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Just a few seconds more, old chap

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I squatted down to get a better look, the pack on my back swaying me slightly off-balance. I placed the butt of my rifle down on the ground to steady myself and a large drop of sweat plopped into the red, powdery dust. The elephant tracks were several days old. It didn’t really matter that much that they weren’t fresh enough to follow, because I wasn’t really looking to find their owner.

I had been looking for fresher spoor when something odd had caught my eye. It was a drag mark. This was neither the usual scuff mark that was made just before the foot was placed, rather than after or as it was lifted in the case of men for example. Nor was it the often seen, playful doodling of a trunk in the dust, such as a laid back chap might make as he wandered down to the water to drink. This showed a harsh, continuous line on the ground from the last track left by the front right foot to the current track left by the same foot.

It was obviously a front foot because the track was round in shape, rather than oblong which would have indicated a rear foot. I could tell which direction the elephant was travelling because of the five toe-nail marks left by the front feet and the four toe-nail marks left by the rear ones. Actually, the left front had four toe-nails. The elephant had lost one, which is not at all an uncommon find with older bulls. I noted this along with other individual "labels", in case I needed to follow him or recognise his tracks at a later time.

I knew it was his right foot for a reason, which also told the direction he was travelling… wearing on the sole. The "pad" of an elephant’s foot is covered in a network of fissures, which show in the track as raised lines. The thick pad expands as the elephant places his foot, putting his weight onto it, and contracts as he lifts his foot, taking his weight off it. This sole wears with age just like one of our shoes. However, whilst humans can be both ‘over and under’ pronators, elephants are strictly underpronators, so the pad always wears on the outer side and, just like a human, at the rear of the foot.

The wearing was on the outside, taking into account the direction of travel, so it was his right foot. Judging by the amount of wear and the depth of the fissures in his feet, it was obvious that the bull was relatively old; the older the animal, the more the wearing of the pad at the rear. I say old bull because the same fissures were very raised on the large track; females have finer and shallower fissures in their smaller feet, so they were not raised in the track.

Sometimes it is necessary to compare the depth of the fissures at hand with a mental image of a male and females tracks of the same size, but in this case it was obviously male, as the tracks were simply too large for a female.

Next, I turned my attention to the size. The bull was roughly 2.75 metres at the shoulder. Easier to determine than one might imagine, because the height of an elephant at the shoulder is around two and a half times the circumference of the front track. In this case, the track of this bull’s front foot was around a hundred and ten centimetres. This was not huge, but relatively large for the Mutusadona or the Omay, where I was now squatting.

The bulls here are on average thirty centimetres shorter at the shoulder than those in Hwange in the West of Zimbabwe, and even shorter still than the incredibly tall elephants from the deserts of Namibia. However, although they are small, they have proportionally long, thin tusks. Beautiful to see but weight-wise disappointing for trophy hunters. Although they look impressive, they tend to weigh as much as a relatively short but chunky tusk from the West. Many an apprentice professional hunter, from the Hwange area, had come short by over-estimating the weight of these elephants’ tusks. The size was another indicator of age and combining the size, wearing, and fissure on the feet I reckoned he was about thirty-five to forty years old.

Then, I noticed something strange. The bull had been running. There was distance between the front and rear tracks. When an elephant walks normally, his rear foot will be placed roughly half-way over the front track. In other words, the put their back foot down where their front foot was, the back one going down as the front one is lifted away; on the left and right side respectively.

When an elephant speeds up, the gait changes incrementally up to a fast amble. This is reflected in the tracks by a spacing between the front and rear tracks; from overlapping, to just touching, to a small gap, and eventually a large gap when at full speed.

An elephant walks at around seven kilometres per hour and reaches a top speed, doing the fast amble I mentioned before, as they can’t trot, canter, or gallop due to their incredible weight.

This was a strange combination because the bull was both moving relatively fast and dragging his front foot; sort of a fast limping-run. Dragging his foot either meant an old disability, such as some healed wound at best, or some recent injury at worst. And, if he was trying to get away fast whilst in pain, he was very frightened and this would be for a reason.

There were no other elephant tracks anywhere nearby. I thought about my recent walk to this point. Not only had I seen no other elephant tracks, but I had seen no predator’s tracks from the time of the bull’s tracks either. Other than the usual plains game, such as impala and waterbuck, the only other tracks from around the same time were from local fishermen, who had stopped and eaten on the shoreline. I thought about it, his tracks were about the same age. The bull’s tracks had the same contrast, with the drizzle marks around it, as the fishermen’s, so had been created at the time of the light rain we had had three days earlier.

