbabwe. That trip would cost him at least twice that now, he said.
A few years ago, the trophy fee on a rhino was $25,000. But rhino numbers are low and the trophy fee for a rhino is the most expensive of all, Gambril said. A rhino would fetch a $70,000 trophy fee if the hunter were to shoot one with a rifle.
That's way out of Gambril's price range and he never thought he'd get the chance. But a few years ago, Safari Club International changed its rules to accept tranquilizing a rhino for its Big Five registry. And the trophy fee for a darted rhino is about $7,000
'That's when I got interested,' Gambril said.
Gambril was last in Africa in 2001 on a photo safari and last hunted in 2000. He had been looking forward to returning.
'Africa is special,' Gambril said. 'Nobody goes only once. When you finish, you start looking forward to when you go back.'
He particularly loves the atmosphere and accommodations.
'I love it,' Gambril said. 'It should be reserved for retired people because it spoils you. Out west, I've slept in crawl-in tents and cabins with the roof leaking. When you go to Africa, the camps are luxurious.'
That's particularly true of South Africa where the hunting is virtually all done on ranches. Most are large spreads of 3,000-6,000 acres surrounded by high fences, Gambril said.
Commercializing hunting has greatly increased game populations, Gambril said. He was in South Africa for a month in 1965 and the only wild game he saw were little spring bucks.
Because hunting is so profitable, ranchers now protect and encourage wild game. On his last trip, Gambril said wildlife was everywhere.
'They found out that they could put up high fences, run safaris and far outstrip what they could do with dairy or beef,' he said. 'That's why they protect their wildlife now. In South Africa, they say if it pays, it stays.'
It's a delicate balance. Wildlife competes with domestic animals for food. Native farmers often want wildlife killed off to protect their crops and livestock.
'People don't understand that each one of those elephants eats 400 pounds of food a day,' Gambril said. 'When you get 60,000 or 70,000 of them, they can do a lot of damage. That can be a problem.'
Gambril's trip covered 10 days. He flew into Johannesburg and hunted out of Kimberly, South Africa. The safari also included hunts for wart hog. Gambril has a trophy room filled with elegant antelope species and fierce-looking dangerous game. But during all his trips to Africa, he'd never shot one of the ugly wild swine.
The tranquilizer gun fires a dart about six inches long, including both needle and serum capsule. It is propelled by a .22 long rifle blank. Gambril practiced firing darts into a target of old tires. He was surprised at how deeply the dart penetrated the target.
The tranquilizer gun had sight settings for 20, 30 and 40 yards and he practiced at each range.
Gambril got his rhino on his first morning out. With him were a professional hunter carrying a heavy-caliber rifle for backup, a tracker and a veterinarian. The vet's job was to revive the rhino with another injection to counter the sedative.
If a sedated animal gets away from the hunters and the vet doesn't revive it, the animal will die. The ranches even buy insurance policies that will pay out if darted animals die.
'They don't want these animals to die,' Gambril said. 'They're too valuable.'
Because all of the rhinos are now found in enclosures, Gambril believes the hippo should replace them on the Big 5 list. Hippos are more numerous and still found in the open. They also account for more deaths than any other animal in Africa.
They hunted the rhino on a wide open, grassy plain. The ranch had 64 rhinos and it took only four hours to get into range, Gambril said. The rhino they approached had a two-and-a-half-year-old calf with it. The female weighed 4,000-5,000 pounds while the calf weighed about 800 pounds.
But Gambril admits it wasn't the most exciting hunt he's been on in Africa.
'I never had any sensation of danger or fear,' he said. 'These didn't show any sign of aggression. Every time we got close enough to disturb it, it would run off but it didn't go very far.'
Gambril said that was about what he expected.
'It was just what I thought it would be, a very easy hunt,' Gambril said.
Gambril's first attempt to dart the rhino failed when the dart bent and the tranquilizer leaked out down the rhino's side. They again stalked the rhino and his second shot glanced off the big animal's thick hide.
The third shot struck home and the professional hunter instructed Gambril to dart the calf as well. It takes about 10-12 minutes for the tranquilizer to take effect. The animals wobbled and then laid down.
Once they were down, the professional hunter measured the horn's dimensions so a taxidermist could make a replica for Gambril. The vet took blood and stool samples to make sure the rhinos were healthy.
Because the calf was a male, it was loaded into a truck and taken to a different part of the ranch. The rancher feared old bull rhinos in the part of the ranch where it had been living would kill it if it stayed there.
Gambril finished his safari by shooting three wart hogs. All-in-all, it was a good experienced.
'I'm tickled to death to complete the Big Five,' he said.
There was something else he enjoyed, too.
'I really like the part when it walked away,' he said with a smile.