Ele, Leop, Buff, Croc, and Hippo with Zambezi Hunters and PH Thierry Labat
I'm just an occasional poster here (frequent lurker), but I wanted to share the report of my recently completed hunt in Zimbabwe. I hope you enjoy it.
*** Also, it seems that some of the pictures are too large to view on this page. If you zoom out to 75%, you can see the entire image ***
Operator: Zambezi Hunters
PH: Thierry Labat (as usual)
Save Valley Conservancy: Sango Ranch
Dates: July 11 -31, 2011 (21 days)
Logistics: Shawn at Gracy (Delta from ATL, overnight at City Lodge, SAA to HRE)
Rifles: Win. Model 70s in .338WM and .416RM.
Ammo: 400gr Swift A-Frames and Barnes Solids for the 416 and 210gr Nosler Partitions for the 338
Scopes: Swarovski 1.25-4x24 on the 416 and Zeiss 2.5-10x50 (illuminated reticle) on the 338
Binos: Swarovski 8X30 SLC
OVERVIEW: This was my +/- 26th guided/outfitted trip, eleven of which have been international trips and six of which have been to Africa. I think I have made enough hunts to know a good one from a bad one, but at the end of the day, these are my subjective feelings about the PH, outfitter, area, hunting, and the overall experience. That said, this is my third hunt with Zambezi Hunters and Thierry Labat in three years. I am also booked with ZH and TL for lion in 2012 as well as Lord Derby Eland with Thierry in CAR in 2013.
The plan for this hunt relates back to June of 2009. Betsy and I had just finished a hugely successful leopard and buffalo hunt with Thierry. During those 15 days, we fell in love with Sango and the people associated with it. As the charter left the ground and turned toward Harare, we promised to return to Sango as soon as we could. It followed that we booked 21 days for elephant, leopard, and buffalo with Thierry as PH at DSC in 2010.
AREA: The Sango hunting areas comprise some 160,000 acres roughly in the center of the conservancy. It spans the full width of the conservancy from East to West. There are good numbers of buffalo and elephants on the property. Lion are also there as are numerous leopards and black and white rhino. There are limited numbers of crocodile and hippo. There are non-conservancy areas on the East and West of Sango, but it is bordered by hunting properties to the North and South.
In addition to the big game, I observed many species of plains game including: sable, kudu, eland, nyala, bushbuck, hyena, bushpig, grysbok, impala, wildebeest, zebra, giraffe, duiker, klipspringer, warthog, and others. Birdlife is abundant. Several species of songbirds and raptors inhabit the area as well as game birds to include francolin, doves, and guinea fowl.
ACCOMODATIONS: The Sango Lodge (“Ingwe”) is spectacular. If you are taking your wife and she appreciates the finer things in life, this is THE place to take her. Ingwe is absolutely over the top and unequaled by any hunting lodge on the whole of the continent. Every person on the staff goes above and beyond to make sure that your stay is perfect. While I love an African tent camp, Ingwe now feels like our African home away from home. It is hard to imagine going anywhere else.
HUNTING PRIORITIES: The “first tier” priorities on this hunt were elephant, buffalo, and leopard. The “second tier” priorities were hippo and crocodile. The “third tier” included hyena, bushbuck, civet, grysbok, klipspringer, and anything exceptional that we might see while walking or driving.
ELEPHANT: I am a first time, novice elephant hunter. I’ve read many books (thanks to Will, Taylor, et al) and watched the videos (with thanks to Buzz and Ivan), but I had never been among them with the intention of hunting them. They are special, noble creatures and I had one main concern as I prepared for my hunt. That concern was the manner of the hunt. First, I wanted to approach the elephant in silence, completely conceal our presence, and shoot him in the brain causing instant death without his ever knowing that we were there and, perhaps, without his ever hearing the shot. Second, I wanted to walk miles and miles for the better part of three weeks before shooting a bull. As it turned out, Diana granted only one of my wishes.
