ZIMBABWE: March 2023 Amadundamela Forest Reserve Management Elephant Bull Hunt With CMS Safaris

Longwalker

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After leaving Little Makololo camp in Hwange National Park my wife and I traveled a couple of hours to the town of Lupane, where we were delivered to a roadside gas station by our driver. We were met there by our PH Alan Shearing (standing in for our injured operator & PH Buzz Charlton) and our crew: master tracker Criton, tracker and apprentice PH Nyati, and smiling driver Eddy. A National Parks ranger was assigned and rode along, a talkative and opinionated woman named Sips. They are a happy and very skilled crew, all Shona tribe. We will make a good team.

Monique and I squeezed into the cab of the Land cruiser truck with Alan, who we found personable and informative. He’s a very experienced Professional Hunter, a veteran of more than thirty years of safari hunting and a third generation native Zimbabwean. He tells us stories as we drive.

It’s amazing how the lives of Zimbabwean farm boy like him and a Canadian farm boy like me have so many shared enthusiasms as we tell each other tales of our youth, our love of the bush, and generally growing up with a constant appreciation of nature, the outdoors, and our commitment to ethical hunting.

Our hunt is to be one of only two non-trophy “management” elephant bulls that will be conducted this year in the huge Amadundamela forest reserve.

Our goal is to find an old, past breeding age bull, with genetically inferior tusks, or broken tusks. All meat will go for “rations” for the forestry workers and their families, as well as to nearby villages whose crops are regularly raided by the elephants that have overpopulated the reserve and are damaging the valuable teak trees. Any ivory will remain property of the Zimbabwe government, and if CITES allows it to be sold, the money raised will help fund management of the forests.

We arrived at camp after a couple hours of dodging potholes on the “tar” road and bouncing over the sandy forest trails. Camp is a run-down collection of concrete, thatched roof buildings and a motley bunch of worker’s huts that form the base camp for forestry workers and guests.

The cabins face mostly North along a low ridge with a fine view of a huge long grassy vlei (river meadow) dotted with feeding wildebeest, impala, and a few zebra, all busy feeding on the lush valley grasses. A dense, beautiful teak forest covers the land rising beyond as far as the horizon.

Since it’s still light, we head out to do the test shots with the rented rifle. A ritual designed to let the client evaluate the rifle and the PH and crew evaluate the skills of the client. We both seem satisfied. The “elephant rifle” is a Winchester M70 .416. It doesn’t kick too much, and the heft and big hole in the barrel give me some confidence. Alan cautions me to load only three cartridges, since the normal fourth and last one causes problems with feeding from the magazine. I didn’t know at the time how much I’d wish for that extra shot later.

A small black square was appropriately perforated several times while aiming with the scope and then with the open sights. The big, solid brass bullets whizzed right through a huge old hardwood tree a couple feet thick. Just what is required for really big game. Alan says the early season elephant that we’re hunting will likely offer close shots of 25 meters or so. That actually seems a bit nearer approach than my comfort level with such dangerous game, but I know so little about elephant.

He shows me his well-worn Krieghoff .470 Nitro Express. Side by side barrels rubbed silvery grey, stock darkened from sweat and oil and baked by many days in the sun. He says it’s deadly, reliable and like an old friend. It’s saved his life several times.

After a nice meal and intermittent sleep in the heat, we woke in the predawn darkness a while before our 5am alarm, and got ready for the first day of our hunting adventure. Breakfast was traditional mealie meal porridge, along with more familiar toast and coffee.

We piled into the truck, our team of 8 filling all available seats. We had been joined by an additional member from the Forestry department staff, a very old fellow in apparently poor health who didn’t say or do much but who was a tracker who was familiar with the forest reserve trails.

We’d gone perhaps a km from camp when Criton and Nyati spotted the first tracks on the sandy trail. Their competence and skill is evident from the start. “two young bulls” is the verdict, mysteriously divined from track size, shape, gait and probably intuition and sorcery. They obviously know what they are doing. Despite their huge size, tracks of elephant are not always obvious.

