The RIGHT Elephant

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  1. CT Safaris

    CT Safaris AH Enthusiast

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    The RIGHT Elephant

    This is an updated (original) version of an article of mine that was published in the January 2013 edition of Man Magnum Magazine.

    I was excited when my friend (and client whom we'll call "Joe") from Germany called me up and booked a short notice Elephant hunt with me. Joe had shot his first Elephant bull with me a couple of years ago - a hunt during which Dianna smiled upon us as he also got a Leopard during his 10 days in Zimbabwe...

    Over and above getting an opportunity to see my friend again, what made this newly booked hunt even more special to me was that I would be able to put my new CZ in .458 Lott to (as it turned out VERY good) use on its first DG hunt...

    The Elephant hunt was to be conducted on a 50,000 acre Private Wildlife Conservancy next to Kruger National Park and after a few days chasing Bushbuck on our own ranch - Sabrisa - while we were waiting for permits to get sorted out we packed my hunting vehicle and took off to Phalaborwa to see what this new adventure had in store for us.

    We arrived in time to go out scouting in the afternoon and saw lots of fresh Elephant activity but no Elephants so we retired to camp for a relaxing evening around the fire, drinking G&T's, sharing stories and maybe telling a few lies in the process... Life was good and we enjoyed catching up since we'd last seen each other when my wife and I visited him in Germany the previous year.

    The following morning we were up early as usual and after a quick breakfast and a few cups of coffee we headed out to the hunting area. Joe was carrying my Ruger in .375H&H and I my new Lott. We started at the location where we had seen the fresh sign the previous day, got onto the tracks and after several hours the trackers came to an abrupt halt. I could hear the Elephants feeding - not far off and listening carefully I could even hear the resonant growls coming from them as they communicated with each other. Rifles at the ready we slowly proceeded towards the herd whose grey shapes suddenly came into view through the dense Mopani trees...

    At first glance I only saw 2 bulls with the herd. One was still a relatively young boy and the other (whilst not big in ivory) was already mature. Then my attention was drawn to a third bull on the left - quite a bit bigger than the other two in body with much better tusks. I checked again that the rifle Joe was carrying was ready, checked the wind and we carefully made our way closer to the Elephant.

    He was standing in a small clearing but there was quite a bit of brush between us and the clearing so I slowly made my way towards a Marula tree - halfway between us and the bull. We made it to the tree without alerting any of the Elephants and I breathed a sigh of relief. At this point this hunt was going well. We had found the Elephants relatively quickly, the wind was in our faces and we had managed to get to within 30 yards from our quarry without him or the rest of the herd knowing about us so I put up the sticks and Joe got ready...

    "Remember the imaginary broomstick" I whispered as Joe slipped the safety off...

    BOOM!!! the Ruger barked... But something had gone wrong.... At the shot; instead of dropping in its tracks the way animals do when they'd been brained, this Elephant made a 180 degree turn and ran! "Shoot again!" I said as I lifted my rifle for a back-up shot but by now the Elephant was obscured from my view by a tree. As if in slow motion, I heard the bolt of the Ruger recycle and almost simultaneously the crack of Werner's second shot...

    I ran out into the clearing but by now there was just a grey mass of fleeing Elephants in front of me and I could not risk taking a shot without the risk of hitting a cow or a calf.

    There was no doubt that the bull had been hit as I had seen dust flying from his forehead at the first shot but we could find no blood. Reviewing the video footage of the shot confirmed the hit but there was bad news... The shot appeared to have gone about a foot right of where it should have gone! "This is going to be a long day" I thought to myself...

    We took up the tracks again in pursuit of the herd hoping to at some point find blood or at least sign that our bull had separated from the herd. But after several more hours we were no closer to finding our bull or the herd. Now this may sound a little unconventional but hunting Elephants in South Africa as opposed to some of the more rural areas further North does have advantages... in this case TECHNOLOGY. Realizing that it might take us days to find the wounded bull and running out of hunting time we decided to get a helicopter in to aid us in our search and after a couple of phone calls the chopper was on its way...

    We looked at each other in relief when we heard the "whoop-whoop" of the approaching chopper's rotor blades... Although never for Elephant; I'd used a chopper to find wounded game previously with great success. You can cover a lot more ground over a much shorter period of time searching from the air and it is relatively easy to spot a wounded animal. Whilst not an economical option to find a wounded Impala, the extra cost associated to using a chopper when following up on a wounded Sable or Eland on the last day of a client's hunt is more than worth it...