I had another look round; the bull had been feeding in the thick Mopani and had rushed away from the direction of the lake, where the fishermen had disembarked from their boat. This was very unusual because the bulls in this area tended to hang around the same location and were used to people, so why did he bolt when he came across people? It was starting to look like his bad leg and people were connected. I suspected his injury had recently been caused by man.

There was no blood. In the case of elephants this is nothing unusual. Their skin is so thick that it will seal a wound quickly and completely. This unfortunately means that the wound doesn’t drain and hence infection is rapid.

I re-assessed. A 2.75m tall bull, probably in his late thirties or early forties, moving as fast as he could go, away from fishermen who had stopped on the lake-shore; I strongly suspected he had been wounded either by poachers or bad news hunters who had not reported the incident. It was time to call it in.

I headed back to Musango where I was freelancing at the time. I was mostly doing walking safaris in the Matusadona National Park on the other side of the Ume River from where I had just found the elephant tracks.

The area where the bull had been was part of Gache-Gache Rural Council’s CAMPFIRE Project.

CAMPFIRE, or Communal Areas Management Program for Indigenous Resources, was an initiative to reintroduce and develop wildlife in the traditional or communal farming areas. Concessions were allocated and tendered out for both photographic and hunting safaris. Musango, Bumi Hills, and Katete Lodges were all within the photographic safaris area.

Hunting areas were not too far South from where we were, but the operators were professionals and I found it hard to imagine them not reporting a wounded bull.

Steve, the owner of Musungo, radioed the National Parks Warden at Tashinga, the headquarters of Matusadona National Park.

At that time the warden was Zef, an older, experienced, and no-bullshit officer with many years under his belt. I got along well with him, especially since my proficiency exam a couple of years earlier, when I had had an interesting time, running into the middle of a herd of buffalos with him, and on his say so, shooting an old "dagga boy". It turned out we both had the same attitude towards dealing with difficult situations involving dangerous game, but that is another story.

Zef told Steve over the radio, "Wellensky or Young can shoot it in the Park if they find it has crossed over. Otherwise, let me know if council is a problem and I will contact them".

Colin Wellensky was an ex-Parks PH, with many years experience, and was doing freelance walking safaris at Musango as well.

Steve then radioed Gache-Gache Rural Council based at Siakobvu. They advised us that they would send the scout, who was responsible for the immediate area, to join us. Also that Colin and I should "check it out", and determine whether or not the elephant needed shooting, and if so, report back to them for the go-ahead.

A full day went by before the scout turned up. He was nervous and cocky, and would not look us in the eye. Although his behaviour was a bit odd, we did not think much of it, as we were more interested in getting going, since the spoor was now four days old. Furthermore, for the most part, the scouts were hand-working and dedicated as a rule, and so deserved the benefit of the doubt.

Colin and I grabbed plenty of water and set off for the spot I had last seen the elephant’s spoor. Although the tracks were now four days old, we followed them on the principle that he was probably not going to be able to move far, and we would probably cut fresher tracks sooner or later.

After tracking him till the end of the day, it was clear that he was slowing down rapidly. Even more serious was the drops of stinking liquid that lay on the tracks. Clearly, a very infected wound was suppurating. When an elephant’s wound reached that stage, it was almost certain that sepsis would also have spread throughout his system.

Something else I noticed at this point. His droppings contained hardly anything other than the Mopani we were moving through, not the normal healthy variety of foods needed to supply him with the nutrients necessary to sustain him. The outside of the dung was almost black with a varnish-like quality. This indicated very high levels of tannin. Mopani and other trees pump tannin into their leaves when browsed upon, and also message other trees downwind to do the same. For this reason an animal has to keep moving or the leaves will become bitter. Grasses do something similar with arsenic. So, an elephant unable to move is going to get very high levels of tannin and arsenic in what he eats, in addition to a lack of necessary variety. Together with the infected wound, this would ultimately cause a slow and painful death.

As this point, we had reached close to the Kariba Lake shore, so we decided to head back to Musango via a boat pick-up, rather than sleep on the tracks.

On the boat trip back to camp, we discussed the situation. We had no doubt that he was deteriorating extremely fast. He was also heading towards a fishing village. We could not let him near people as he was now potentially deadly to man.

We had noticed this bull did not have anything wrong with the base of his foot, because where he did put his foot down, obviously gingerly, it looked normal. We both suspected some other problem with his leg, and that was a bullet wound.