Thierry and I discussed the elephant hunt on several occasions during our 2010 hunt, during the 2010 show season, and at the beginning of this hunt. We agreed that a 50 pound bull was our goal. Thierry had seen some 50 +/- lbs bulls in the past year, and knew the general whereabouts of a bull or two that he believed would fit the bill. In fact, he knew of one particular bull that he really hoped we would find. Two other hunters had hunted for this bull and failed. Thierry described him as having symmetrical, thin-ish tusks, with more than 4 feet sticking out. He was confident that the elephant was more than 50 lbs per side. We ultimately agreed that we would not pass a 50 pound bull, period. Even if we saw the elephant on the first hour of the first day, we would shoot him if he was 50 pounds or better.
It followed that we hunted elephant on day one. We saw six young bulls, but we never found a track worth following. We continued the search for a big track on day two, driving roads and sand rivers, and checking two young bulls in the process. We also ran into the six bulls from the prior day.
After a bush lunch on day two, we checked a water hole and there HE was. Can you believe that one-half way through the second day of a 21 day safari, there stands THE bull we were hoping to find? I planned to walk my legs off for three weeks, and here is the ultimate objective of the safari, only 300 yards away, upwind, alone, and oblivious to our presence.
To be honest, I had very mixed emotions at this point. Our extremely good fortune was not consistent with my preconceived notions of how my elephant hunt would transpire. In my mind, I had not worked hard enough for the opportunity at this elephant. At the same time, I was trembling with excitement and hoping that I was up to the task at hand. As we loaded up and walked away from the car, I did not know what I was going to do if we got close enough to shoot the elephant.
Since the elephant was watering, we had to let him finish and leave as there is no shooting within 1km of water points on Sango. As he walked away, the bush quickly consumed him. He was then completely out of sight. With him gone, it occurred to me what a special animal this was and what a mistake it would be not to hunt him just because it was day two of the hunt. There was absolutely no guarantee that we would have this chance again. Then, I decided that I would shoot the bull if the opportunity presented.
Minutes passed like hours as the bull walked out of my life. After what seemed an eternity, Thierry said, “Let’s go.” Tracking was easy as the ground was soft and wet from rains of the prior two days. The wind was in our face and constant. It looked like this was going to be easy!
Soon, we could hear the sound of the elephant breaking branches and feeding. Next, we could see trees shaking as well as bits and pieces of the elephant through gaps in the bush. In the course of 30 minutes, we had closed to about 100 yards. We now had a good view of the elephant across a patch of very open ground. He was beside an acacia tree, stripping the pods from the low branches and devouring them.
The wind was good, but the elephant was standing broadside and the approach was very open, especially over the final 50 yards. So, we just waited. We were close enough for a heart / lung shot, but I wanted to get close. As the elephant exhausted the pod supply from the low branches, he began to stretch for the higher branches, causing him to quarter away sufficiently that we could safely approach without detection. Also, his shaking the entire tree and breaking branches would cover any noise that we might make as we closed the distance. Finally, the wind remained true.
As the bull stretched and reached for the higher branches, we made two moves, cutting the distance to 20 yards. Then, Thierry gave me the go ahead to shoot the elephant in the ear when he swung his head to the side. I stepped to the side, flipped off the safety on my 416, and readied myself for the shot
When his head finally came around, I raised the rifle and shot the bull in the ear, killing him instantly. His back legs buckled and he was dead well before he hit the ground. Thierry and I came around and placed two more shots into the spine of the bull, just to be certain.
With that, he was ours.
I have been lucky to have two exceptional leopard hunts with Thierry in 2009 and 2010. With that history as well as Thierry’s record with other hunters, I had no reservations about having leopard on the menu in 2011. In fact, it is hard to imagine hunting with Thierry and not having a leopard to hunt.
First, let me say that I consider Thierry to be a leopard specialist. It is his favorite animal to hunt, he hunts them hard, and he knows what he is doing. Before my hunt, he guided 28 hunters to 24 leopards. On the smart super cats of the Zimbabwe Lowveld, that is an exceptional success rate.