    The chopper created a mini sandstorm as it landed and after a brief chat with the pilot to bring him up to speed about what was going on I sent my back-up PH up with him to find the Elephant. The idea was for them to locate the wounded bull from the air and then advise us of its location so I could lead my client in on foot... We watched the departing chopper in anticipation as it took off and a short while later saw it circling about a mile from us. Almost instantaneously I could hear the trumpeting of Elephants above the noise of the helicopter. They did not sound impressed by the intrusion of the chopper into their personal space!

    But then, after circling for a few minutes the chopper moved on... our bull was clearly not with the herd anymore... The chopper moved further West and started circling again. "Maybe they found him this time!" I thought... But after a few more minutes of circling the chopper returned and we eagerly ran closer as the rotors slowed down.

    "Well, I saw a bull separate from the herd that looks like ours but I couldn't see any blood on it." Chic reported. "And I don't have enough fuel left for you to go back and have a look for yourself" the pilot said... We were back to square one... "Can you come back in the morning if we don't find it today?" I asked the pilot. "Sure, I have other work to do in the morning but I'm sure we can find the time to come back and help. Just let me know" he said as he wound up the rotors again and took off.

    We proceeded towards where the lone bull was seen from the air and caught up with the herd instead. By this time the cows with their young calves were not happy anymore and much more aware than what they were earlier in the morning. After a few hairy moments confronting angry cows trying to protect their young, we had confirmed that our bull was not with the herd and in fading light I called it a day and we returned to camp.

    There was a rather somber atmosphere around the campfire that evening and quite a contrast to the casual banter that prevailed around the same fire the previous night... And secretly I knew that my attempts of reassuring Joe that we would find him his wounded Elephant was not very convincing. Maybe because I was not too convinced myself?

    After a restless night we headed out early the next morning to look for our Elephant. I decided to first check out the waterholes and my mood picked up when we came across tracks from the previous night of two Elephant bulls walking together at a waterhole about 5 miles from where we'd shot at our bull. Our tracking was interrupted by a call from the helicopter pilot who had flown over the area on another mission and who had seen Elephants while doing so. We quickly arranged a rendezvous point and a short while later I was in the passenger seat of the Robinson as it took off... we found a herd of Elephants after a short while but there was another disappointment in store for me as the bull that was this herd was clearly not the one we'd shot at. The chopper had other work to do so the pilot dropped me and took off again... By this time Joe (who is not a young man and on top of that had hip replacement surgery earlier the year) was taking strain. I wanted to get back onto the tracks of the bulls we'd been following but I realized Joe would not be up to it physically so I politely suggested that we return to camp for lunch and that he takes a rest in the afternoon while Chic and I go back and see where the tracks of the two bulls lead us to. Joe agreed...

    After a quick bite Chic and I returned to the tracks. We both carried CZ's in .458 Lott - key difference being that his was old and beat-up whilst mine was virtually brand new and had never fired a shot at a Dangerous Animal.

    And much later that day we finally found the two bulls. One was a young immature bull and the other was undoubtedly ours (or so it seemed like). As far as I was concerned this was the bull that Joe shot but here was only one problem - this bull had no blood on him! He had the same tusks and body size but was it the right bull? I think I briefly remembered something that one of my mentors and Director of a PH Academy had told me: "When you have a client shoot at something make sure you look at the horns properly! A good PH will recognize the trophy he had shot at even years after the hunt..." Well, these were not horns - these were TUSKS belonging to a $25,000 elephant - not horns belonging to a $350 Impala!!! But there was not much time to make a decision... The two Elephants had become aware that something was up and started making their way from our left to our right at a slight trot... It seemed to me that the bull on the right had a slight limp but was he the RIGHT one?

    I had instructed Chic to start shooting as soon as I did. Whenever I had made a decision to kill the Elephant we'd been following I needed to have it dead as quickly as possible.

    Because the Elephant was moving I opted for a (safer) heart/lung shot on my first instead of attempting a brain shot. Well, let's finish this I thought to myself as I sent 500gr of Rhino monolithic solid his way... When that bullet hit it looked like he was going to drop right there. But consistent with my earlier instructions to Chic he opened fire immediately after I did and this seemed to change the ele's mind about falling down as it spun around and now it was heading towards us. A final .458 round to the brain put an end to that but let me be honest in saying more than one round was fired at that bull in the process...

    So now we finally had a dead elephant but was it the "right" one?

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    Photo of dead elephant taken shortly after the kill

    We immediately examined the elephant's head for signs of the first shot but we could find no hole other than the one from my .458 that had finally killed the Elephant. We then examined the rear of the Elephant - hoping to find the bullet wound of the .375 round that Joe had fired with his "going away" shot... Again nothing!

