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Hunting Elephant in Mopani

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It had been both a frustrating and exhilarating morning. My professional hunter Ruan, the three trackers, and myself had been tracking a herd of eleven elephants in a thick mopane forest that was located just a mile or so on the Zimbabwe side of the famous Limpopo River.

During the last two hours, the swirling wind currents had changed directions many times, often when we were close to the herd. When catching our scent, one or two of the bulls would come at us in "bluff" charges – usually at distances of 20 to 30 yards.
More than once we had been forced to retreat from these close encounters, backing up quickly while pointing our rifles towards the aggressors in case the bluff charges turned into real ones.

Each time after these encounters, the herd would only run off for a short distance and then continue to feed. This unusual behavior was due to two reasons. First, very few elephants were on quota in this area so the majority of the elephants in this location had never been hunted. Secondly, this area included a large citrus farm and a village so these elephants were likely acclimated to both the scent of man as well as chance encounters. This familiarity with humans was both a blessing and a curse to our cause. On the positive side, these elephants did not sense us as a threat so they would not flee the area completely when they saw or scented us. Negatively, these elephants did not have the fear of man possessed by elephants who lived in hunting concessions, so they were aggressive and confrontational when encountering humans. This aggression was demonstrated by the fact that several villagers had been attacked and killed by elephants in the last few years.

Up to this point, we had identified two bulls that were of interest. The first bull was an older and very large bull with short and thick tusks that were worn from his many years in the African bush. The second bull was younger, smaller in body, but with longer and more curved tusks which would make a more beautiful trophy. Ruan had recommended the second bull as a trophy if he presented a shot. I initially agreed. After a couple of encounters with the older and obviously more aggressive bull though, I had whispered to Ruan that if we had a shot, I would be very happy with the lesser trophy with the more interesting personality.

Speaking of shots at elephant, the thick nature of the mopane trees was making the possibility of a heart/lung shot much more unlikely. After I had consulted with books and with professionals who had hunted elephant, everyone had suggested this shot as the easiest and safest to make. Though the brain shot on an elephant is the quickest and most dramatic way to kill an elephant, it is by far more difficult to accomplish. The elephant’s brain is only the size of a football and located near the rear of his thick skull. The brain is located above the eyes, and if a brain shot is taken, usually it is easier from the side of the animal. The classic frontal brain shot is much more difficult and often complicated by the angle of the elephant’s head at the time of the shot.

Conversely, a shot into the heart/lung area is a larger target than that of the brain shot, and is normally fatal after the elephant has run a hundred yards or so. Anything but a perfect brain shot, however, is usually not fatal and the elephant can travel for a considerable distance. This fact was especially critical since we were so close to the Limpopo River and the northern bounder of South Africa. A botched brain shot could result in a fast retreat into South Africa where we could not follow up the bull, and I would still have to pay the substantial trophy fee for wounding the elephant! As a result, I had made very clear to Ruan that I had no intention of taking a brain shot but would wait for a more reliable shot at the heart/lung area – made from the side of the elephant and into the top of his shoulder.

We were now taking a breather at the top of a small hill as we prepared to go back into the mopane forest. The temperature had warmed considerably, and we were discarding our jackets and cold weather gear before we started the hunt again. We had three trackers with us. Johanus was from the farm, and Ruan had brought two bushman trackers from the Kalahari Desert area in Botswana. The older of the two bushman, Tokolos, did not take off his heavy jacket nor his wool scarf or cap. When Ruan asked him why, he replied that he was wearing as much clothing as possible in case the elephant charged. Tokolos said that if you throw clothing with human scent on the ground, the elephant will attack the clothing while the person can often get away. Though we chuckled at his rationale, it reminded me of the potential danger we were again preparing to face.

We had just reentered the forest and the trackers had again put us up close to the herd. We were skirting the main group trying to find one of the two bigger bulls when I noticed that everyone seemed to be running away from me. I looked to my right and saw a huge one tusked bull staring at me over a tree just 20 yards or so away. With his head held up and ears spread – he was pushing through the bush in an obviously highly agitated state. Needless to say, I joined my comrades with considerable speed and paused to think about the incredible pressure and stress associated with this type of hunting. I was just about to suggest to Ruan that we call this off and locate another herd. I felt that we were pushing this group of elephant too hard and that eventually one of the bulls would make a real charge to put an end to this perceived harassment. Even though Ruan is the age of my youngest daughter, he has had a lot of exposure to African hunting. Therefore I kept my suggestion to myself given that I have had only three hours of experience in hunting elephant.

As before, the elephants had fled the immediate vicinity so Ruan told the trackers to find the herd as we started out again. After a half a mile or so, we found them feeding in the thick bush. We tried to keep downwind of them and approached with 25 yards of so of the outlying elephants. While Ruan and Johanus peered at the ivory of the nearby bulls (the two bushmen had just left to get water and move the vehicle closer to our location), the elephants used their trunks to blow dust on their backs. At this close range, the noise was more than a little nerve wracking. I saw movement to my right and noticed a young bull running up to join the herd followed by the older bull we had decided to target. These two elephant had obviously gotten separated from the main group during the last retreat and were coming back to join the rest of their companions. Amazingly, Ruan began to walk even closer to the herd to get a better look at this bull. I could not believe how close we were, but the mopane still shielded the elephant’s chest.