Second, I consider area to be the number one criteria for success on a leopard hunt (ability of PH is #2). Sango is loaded with leopards. In the course of our hunt, we had five males on baits as well as more than one dozen females. Had we baited the entire 21 days, who knows how many cats we could have gotten on bait.
Moving on to the hunt, we placed several zebra and impala baits in “catty” areas. We had a hit that we believed to be the famous 10 year old cat named “Popeye” and we sat for him the following night. He and Mrs. Spots came to the party just after dark, but the combo of kitty cat love and watering elephants kept us from closing the deal on one of the legendary super cats of the Save.
On day 8, we shot a particularly big impala and hung it in a likely spot. We had a hit that night and the tracks showed that a male and a female had fed. We didn’t have a camera on the bait, but the size of the track excited us. We also photographed a male feeding at another location, but we were confident that it was a considerably smaller cat, albeit shootable.
We set up a pop up blind, brushed it in, and took our positions at 4pm. At 5:15, the leopard grunted five times. Then, there was silence until shortly after 7pm. At that time, we heard the sound of a cat feeding on the bait. However, when Thierry hit the light, the cat that was at the bait ran away to our left. Shortly after that, I heard a deep grunt on our right followed shortly by the sound of a cat on the bait, feeding.
When Thierry hit the light the second time, the cat was on the branch, eating the bait. As he stopped eating and turned toward the light, there was no mistaking that this was a male, a big male. Thierry gave the “shoot him” command and I let him have it with the 338. He flew off the branch and grunted twice as he ran away. Then . . . silence. I felt like the shot was good . . . but there’s always that bit of doubt when the cat is not lying stone dead at the base of the tree.
After regrouping, calling the car, and grabbing our lights, we walked a few yards down hill toward the bait. Scanning the area with our lights, we saw the reflection off the cats eyes . . . sideways . . . indicating that he was dead, lying on his side in the knee high grass. He had only gone 20 yards.
He was my heaviest cat by several pounds, but his skull was slightly smaller than the famous Professor of 2009. With this success, Thierry improved his record to 25 for 29 and I stayed perfect at 3 for 3 with 9 nights in the blind. Of course, I just show up, shoot, and smile for pictures. Thierry and the guys do the hard work and all the accolades belong to them, not me.
BUFFALO: With the elephant and the leopard sorted and salted in the first ten days, I determined to take my time and try to find that special buffalo that the Save produces from time to time. However, the weather did not cooperate. Almost one inch of rain fell during the first five days of the hunt. As a result, several pools and puddles of water accumulated in the rocks formations that litter the Save. On several occasions, we located rocks holding water that buffalo were drinking from. This reduced our ability to locate herds and dagga boys since they were not going to established water and crossing roads in the process. We chased buffalo for seven or eight days and we looked at several herds of buffalo as well as several groups of dagga boys. We did not, however, see any bull that we wanted to shoot.
On day 17, with time getting short, we found dagga boy tracks at 8am. We followed the buffalo for four hours, finally catching them just before noon. We got a really good look at the bulls and we decided that one of them was a potential shooter. After several minutes within 40 yards of the buffalo, they finally trotted off and we opted to leave them to break for lunch.
After lunch, we returned and I was ready for action. I decided over lunch that I should shoot this buffalo if the opportunity presented. He was plenty good, and the water situation was making buffalo hunting very unpredictable. So, off we went.
We caught the buffalo in short order. However, they busted us and ran. We waited and started over, but they were very agitated and alert. We were close to the buffalo on multiple occasions, but the bush was thick and the buffalo were spooking before any reasonable shot was presented.
As the buffalo moved into a more open area, we sprinted ahead of them and got ready for the buffalo to walk by us. They appeared at 60 yards and our bull presented a quartering toward shot. Thierry told me to shoot and I did. At the shot, the bull was rocked and almost fell on his face. He managed to regain his feet and ran 50 yards before falling down, bellowing, and dying.
Upon examination, the bull was a classic buffalo. Solid bosses, nice shape, and nice width. Hard to turn him down on any day of a safari.