That evening, Colin heard that he had to head out for some reason or other. There was a Learner Professional Hunter in camp, apprenticed to Steve who needed dangerous game experience, so I agreed that I would let him shoot or back up.

That evening a concerned couple asked me if we couldn’t bring in a vet to help. They even offered to pay for this.

We explained that infection spread so fast in such situations that a vet would be able to do nothing for him.

Just as importantly, the amount of money necessary to bring in a vet to dart and treat the elephant could be used to save many more elephants and rhinos through anti-poaching and other activities.

They immediately offered to donate the equivalent amount to anti-poaching and other activities. I was very impressed with their generosity and concern for our wildlife. They were Americans, and I have had further occasion to admire Americans for these selfless traits.

Lastly, the wildlife shared the area with people and had been reintroduced for mutual benefit; the locals benefitted financially from photographic and hunting safaris, and the animals would be free to roam where they had before. That meant people lived and worked in the same area, and no chances could be taken with the communities’ lives and property.

In this case, it was not only a kindness to the elephant to euthanize him, it was also a duty to the local people

We set out the next morning whilst it was still dark and arrived on the shoreline where we had departed the day before.

Our council scout was waiting. He had fallen behind often the day before and we had not waited for him. He contributed nothing and still seemed jumpy. There was no love lost between us. He had his radio with him and a .458, but I made it clear he was to keep the radio off and the weapon unloaded. When focusing on a serious and dangerous task, you need to be focused, calm, and aware. Some fellow constantly fidgeting and fussing behind you does not help in any way, and is more of a nuisance than a help.

We set off, and very soon crossed fresher spoor from the same bull. We followed for most of the morning. By midday, the spoor was as fresh as could be. He was now hardly covering any ground at all. We needed to end his suffering as quickly and efficiently as possible. We were very close to a fishing village and a person could easily bumble into him by accident. They would not stand a chance.

Even though the bull could not walk properly because of pain, and was so weak he was hardly moving, the sight of a person would trigger a surge of adrenalin through his body that would cover the pain and give him the energy to kill.

At this point we crossed the road dirt road that went from near Musango to Bumi Hills. I decided to stop and rest, as I knew we would be doing the final approach very soon.

I looked at Craig and realised that he was wound up as tight as a spring. The excitement was buzzing through him. This was the first dangerous game he had shot and I realised he was a likely candidate for a bout of buck-fever, so I told myself to keep this in mind and instructed him to get ready. We chatted briefly about dos and don’ts and other bits and pieces, and I checked his weapon and ammunition carefully. Then, I told the game scout to stay well back and we got back on the tracks.

Within a couple of minutes, we were in short, but dense, Mopani and couldn’t see further than our noses… but I heard the bull rumble. We were next to a tree much larger than the rest, so I handed my rifle to Craig and started climbing. Half way up I had a good view of the bull who was only sixty metres away. He was upwind from us standing next to a large Mopani with one foot off the ground. Even from that distance I could see how his leg was grotesquely swollen. The tree he was under stood in a small clearing and I could see that we would have a clear shot from the edge of the clearing but that it was only twenty meters from the bull.

I climbed back down and headed back to the road, used the scout’s radio to speak to HQ and confirmed we were putting him down.

We began the approach carefully and about 40m from the bull I stopped and checked on Craig. He was so tense he was shaking and was breathing way too fast.

I told him we were going back. He asked why and I answered, "I need a smoke". His jaw dropped and he went red in the face, then he followed me back to the road. By the time we got there he had cooled down. Getting his mind off the hunt and getting him pissed off with me instead had worked and he was now pretty calm.

I decided we should go back and get it done and that this time he would probably be okay.

Just then, a Bumi Hills game drive vehicle came along at high speed and pulled up next to us in a cloud of dust. Two Learners climbed out with weapons, all talking at the top of their voices, as is polite amongst Mashonas.\

They had heard from our scout’s radio chatter that we had found the bull and had requested permission from Council to also back-up. They announced this as though it were an instruction for me. So, of course, I answered no.

There was silence. I explained to them that I was conducting the hunt, and therefore it was my decision. Furthermore, I was the only man present with a full license, and I would not sign the letters they would need if they wanted the experience to count towards their exams, so they could all f-off.

Without a letter, they could not claim an animal hunted, backed-up or even accompanied. Then, I got onto the radio to Council and let fly. Council apologised and explained that one of the learners had over five years’ experience and had been chosen by a Pro Guide based at Bumi Hills who was known to me.