We follow a few hundred meters, and those tracks join up with a couple more. More bulls. Here and there we find some stunted domestic watermelons growing in the sand, the seeds spread in the droppings of crop raiding elephant. The spoor heads towards the river, and we follow to a open and tracked up salt lick area where some years before the camp had discarded used salt from the skinning sheds. Impala flush at our approach, leaping and gliding alternately over the grassy valley. Tracks of our elephants mingle with those of kudu, wildebeest, and a lone eland before turning towards the river. A couple of the fresh tracks are clearly big old bulls. Worn at the heel, pads cracked and creviced, and each as long as two of my footprints together end to end. They’ve gone over to the other side of the river valley and into the teak forest.

We hopped in the Toyota Landcruiser and tried the crossing. Water is deep here and the front end bottomed out, differential hanging up on the mud with wheels spinning in the muck. I’ve wondered for a while now what the limits of traction are for those amazing safari vehicles, and we just found out. Criton, Nyati & Eddy get out and wade to the front, pushing us out of the deep, muddy hole.

An hour or so later we’ve picked up the tracks on the north side of the vlei after a long detour on alternate trails and crossing the main ford to the east. Time to load up and head out. This moment is the true starting point of a lifetime dream, or ambition of mine. We’re on foot, following the tracks of the most cherished, controversial, dangerous, and impressive game animal in the world. I’m excited as can be, cautious and nervous and trying to focus while keeping in mind my responsibilities.

Monique is just a few paces behind. I carry a rifle, and that helps ease my fears while she does not. I think she’s braver than me.

The bush is mostly tall teak, with many lower thorn bushes and some big acacias, a few pod mahogany, beautiful lead woods, ebony, and a variety of other species. It’s the “green” season. Hot and humid. A few mopane bees flit around our eyes, nostrils and ears, seeking sweat. Sweat drips from us, gluing shirts to our backs. The trackers are wearing coveralls and seem fresh and tireless. The sandy soil between the trees is almost covered with tall grasses, some reaching over our heads. Visibility ranges from 30 meters to arms length.

Criton is in the lead, walking with a fairly smooth gait despite having one leg shorter than the other. A few years before he had been stepped on by a charging elephant, which crushed his pelvis. It was just one of many dangerous animals he and Nyati have faced while employed by CMS Safaris. Despite an injury that would have ended the career or life of most anyone else, he recovered and still loves hunting elephant. His attention is mostly on the track, while scanning ahead and listening intently as he moves. He notices numerous details I don’t completely comprehend.

Nyati is next. He’s tall and quiet, and moves with a slow but very assured pace. He aspires to be a Professional Hunter and certainly has enough practical hunting experience. He and Criton have been a professional tracking team for more than twenty years. They are arguably the best in the business, perhaps best in the world.

Their skill while following and reading the tracks is amazing. Most of what we follow isn’t really tracks. Just small disturbances in the soil and vegetation. Nyati stays in synch with Criton and Alan through subtle communications. A nod, a waved hand, chin thrust or finger points to items of interest. We have to imagine what most of it means, so occasionally he whispers a word or two to explain to us illiterates what’s really going on.

Alan is next. Once in a while, he stops and whispers to us and interprets the subtle sign language of the trackers. He is very focused during our progress along the track. Receiving intel from the trackers, demonstrating how to avoid stepping on noisy bits of shin tangle and moving aside the nasty hooked thorns that cross our way at face level, he is both considerate and purposeful. He keeps us from making too many blunders.

I follow Alan, Monique follows me, then Sips the National Parks Ranger - who has no real role but to be a sort of observer for the government. She also serves as game warden to ensure we follow the rules. She carries a beat up old Kalashnikov military carbine, more a ceremonial symbol of authority than an effective elephant deterrent.

After following tracks for a few hundred meters, the density of the tracks increases. Then Criton freezes and ducks back towards us. He’s heard ears flapping. Alan leads us forward, Nyati stepping aside.

It seems that we’ve stalked into a much larger herd. From what we can tell, we may have as many as fifty bull elephant within our nearby section of forest. At least fifteen are very close. We can hear elephant in front and to either side. We regroup and try to circle round with the wind more in our favour. The top of the back and shoulders of a big bull appears under one of the shade trees, and disappears quickly. Farther down the slope, on the edge of a tiny opening, a tall tree leans over and falls with a crack-whoosh. Pushed over by an unseen feeding elephant.

A bull kudu barks an alarm call, and the whole herd crashes away, almost all unseen. It’s amazing how little noise such big animals actually make when they retreat. Well, that was fun, and disappointing, and a little scary, and exciting.