As before, a telltale shift in the wind or a noise we made betrayed our presence to the herd. The bull pushed his head over the top of a mopane tree and held his head up with his ears spread wide, staring down at these three humans who had again invaded his "personal space." At this distance, his head looked like a compact automobile with the front doors flung open! Ruan raised his rifle and tersely whispered to me "You are going to have to try a brain shot." Johanus set up the shooting sticks in front of me and I placed the forearm of the rifle in the "V" and gripped both the shooting sticks and forearm with my right hand (being left-handed). I had my scope turned down to 1.5 magnification but even at that low setting, the elephant’s head seemed to fill the entire sight picture in the scope. Because of the shooting sticks and the close distance of the shot, the sight picture was very steady as I aimed the center of the scope reticle above the bull’s eyes, compensating for the fact that I was slightly to his right. Without taking my eyes off the scope, I whispered to Ruan " I have him." Ruan, standing to my right with his rifle also aiming at the bull’s head, said, "Shoot him." I squeezed the trigger.

If I live another 40 years, I will never forget the next few seconds. Because of the muzzle brake on my .375 H&H, the reduced recoil allowed me to see the impact of my shot. The elephant threw his head up and backwards and his rear legs collapsed. As previously planned, Ruan fired a follow-up shot as well. I rechambered a round in my rifle and we both ran forward. The bull was in the process of falling with his head turned at an angle towards my right. I ran up and fired another shot into his right cheek, trying again to angle up towards the brain. He completely fell down onto his side and Ruan and I both shot him in his front chest as insurance. Ruan told me to quickly run to my right and behind the bull and put one more round in the back of the bull’s head. As I ran behind the bull to do this, I found that my rifle was now empty! I quickly reloaded and shot him in the center of his head. His body shuddered and he went completely still.

In the quiet, I just stood there at the back of the elephant. Ruan came over and shook my hand and told me congratulations. I told him thanks and we walked back to the front of the elephant’s body. Johanus also came up and congratulated me as well. I did not yell or give anyone "high fives." I just circled the elephant and visually took in this incredible animal. I looked at his huge padded feet and glanced at his tail with its course hair that is often used to make bracelets. I was primarily struck by his massive size. He was later measured at almost 10 feet at the shoulder. I think I purposefully did not touch his tusks for awhile, maybe in deference to the "trophy" that has always been the motivation for much of the elephants’ struggles to survive in the past few centuries. I knew that I may never see this sight again. I did not cry as many have done on taking their first elephant but I did place my hand on his chest and pray aloud, thanking God for this wonderful creature He had made and that none of us had been injured or killed in the process of the hunt.

For the next hour or so we waited quietly for the skinners to arrive from the farm. I drank lots of water and took a few photographs. I felt the spongy nature of his skin and watched the trackers dig the dirt from around his left tusk that he had driven into the ground as he fell. When the skinners and vehicles finally cut their way through the mopane, I told Ruan that I did not want to be there when they began to skin him, preferring to remember him as he was both before and after the shot. He nodded and said that he understood. Before we left, the trackers located my empty rifle cartridge near the footprints where I stood as I fired the first shot. Ruan paced off the distance to the elephant – it was 12 paces!

We made our way back to retrieve our coats and to the truck. It would take the skinners many hours to retrieve the meat, hide, tusks and other parts of the carcass. Much of the meat went to the people living in the village who primarily subsist on small weekly allotments of corn meal and any vegetables they might grow. This meat would be a welcome addition to their diet. When the elephant’s head was eventually brought back to camp, it was examined for shot placement. It was found that both of my two head shots and the one fired by Ruan had successfully reached the brain. To prevent damaging the tusks, they were allowed to remain in the skull until decomposition allowed their easy removal.

After the tusks were eventually removed, they were found to be 30 pounds each, hardly a "trophy" set of ivory by many people’s standards. We could have likely shot an elephant with 40 or 45 pound tusks later but most likely by ambushing them after they crossed the road in front of our vehicle or as they fed on discarded piles of fruit piles used to attract game in the area. I am very happy, however, with my 60 pounds or so of ivory. They will be a physical reminder of bluff charges, side stepping fresh piles of elephant dung, swirling wind directions, and thick mopane forests. They will help me to recall in my old age the angry stare of a bull elephant at a distance of about 30 feet, and of taking a classical frontal brain shot when I did everything to avoid doing so.

As I close this story, I cannot help but feel the need to address people’s concern about shooting elephants. Before I left for Africa many individuals, including hunters, expressed their distaste for the hunting of elephants. For those who think elephants are endangered, that is far from the truth.

The overpopulation of elephants is a serious issue in many African countries, and most elephants killed today are not taken in sport hunting but in government sponsored culling or shot as "problem elephants" because they are destroying crops of impoverished African

farmers. An adult elephant consumes 500 pounds of foliage a day, and they inflict serious damage on an already threatened ecosystem. In Zimbabwe alone, there is an estimated excess of 40,000 elephant beyond the country’s ideal carrying capacity.

Jack Enter is a law enforcement trainer who lives outside of Atlanta, Georgia. He has hunted Africa on seven different occasions

For those who may be uncomfortable with the sport hunting of elephants because they think elephants are special due to their intelligence and family structures, I could not agree with you more. Elephants are very special! Yet ethical sport hunting is the primary method of their ensured survival.

The vast majority of hunters that I know respect the game animals they hunt far more than well meaning but uninformed people who base their knowledge of game management on watching nature shows or visiting the local zoo. Through sensible game management, "fair chase" hunting tactics, and trophy fees, game animals like the elephant have the best chance to be enjoyed by future generations.

• Hunting Elephant in Mopani •
• African Pride •
• Third time's the Charm •
• 4 Paces from Death •
• Hunting with the San •
• Terminal Medicine •
• Cure for the secondhand life •
• The Journeyman •
• When things go right •
• When things go right Part 2 •
• The hunt is over - but the memories remain •
• Silent assasins •

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