AQUATICS: 2011 featured me as a first time hippo and croc hunter as well. I debated whether or not to make a special trip to Caborra Bossa, the Zambezi Valley, Zambia, or a similar hot spot for the aquatics, but I ultimately decided that a foot or two of croc tail or an inch or two of hippo teeth was not my main priority. I was more interested in the hunt and the experience. So, I elected to add these species to my existing hunt rather than make a separate hunt where they were the primary focus. Also, doing the two hunts on Sango scratched my obsessive-compulsive itch to hunt all of the species on that fine property.
It followed that we took a really nice hippo and an average croc in our hunt. The hippo hunt was especially fun in that it required us to walk a good distance across the Save River sand as well as to wade three river channels before we could approach the deep pool where the hippos lived. Wading that water in the view of crocodiles was tense! Also, the game scout added that a man was eaten in the area of our expedition in the prior year, adding to the tension.
NIGHT HUNTING: I also wanted to collect the night species of Sango. They include civet, genet, badger, and porcupine. These guys frequently visited our leopard baits during this hunt as well as in years past. However, I’ve always had difficulty closing the deal on these guys. Also, there is no spotlighting from the vehicle on Sango, so the traditional manner of hunting these guys is not available.
We baited for the civet in a location where we previously had a leopard on bait. The site was close to camp and we freshened the bait with a civet’s favorite . . . guts. After a first night where we sat until 11:30 and the civet came at midnight, we decided to sit the following night until we killed the civet or the sun came up. Arriving at 8pm, we settled in and the civet came at midnight (again). Thierry hit the light and I made the shot. He was a “bus” of a civet, per Thierry. I’m guessing not less than 35 lbs. Mooshy!
We also shot a genet. Suffice to say that a 416, even loaded with solids, is not proper for genet shooting! (Anyone have a spare genet cape?)
I never caught up to the badger and the porcupine, but there’s always next year.
MICRO ANTELOPES: I love the little guys. I shot a nice klipspringer in 2009, but the cape was a total loss. I therefore elected to shoot another in 2011 if possible. So, one afternoon on a nice walk, we shot a really nice ram with a 416 solid at about 150 yards.
I also love the Sharpes Grysbok. I wanted to hunt one in 2009 and 2010, but I never saw a male (or at least I never saw horns on any grysbok that stood still at a reasonable distance). This year, while following buffalo, we bumped a prime male from his bed. He stopped and Thierry set the sticks. I said, “What about the buffalo?” Thierry said something to the effect of “F(orget) the buffalo!” So, I shot him. As you can see, I have no regrets about that decision.
BUSHBUCK: The bushbuck is one of my favorite animals. With many traits like our southern whitetails, I love matching wits with these handsome animals. That said, I’ve struggled with bushbuck. In 2009, we walked miles and miles looking for a nice ram before I finally shot a mature, but short ram on the 14th day. Last year, we put in the miles again, but we never saw an animal that was fit to take. So, when this year rolled around, I was ready to take a nice ram if the opportunity presented.
It followed that we found a nice ram on day one while looking at elephants. The bushbuck bolted from the riverine cover, into our sight, across a sand river, and into some thick stuff. We followed and I made a killing shot when he appeared.
Then, days later we spotted a two bushbuck rams chasing a female. Thierry asked me to shoot the bigger one of them and I refused. “I’ve already shot my bushbuck” I said. “I promise you you’ll regret not shooting this bushbuck!” Thierry replied. So, you can guess what happened. A short chase and one shot later, and here is the result. A true old man of a bushbuck ram, and certainly the last that I will shoot for a long time.
IMPALA AND WARTHOG:
Sango is crawling with impalas and warthogs. I’d not shot a trophy impala in 12 years (I’ve shot plenty of baits and rations), so I was ready to shoot a unique or an exceptional impala if we found one. It just so happened that we found one of each.
I shot this guy the first day. I really liked the unique flare on his horn, making him different and appealing to me.