Back on the tracks, we are hoping the group is not too spooked and that the tracks don’t lead us downwind. Tracks is perhaps not the best word. We’re mostly following bits of scuffed soil, a few upturned leaves, and grasses bent in the direction of travel. Those subtle signs tell a lot to experienced trackers. I have much to learn.

Following the herds retreat, the sign indicates that they soon settle down. A few hundred meters further along we make contact again.

Criton and Nyati crouch and back up. A nod towards a series of reddish tree trunks in a tiny opening in the underbrush just thirty meters ahead. Alan motions for me to join him, just as a tiny gust of air wafts from behind. The tree trunks start to move, and magically transform themselves into elephant legs. We see bits and pieces of reddish-grey hide and a few white tusks as at least five bulls crash away. I stare gobsmacked like I wasn’t expecting that. So close, and yet invisible and silent. I resolve to adjust my mental image and pay more attention to what I’ve been shown.

We walk up to where they had been lounging under some huge teak trees, past divots where they were digging up the red sandy soil to throw on their backs to prevent sunburn. Not sure why they need to do that in this deep shady forest gloom.

After a drink of water from the bottles Nyati carries in his pack for us, back on the tracks we go. One particularly large front foot makes an imprint that has a deep crease at the back. That’s a distinctive track made by a big old bull. We see it several more times. The trackers continue to follow the group, but concentrate on that big cracked and worn track. We want to get a look at that one.

All morning we’d been seeing many dung beetles on the elephant droppings. Several species of the big, black bugs process elephant dung into food for their larvae. Now I understood just how quick and efficient they are at finding dung. Some warm wet piles dropped just minutes ago by the retreating herd already had a few beetles digging around in their new home, others flying in on noisy wings to join them. They’re as big as the end of my thumb.

A few hundred meters further along, we hear some more elephant moving between us and the vlei, perhaps a hundred meters distant. The weak breeze is swirling und of uncertain direction, and it seems they’ve caught our scent and are moving out. Not panicked, but cautious. A power line right of way has been cut through the forest here. Overgrown, but with no big trees, it allows us to see several elephants cross to the east side. A couple are very young bulls. At least one is older.

It’s now nearly noon. Time for lunch and rest, and to let the herd settle down from the stress of watching their backtrack.

We radio for our driver, and the ever-smiling and laughing Eddy comes with the truck and brings our lunch. We have some sandwiches and cokes, actually served on a table under a shady tree and while seated in comfy camp chairs. We’re not really “roughing it” on this hunt. We rest and tell stories for a couple hours to avoid the most intense heat of the day before we resume, picking up the tracks again on the other side of the power pole cutline.

Back on the tracks again. The heavily shaded ground has become a little more sandy, and even I can follow some of the sign. We can sometimes actually see almost entire single tracks now, so there is not as much need to follow the “air spoor” – the pattern of bent grasses, broken twigs and fallen leaves left by passing elephant. But the forest underbrush seems even thicker here. Clumps of thorns are so thick it’s impossible to see into them, and the less dense parts in-between not much better.

A few hundred meters along, a subtle sound gets the trackers attention.

Criton backs up and nods his head forward. Nyati is at Alan’s side, opposite me. Alan motions me forward. We are all very alert and tense. I look through small gaps in the very thick brush, this time scanning at more than head height, and discern parts of the shoulder of a bull, ear moving slowly in and out of a tiny patch of sunlight as it fans its’ ears to cool itself. He’s facing to our right. Alan points out a second, and a third. We’re 20-30 meters away, but only see bits and pieces. A low communication rumble comes from their direction.

The closest bull is facing left, and he’s big, with short but thick, impressive tusks jutting out into a small clear patch. Too young to consider shooting, and tusks too heavy. He will grow to breed and be an impressive trophy one day. And besides, we can’t see more than a bit of his face. A third, very tall bull is lounging alongside a very big teak tree. We can see part of his back line. He towers over the other two. But we can’t see enough. We must identify an old, past prime bull, with broken or very small tusks, before we can decide to shoot. A trunk appears, raised like a periscope at an improbable height above the intervening thicket. Not good. They’ve heard us and now one is trying to get our scent.