By this stage, the learners attitude had changed remarkably, and they were standing humbly, hat in hand. So I agreed that one could back-up. But first, I laid down the law and explained exactly how the approach would be done, making clear that they were not to shoot unless I gave the go-ahead.

We moved out, and approached the point we had reached previously. There was no clear shot from there, so we would have to move quite a bit closer. I checked on Craig and saw that he was breathing smoothly, and was focused rather than tense. Then, I signalled to the other chap to join us. He did well and I relaxed somewhat.

I whispered to them, that we would move up another twenty metres to the edge of the clearing, and when I gave the signal Craig should shoot. Once he had fired, the other chap should fire the back-up shot. Then, I made clear that if the bull did not go down, because of the close proximity, I would deal with it. It would be too close to take any chances. He could easily kill us all from that close in a matter of a few seconds.

We approached to the point twenty metres further on. The bull was dozing. His misery was obvious. Yet despite the agony of his condition, I knew his will to live would be a deadly force if treated lightly.

"Just a few more seconds old chap and your suffering will be over", I thought.

I turned to Craig, slipping my own weapon off safety as I did so, and signalled to him to shoot when he was ready.

Craig fired, slightly too far back to be a heart shot, but not a bad shot. I was a common mistake with an elephant exactly side-on. However, I had no doubt the bull would drop soon, but soon would not be good enough.

The other chap’s back-up shot was terrible, straight through the guts.

These two shots had both happened within a second of each other. Within another second the bull screamed and turned on us, immediately veering from the tree into a full speed change at us.

A head shot on elephant is best described as "between the ears". If you imagine a stick between the earholes then you are spot on. Even better is to have a "3D" knowledge of where the brain is situated. Most importantly at short distance, aside from shot placement, is focusing on nothing but getting it done.

At about fifteen metres as he was lifting his trunk to smash us, just a few steps for an elephant, I shot him through the brain.

The bull crashed to the ground as only as head-shot can make happen. Then, I walked back to Craig, who was clearly wondering what had happened. I explained that his shot was slightly too far back but still a kill-shot. However, not enough for us to have been safe waiting for the full effect of his shot to work!

I looked around for the other learner. He was nowhere to be seen. We eventually found him up the same tree I had earlier climbed looking for the bull.

Then, out of nowhere, people started appearing. In no time, there were dozens of people armed with knives, axes, and machetes ready to get stuck into the elephant. These situations can get nasty, as people got out of hand and start fighting over more protein that they usually see in a year. People get hurt, so we organised leaders who would portion out the meat and clobber anyone who stepped out of line.

Finally, I had a look at the elephant’s leg. The knee and most of the leg was badly swollen and full of pus. There was a small entry-wound in the knee. Obviously, some bastard had shot him in the leg and not finished the job. The question was whether it was a poacher or hunter. There was no exit wound so Craig and I got to work extracting the bullet. At the same time we noticed the scout pacing around us, clearly a bag of nerves.

We located the bullet and it turned out to be a .458. The scout carried a .458 and was responsible for this area. However, so did most hunters. Then, he snatched the bullet out of my hand, insisting that it had to go to Council, who would in turn hand it over to the police. Now, I was really suspicious. I tried to insist that I hand it to the police directly, but knew that I was wasting my time; I had no legal authority whilst he was on his turf.

That evening, when we returned to camp, we immediately got hold of council on the radio. They explained that unfortunately the bullet had been "lost" in transit to Siakobvu by the same scout. I ground my teeth with the sheer frustration.

That evening, I thought over the day’s events whilst sipping a Scotch by the campfire. The bull’s tusks were both over sixty pounds apiece. This animal would have brought in a lot of sorely needed funds into the area for both the local people and the wildlife… if hunted properly.

Based in Zambia, Rory Young has spent almost 25 years working in Central and Southern Africa in wildlife and forestry management as a professional safari guide, ranger, manager and owner. He now alternates between guiding, training safari and wildlife personnel and writing from home, which also allows him time with his Dutch wife Marjet and their two young children. He has done a lot of problem animal control of African dangerous game and passed the tough Zimbabwean Professional Hunter proficiency. He now only hunts problem animals or for the pot. He is a strong proponent of ethical hunting. Rory writes a regular blog at

I was glad to have ended the bull’s suffering, and was pleased that Craig was a step closer to his full license and now had an elephant under his belt.

I kept my face and body calm and still for the clients also enjoying the campfire, but inside I was boiling with anger at the attitude of a man who could wound an animal and then callously condemn it to a lingering and painful death. I looked down at my clenched fist and sighed.

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