The Most Dangerous Of Them All

Ron Thomson

AH member
Jun 27, 2009
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The Most Dangerous of Them All

How often have we heard the opinion that infers, because it is wounded (and hence presumably angry with the hunter), that a wounded African buffalo is the most dangerous animal on earth to hunt? Some people, on the other hand, believe a wounded leopard has that honour. Others say….. Well, whatever it is they say, in the end, it is merely an expression of their personal opinions variously tempered by the extent of their experiences. What is more, most of these opinions are expressed volubly around a campfire at night when the number of nightcaps a hunter has consumed is the factor that dictates most of what he says. And why not? Passing unsupportable judgements, and reciting improbable hunting stories, around a campfire at night makes our hunts in the African bush all the more memorable.

Nevertheless, there are several substantive ideas about this subject that deserve proper attention because they are very important to hunters of Africa’s dangerous big game animals.

Elephants, buffaloes, lions, leopards and both the black AND the white rhino – the six classified big game animals of Africa - are ALL potentially very dangerous when they are being hunted. And all of them are more dangerous to hunt – or even just to photograph on foot - under certain conditions than they are under other conditions. In other words, these conditions dictate why these animals will sometimes charge a man – or turn and run away.

It is particularly important for hunters to understand this phenomenon. Indeed, it is vital because the difference between understanding and NOT understanding what is happening within the psyche of a dangerous big game animal that a hunter is pursuing could make the difference between the man’s life and his death. Few people accept that animals might have a mind capable of reasoned thinking – as the possibility of the existence of an animal psyche suggests - or that there might be a reasoned explanation for predictable animal behaviour under different but definable conditions.

It is a fact, however, that very experienced hunters can feel-it-in-the-ether when the dangerous animal that they are hunting is getting ready to charge – and that they are thus ready for it when it does. This is a sixth sense few people enjoy. Most hunters who have this extraordinary sensual awareness, however, cannot explain it – which fact does not help inexperienced hunters to learn how to circumvent a possible premature death.

The reasons why dangerous big game animals sometimes charge a hunter, and why they sometimes run away, is not as elusive a phenomenon as it may seem – as I shall now explain. Furthermore, hunters can put at least some of what I am about to say now to the test – and they would be well advised to put the rest into their pipes and to smoke it diligently.

All animals have two invisible and very changeable zones that unconsciously surround them day and night, and within which they perform their normal daily functions. These zones can be likened to two concentric circles. Under non-stressful conditions the outer circle is considerably larger than the inner one. The outer circle is called the animal’s ‘escape circle’. The inner one is called its ‘attack circle’ (Fig. 1.).

The existence of an animal’s escape circle can be easily tested. If, for example, a man walks towards a wildebeest that is standing in an open grassland the animal will watch him approach up to a certain point. When the man reaches that point the wildebeest will turn and run away. It will only run for a short distance, however, before stopping and turning to stand and to watch the human intruder again. This procedure can be repeated several times before the wildebeest tires of the game and runs much further away. This is a game that can be played with any non-hunted animal: a white-tailed deer in a meadow; a cow in a pasture, a feral cat in a city alley.

In all cases the distance at which any of these animals will turn and run away will always be about the same. It defines the closest distance that that animal feels comfortable (safe) in the presence of the man. It represents, therefore, the outer perimeter of that particular animal’s escape zone or circle.

Escape distances vary with individual animals – even between animals in the same herd. The differences vary even more greatly between whole herds of animals living in different populations. Every experienced hunter knows this. The differences exist because, although the escape circle phenomenon is innate, the size of each and every individual animal’s escape circle is derived from its own peculiar and repetitive learning experiences. Animals that are hunted by man regularly, for example, have much larger escape circles than those that are not hunted at all.

Habitat also plays a role. Animals living in thick cover, for example, will often stand quietly and perfectly still, relying on their camouflage and immobility to hide them from an approaching hunter. Such an animal will wait until a hunter gets quite close before exploding into the nearby thickets to make good its escape. That same animal, when approached by a hunter in open grassland, however, will run off long before the hunter is even within rifle range.

By comparison, the existence and the size of an animal’s attack circle are both much more difficult to determine. In the first place the attack circle is located not only inside the escape circle it is normally located deep inside the escape circle. This makes it very difficult for a hunter to approach anywhere near an animal’s attack circle because, if the animal knows there is a man nearby, it will run off the moment its escape zone is penetrated. This is why, with most encounters with even the most dangerous of big game animals, they normally run away from the hunter instead of attacking him.