I look back, and Monique and Sips are a few yards behind, just off the path that we approached on. Then Criton, concentrating very intensely on the elephants, then the three of us in a sort of a row. I looked forward again, and Alan whispers “no good, let’s back out” - we take one step, and the elephants instantly start to move. Two more bulls that were unseen and farther away spook the ones we were looking at. They are running now. Very quickly. Towards us.

Nyati in his soft, intense voice yells “Watch out!”.

Alan steps forward again, raising one arm and waving. And loudly shouting “HupHupHupHupHup” to let them all know that we are there so they can avoid running into us.

Safety off, rifle raised 3/4 of the way, I was relieved to see the first bull swing his huge head to his right and turn perpendicular to us as soon as he saw us. The second crashed along right behind it, his thick heavy ivory gleaming when it came into the light. Then the huge form of the third bull appeared behind a teak bush about 15 meters away.

He was in full flight and coming terribly fast. His head pushed the bush aside, and our eyes met. He looked angry. Without hesitation, he tucked his trunk under his chin, lowered his head and increased speed.

I dimly recall Alan yelling “Shoot!” Just as my finger tightened on the trigger, I saw a puff of dust, and a tiny, round hole appeared just to the left of where my crosshairs had settled in the centre of his huge forehead. Our two shots almost sounded as one. He stumbled, way too close. Tusks dug deep into the earth, his huge body pivoting and hind quarters raising high up with his momentum. Alan fell backwards, tripped by a thorn bush. I saw him fire as he fell, while I reloaded and fired again, my bullet passing too far forward and too low to hit the brain.

The bull had fallen with its trunk almost touching us, and was rolling partly over. And he was instantly trying to get up and continue the charge. My third hasty shot also failed to find the football sized brain, so low down and protected by a half meter of bone at the very back of his huge skull. He was thrashing all four legs and trying to lift his head with one tusk still buried deep in the ground. He was still trying to kill us.

Nyati helped Alan up from the thorn bush and was helping him avoid the outstretched trunk as Alan yelled

“Shoot him again, I’m out!”

“I’m out too!”

I may have made some sort of record time pivoting to my right, stepping back three or four paces, and loading one more cartridge from my belt. I was highly motivated! That shot stilled him. He flopped on his side, and his hind legs stretched out. Alan shot once more, then...

“I’ll watch while you move forward and give him another”

I loaded two more in the rifle and followed as instructed. Not a quiver. It was over.

Alan’s leg is bleeding from the thorn tangle that tripped him. I’m limping, twisted my knee when I retreated to reload. Monique comes cautiously out from behind the little clump of wrist-thick saplings that she crouched behind when the elephant appeared in full charge. Seeing her coming out from behind the ridiculously small bush, Sips starts to giggle, her nervous fear needing an outlet. Alan silently shakes my hand. We’re both turning a little grey in the face. My hands start to shake. Head a little dizzy. Good thing I didn’t have time for that to happen sooner.

Criton steps up, looks me fiercely in the eyes, takes my hand, and says “Well done sir!”

Quiet, reserved Nyati smiles and gives me a big hug! He too says “Well done sir, that was very serious!”

Criton adds, “Very serious! I thought you and Alan were dead men, squished, - maybe us too!”

Alan also offers congratulations, and I offer thanks to him. Then he gets quiet, and gives the elephant a pat. I also offer the elephant my respects.

Then we all break out into laughs, sighs, handshakes and hugs, lots of exclamations and hand gestures as we reconstruct what happened.

It’s very good to be alive!

The elephant is old and huge, but in poor condition. His tusks are medium sized, and thankfully not “trophy” quality, so, no complications with permit or regulations. But his body should weigh another tonne or so. As it is, Alan estimates him at more than six tonnes. His right front foot has deep crevasses and a distinctive crease on the smooth worn heel, the same track that Nyati and Criton have followed all morning.

We take some photos, discuss and reconstruct events. Someone notices a few flecks of blood on the ground behind the spot where we were standing when we shot. Spatter from the impact of our bullets actually flew past us before the elephant fell. That is a sobering discovery.

Alan and Nyati inspect the carcass, find no injury or wounds except our fresh ones. Then they backtrack the bull to where we first saw him under the big tree. That’s about 30 meters from where we were. Far enough for us to have been outside the bull’s “fight” zone. Bull elephant at that distance almost always choose to flee rather than fight. Alan is puzzled. He has guided hunters to over two hundred elephants. Unlike the fierce and unpredictable cows, this is the first bull that has ever charged him, unprovoked and unwounded from such a distance. We’ll never know why this one was different.