I shot this guy on day eight. He is the best I’ve shot and he is exceptional for this area. It was a fun hunt that resulted in a 300+ yard poke with the 338. It didn’t put him down, but it slowed him allowing us to catch up and finish him. I also shot the leopard off the carcass the following day.
I also love hunting warthogs. They are plentiful at Sango, so I typically shoot two. I just look for a nice, mature male. If it is a giant, that’s just a bonus. As it turned out this year, both were just real nice pigs, but no monsters.
ZEBRA: Mrs. SL and I have a plan to cannibalize a zebra rug for elephant tusk bases, footstools, etc, so she wanted a replacement for the trophy room. When we shot this stallion (for bait) on the first morning, there was no doubt that the skin was coming to Alabama. It is perfect. No cuts or scars, a huge mane, and no shadow stripes whatsoever. It was big too.
JACKAL: I had never shot a jackal. So, we are standing over the zebra shot in the first hour of the first day and admiring his cape when, surprise, up walks a jackal. “Have you shot a jackal before?” asks Thierry. “Why, no” says Will. “Do you want to?” asks Thierry. “Sure (and bang)” says Will, and just like that, we had a jackal in the bag.
WILDEBEEST: Sango has gobs of Blue Wildebeest. I wanted to shoot one as part of my desire to shoot all of the Sango species, but I preconceived that I would shoot an old bull as a lion bait next year. Diana, however, had different plans. On the last day of the hunt, we encountered this dagga boy of a bull with a bad limp and a badly swollen front leg. His hips and ribs were sticking out and the thing to do was to euthanize him and put him out of his misery. Not glamorous work, but something that needed to be done. I was glad that we were there to end the old guy’s suffering. As you can see, he was a veteran of many years under the African sun.
ZAMBEZI HUNTERS: This is our third hunt in three years with ZH. I would not be returning each year if ZH was not an elite organization. ZH runs a highly efficient and superbly organized safari company. They are not the largest operator in Zim by far, but that lends itself to a high level of personal service and great attention to detail. In 50-plus days of hunting with ZH, I’ve not had a single concern about the logistical or operational aspects of the safari (fuel, vehicles, food, hidden costs, up-charges, surprises, changes, operational issues, theft, legalities, disputes over area, etc, etc, etc). That leaves me 100% free to concentrate on hunting and enjoying the African experience. That is how a safari should run. They have my business until further notice.
What more can I say about my friend Thierry? He is 100% hunter. A cunning leopard hunter and just as deadly around buffalo, he is cool, calm, and collected. I would hunt anything that walks the planet with Thierry. We’ve done 50-plus hunting days in the past three years, and I continue to be impressed by Thierry on a daily basis. He is hilarious and a people person making him very fun in camp. I also notice that he is very fair with his crew as well as the camp staff, earning their respect rather than just demanding it or expecting it. At 32, his future is bright. His potential is tremendous. He will be one of the very top guys on the continent in short order. Of course, he is already at the top in mine and Mrs. SL's opinion, not to mention many others that have hunted with Thierry. In fact, I believe Thierry was only guiding ONE new client this year. Everyone else was a repeat. That is an impressive testament to Thierry's abilities, especially at 32 years of age.
MUDINI AND VUSA:
Mudini is one of the finest trackers that I’ve seen. He has a special gift. No doubt, Mudini saved me from losing animals on more than one occasion. He does not give up until he finds his prize. He and Thierry persist and find animals that other crews would give up on. Mudini is the leader on the back of the truck and he leads by his good example. He is a hard worker, he’s strong, and he has a pleasant demeanor. He is an asset to our safaris.
Vusa, formerly with Rex Hoets, is the driver. Vusa has a great demeanor and saves us the trouble of walking back to the vehicle after some long tracking jobs. Always quick to smile and extend a congratulatory handshake, Vusa is the newest member of Thierry’s team.
CONCLUSION: This was a top hunt in a top area with a top PH. It was the best hunt I've been on, period.
POST SCRIPT: My heart, my mind, and a considerable portion of my soul make their home in Africa. I will return every year to search for them for just as long as I can. I just hope I never find them and that the search continues for the rest of my days.