Most animal attacks occur when a person on foot (not necessarily a hunter) suddenly and unexpectedly confronts an animal at close range inside its attack circle. The animal’s automatic and instinctive reaction, then, is to attack. These attacks are spontaneous strike-responses to the violation of an animal’s immediate safety zone. They are totally instinctive and represent a compulsive survival mechanism. Reactive attack, when suddenly and unexpectedly confronted by man at very close quarters is, under those circumstances, the animal’s best means of defense.

The phenomenon of these sudden and seemingly unprovoked attacks is the reason why certain animal species – like the black rhino - have been given such bad reputations for terrible aggression. Yet the black rhino is not as pugnacious as it has been so liberally branded. Black rhinos would much rather run away from a man than attack him. But they often sleep so soundly in thick bush during the heat of the day that a man, walking quietly through the thicket, will be completely unaware of the rhino’s presence until he walks right on top of it. He is then, clearly, deep inside the rhino’s attack circle and, if the rhino wakes up at that moment, it WILL attack the intruder.

When a hunter violates the attack circle of ANY animal one thing is certain. The animal has had no idea that a man was anywhere nearby. The first it will know of the man’s presence is when it suddenly sees him at very close quarters. The animal is then both surprised and alarmed at the same time, and its attack normally takes the form of a blustering panic-rush. If the animal connects, the attack will result in the man suffering physical damage or death. If it misses, the animal will normally rush on past the man to make good its escape in the security of the brush beyond. Even if the animal strikes the man, under such conditions, it will usually keep on running. It will normally not turn after the initial strike to gore him further. Hunters with their wits about them, therefore, often escape serious injury from such an attack by simply diving into the brush, to one side, to avoid being bowled over by the animal during its panic forward rush.

When one considers all these factors together it will become clear that the more experienced hunters are much more prone to attack by big game animals than are their less competent counterparts. This is because their superior silent-stalking skills bring them much more frequently into very close encounters with their quarry.

Now to explode a myth.

Wounded animals are NOT the most dangerous animals to hunt. Rather than the beast that the hunter has wounded, and which he is relentlessly tracking down, it will much more likely be one of its unwounded companions that will attack the hunter, after the group containing the wounded animal has been flushed several times. This has happened to me far too often – especially with buffalo – for these occurrences to be coincidental.

An unwounded animal that a hunter pursues all day long will be much more likely to attack him later in the afternoon, than would be the case had he wounded the animal with a painful body shot in the morning. This is because the unwounded animal just gets more and more cross every time it is flushed and harassed, and because it does not have the fear and the pain of a serious wound to counter its anger.

An unwounded animal’s initial reaction to primary harassment is to expand the size of its escape circle (Fig. 2.). This means it will try, for some time, to maintain as much distance as it can between itself and the pursuing hunter. The smallest sound that betrays the hunter’s approach, or the mere whiff of his scent, will be enough to send the animal galloping off.

As the day progresses, however, and as the animal gradually comes to understand more and more that it cannot rest in peace, a growing anger develops within it. This has the effect, by degrees, (and sensitive hunters can ‘feel’ it happening) of expanding the size of the animal’s attack circle. Eventuality its anger becomes so intense the size of the animal’s attack circle coincides with that of its escape zone – which, for all intents and purposes, then ceases to exist (Fig.3.).

When a harassed wild animal reaches this stage of desperation it will seek out a particularly dense bit of cover and from there it will ambush the hunter. There it will purposefully, silently, with vengeance in its heart – and with a calculated plan of action – await the very close approach of the man who has been pursuing it all day long.

THIS animal will not simply rush by if the first attack fails – like a suddenly frightened animal will do. Instead, fully hyped up, and with vindictive anger running high, the hunted becomes the hunter, and the hunter becomes the quarry. This animal’s intention will be to kill the hunter who has been so persistently pushing it all day long. Its purpose will be to destroy the plaguing cause of its continual harassment. Should such an envenomed animal be unsuccessful in its first attack it will turn, immediately, and attack the hunter again - and if it somehow loses its adversary in the tangle of brush it will set about trying to relocate him by any and all means. If it is not immediately successful it will run off and lay another ambush some distance off. And it will continue with this kind of determined behaviour until either it succeeds in killing the hunter or the animal itself is killed by the hunter.