We drive home just at dark, and set up the recovery plans for the morning. Camp staff and crew are jubilant. There is three tonnes of meat waiting that the community is eagerly looking forward to eating and sharing with their family and friends.

An old African proverb says “The eye never forgets what the heart has seen”.

My heart is full. We have much to remember. And much to be thankful for!

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That was really a good read.

Alan got really stuffed up by a charging cape buffalo a while back, glad everyone came away well.
 
Wow my friend,I am glad you are still alive ;it can get very scarce very quickly with these animals.
But what I will never understand is, why some put a scope on an elephant rifle that is only used under shotgun range.
Especially at a time of year, when the bush is as thick as a husky's fur.
One day even your grandchildren won't forget this story.
Great adventure.
Servus
Foxi
 
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Outstanding! What an incredible adventure. Thanks for sharing!
 
Amazing story! Happy that you all survived to tell the tale.
 
@Longwalker what a great story! I had the pleasure of sharing camp with Alan in September 1921. He is a standout individual! I’m glad both of you made it out alive! Again, what a great story, and how well told!
 
Great story and congratulations. Headed to Zim next year for my first attempt at a bull elephant. YOr story only fanned the flame even more.
 
Foxi, to answer you question about the scope... I agree with you, mostly. If using my own rifle, I would have used open sights. I have good, highly visible sights on both my .375 Sako and my .450-400 3" Merkel double. But the rifle was rented, and was not my own. I did test shoot the Model 70 with open sights but the front bead was too small for my 65 year old eyes, with not enough contrast. I think it may have had a brass bead at some point when new but this one just had the grey steel blade. We looked for some white paint in camp but found none. I asked one of the camp women for some fingernail polish and put it on the sight but the glossy pink colour wasn't enough help. I just couldn't see that sight well enough for fast, instinctive shooting in bad light. So I left the scope attached. I am very accustomed to shooting quickly with a low power scope. The 1.5-5x Leupold set on 1.5x was not much of a handicap. I could see clearly enough to get on target as needed to shoot quickly. Good thing, otherwise I could have been killed. But I may have placed a shot in the brain with an earlier shot if I didn't have any magnification.
 
Outstanding recap
 
@Longwalker what a great story! I had the pleasure of sharing camp with Alan in September 1921. He is a standout individual! I’m glad both of you made it out alive! Again, what a great story, and how well told!
Check that…2021. Although it would have been a blast back then as well!
 
Thank you for the report, very enjoyable read.
 
Well written account of a truly remarkable hunt. There is nothing like being amongst those giants. Appreciate you sharing and glad it ended well. What magnificent creatures.
 
Foxi, to answer you question about the scope... I agree with you, mostly. If using my own rifle, I would have used open sights. I have good, highly visible sights on both my .375 Sako and my .450-400 3" Merkel double. But the rifle was rented, and was not my own. I did test shoot the Model 70 with open sights but the front bead was too small for my 65 year old eyes, with not enough contrast. I think it may have had a brass bead at some point when new but this one just had the grey steel blade. We looked for some white paint in camp but found none. I asked one of the camp women for some fingernail polish and put it on the sight but the glossy pink colour wasn't enough help. I just couldn't see that sight well enough for fast, instinctive shooting in bad light. So I left the scope attached. I am very accustomed to shooting quickly with a low power scope. The 1.5-5x Leupold set on 1.5x was not much of a handicap. I could see clearly enough to get on target as needed to shoot quickly. Good thing, otherwise I could have been killed. But I may have placed a shot in the brain with an earlier shot if I didn't have any magnification.
I would never have believed that you are already so old, but with this experience you have been reborn once again ;)
 
Really exciting report. I’m glad everyone walked away safely. I’m booked with Alan for elephant in Dande North next year. I had a great hunt with him in Dande East in 2021.
 
I would never have believed that you are already so old, but with this experience you have been reborn once again ;)
I sometimes look in the mirror and think "wait a minute, that can't be right!" I'm 29 years old in my mind... but I keep doing the things I love and am grateful that I am healthy and strong enough that I can continue!
 

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