    We heard the chop-chop-chop of a helicopter and a short while later it touched down in a clearing near us. It was the landowner who had come to check what was going on... "Congratulations!" he said, "where did the first shot go?" "To be honest, we don't know yet." I admitted. "I know this is our bull but we haven't found the entry wound of the first shot yet." The landowner's facial expression changed somewhat... "Are you sure you shot the right bull?" "Well, yes," I said, "those tusks belong to the elephant we shot at yesterday. I'll put my head on a block." "Then show me the entry wound of the first shot." he said and we started searching again...

    The only evidence of a wound caused by something other than the .458's Chic and I'd been shooting was a hole with a different appearance and which was slightly smaller in diameter in the stomach of the Elephant. As far as I was concerned this was an older bullet wound than the fresh wounds inflicted in the past half an hour... We tried fitting our .458 rounds through the hole without success. "I'm sure this was the running-away shot from Joe" Chic said. "But how do you know it wasn't one of your shots?" asked the landowner. "Well, look here - the .458 round won't fit through it!" Chic said as he tried again to squeeze the bullet through the hole... The landowner still did not seem convinced but it was no use speculating any longer. We had to fetch Joe and the skinners before it got dark... Before we left we took a picture of markings on the Elephant's ear which we wanted to compare to the Elephant in the video footage we had of the hunt back at camp. As Elephants grow older; their ears are scarred by the terrain they continuously move through (branches, thorn bush etc.) and these markings are unique to each elephant. I believed that these markings would remove the doubt that had arisen in the meanwhile...

    We left the Elephant and drove the dusty road back to camp where upon our arrival we were met by a very excited Client to whom the news that we'd found his Elephant had already been broken. His excitement made place for surprise though when he learned that there was doubt as to whether we had killed the right Elephant.

    Without further ado I downloaded the video footage on my laptop and we replayed the footage on my laptop screen - pausing the video at the point where we had the best frontal view of his head and ears. We then compared this picture with the photo we'd taken of the Elephant's ears and true enough - even though the video footage taken with a camcorder was quite grainy those of us who wanted to see the resemblance between the two Elephants could certainly spot the similarities.

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    We headed back to the Elephant with the skinning crew in tow... The plan was to only remove the head during this session and go back to skin the rest of the elephant the following day. As I got out of my pick-up the Conservancy Manager approached me... "Chris, we are not convinced that you had shot the right Elephant. In fact, we have a strong suspicion that you did not... So we believe it is in everyone's interest to skin the Elephant out tonight and determine if there is a .375 bullet inside that Elephant there..." Well we owed it to the landowner to prove that the dead Elephant was the right Elephant so after taking some trophy pictures the skinners got to work.

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    It was after 6pm and already dark when we started skinning the bull... And looking for one .375 bullet inside an animal the size of a large truck with the only light coming from flashlights and the headlights of two pick-ups would prove to be no easy task... I instructed the lead skinner to follow the path of the smaller bullet hole in the side of the Elephant. Deeper and deeper we dug into that Elephant...

    "I've got it!" the skinner exclaimed after a while, holding an object up in the air. We eagerly rushed closer... but my heart sank as I saw the 500gr Rhino .458 bullet... "Dig deeper!" I said "there is another one in there". I looked at the landowner and saw skepticism. By now he was sure that he was right and I was wrong but I could not let that deter me....

    Lions started roaring nearby... "Uumph...Uumph " They'd smelled the odor of fresh blood and were on their way to investigate... "I've got another one!" the skinner said but again the brief moment of excitement quickly made space for disappointment as he produced another .458 bullet from deep inside the Elephant... "Cut Sam, CUT!". By now he had skinned his way past the heart and lungs which had been shredded to pieces by my first shot with the Lott and he was digging into the far shoulder.

    "ANOTHER ONE!" Sam shouted! I was almost scared to look... Chic was closest to the skinner and grabbed the bullet from him... As if in a dream I heard him say: "It's a THREE SEVEN FIVE!" Everyone rushed closer and examined the bullet in his hand. There was no doubt... the piece of copper he held in his hand was a perfectly intact Barness solid - the same that was loaded in my Ruger that Joe had used... "Thank You Lord!" I silently prayed... We killed the RIGHT ELEPHANT!

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    Trophy on the back of my pick-up the following day before heading home. The head alone can weigh as much as a ton!

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    After the skull was cleaned I figured out what had happened on the first shot. Note where the .375 bullet entered the elephant's skull on the right of the picture. When shooting for the brain of an elephant shot placement is critical! The "right" Elephant's tusks are on their way to Germany but the skull has found a place on my veranda - a nice memory of my .458's first kill.
     

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