The African buffalo has a fully justified reputation for such vicious and planned ambush-attacks on persistent hunters – and very frightening such encounters can be. But ALL of Africa’s dangerous big game animals will do exactly the same thing when they are similarly provoked.

Hunted animals with light non-lethal bullet wounds, when pressed by a hunter, may initially behave in exactly the same fashion as those that have not been wounded at all. Nevertheless, they will still very much prefer to run and to hide, and to run away again when flushed, than to confront the hunter head on – like an unwounded animal will do. And IF they lay an ambush for the hunter they will undoubtedly have the same anger in their hearts as do animals that have not been wounded – but their anger will be tempered by at least some pain and some fear. More often than not, however, lightly wounded animals – if they can keep on going – will keep on going, until nightfall shuts down the hunt.

In general, wounded animals that attack pursuing hunters normally do so ONLY when they can run no further. But this is not always the case – and, of course, the hunter can never know to what degree of incapacity the wounding has had on his quarry. What the hunter can be sure about is that whatever the pattern of behaviour that a non-lethally wounded animal will exhibit towards him during the ensuing hunt - after he has wounded the animal - will depend very much upon the degree of severity of the wound that it has received.

An animal that has received a deep and penetrating body shot, on the other hand, reacts more predictably and quite differently to the reaction of a lightly wounded animal. Such an animal is very, very sore indeed. It also knows that the wound it has received may cause its death – if not today then tomorrow, or sometime during the coming night. It is, therefore, frightened, too. It also knows that the pursuing hunter is the cause of its pain and the last thing it wants is a second dose of the same medicine. If this animal is not quickly incapacitated by its wound, therefore, its very real fear of the hunter will cause both the enlargement of its escape circle and the contraction of its attack circle – all at the same time. In fact, because this animal is so conscious of pursuit and so desirous of escape, its attack circle, for all intents and purposes, ceases to exist (Fig. 4.).

Such an animal will try to avoid a confrontation with the hunter at all costs. It will move away at the very first intimation that the hunter may be approaching. Even the distant alarm call of a disturbed bird on its back-trail will motivate this animal to relocate. But it will not run away as an unwounded animal will do. When flushed (which will occur at a distance because it is fearfully alert) this animal will get up quietly and it will walk away silently. And it will keep on walking at a steady, slow pace, moving from one secluded resting place to the next – all day long. It will work the wind cleverly and it will never stop listening for sounds and other signs of pursuit.

There is nothing more frustrating for a hunter than to repeatedly get a brief glimpse of his wounded quarry as it shifts position in thick bush, or to get within hearing distance of its laboured breathing, only to have it move off again before he can get in a final fatal shot. It is then that the experienced hunter prays for the stricken animal to charge.

What often happens under such circumstances is that the effects of the animal’s wounding eventually begin to tell. The animal becomes progressively more incapacitated as internal bleeding and pain saps its energies. After a while it begins to feel very sick. Finally, it comes to realise that it cannot escape the hunter on its trail.

When this stage is reached the wounded animal will, out of desperation and fear (not anger), stand its ground. A charge from such a disabled animal, however, lacks the energy and the vitality of an attack from a fully-enraged animal that is not wounded. Consequently, a seriously wounded animal that attacks the hunter as a last resort is much easier to kill.

When a hunter is finally charged down by a wounded animal after a long pursuit, therefore, it is normally because the animal is then incapacitated and because it attacks the hunter as a last and desperate attempt to survive. It normally cannot run any further. When a wounded animal attacks, therefore, only three or four of its six cylinders will be firing properly. Furthermore, very often the hunter can by then see his quarry, or hear its agitated movements in the brush ahead, or he can hear its nearby heavy breathing, before the attack takes place – or he can tell from the blood spoor that his quarry is very, very close. He is, therefore, relatively prepared for the attack when it comes. All these factors make the attack of a seriously wounded buffalo much easier to deal with than the attack of an unwounded buffalo that comes at the hunter ‘out of the blue’, in full steam, and with all of its six cylinders firing.

There is no truth in the myth, therefore, that a wounded African buffalo is the most dangerous of all animals to hunt. Wounded buffalo are dangerous, yes – as are all other wounded dangerous big game animals - but they are nowhere near as dangerous as the unwounded buffalo that has been pushed from pillar-to-post all day long. In my opinion, in thick bush, this latter animal is the most dangerous of them all.

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