Die Hard: HUNTING's Toughest Game Animals
September 18, 2014
Are some Game animals "tougher" than others? Some veterinarians dispute this, and on some levels, they are correct. Dismantle the brain or sever the spinal cord and all game animals in the world are in trouble. Pierce the heart or its major vessels, or perforate both lungs, and the outcome is equally certain.
On the other hand, based on long experience, I genuinely believe that some animals are hardier than others, perhaps possessed of greater vitality and will to survive'¦or perhaps just blessed with a slower nervous system. There are some animals that seem more impervious to "shock" than others and disregard absolutely mortal blows'¦at least for a time.
Here's my short list of really tough game animals, species that die hard and have earned my respect.
The leopard is not a very big animal. A friend of mine, Dr. Ron Norman, took a monster back in 1979 that weighed in at 226 pounds. I have heard of a few more that legitimately weighed over 200 pounds, but this is extremely rare. A really big leopard might weigh 180 pounds, but as is the case with many animals, we like to exaggerate size. In most areas, mature, perfectly "shootable" toms will weigh in between 130 and 150 pounds. This is not a big animal.
So, then, why is it that so many leopards are wounded? Of all the dangerous game, the leopard is the most likely to get through all defenses and hurt you. This is because his small size and amazingly effective camouflage enables him to launch from close quarters'¦and his blinding speed makes him very difficult to stop. Because of this size, most leopard attacks are survivable.
However, in my experience not all wounded leopards will lie in wait to settle the score. In fact, in my time in Africa, as a hunter of a few leopards and an observer of many more leopard hunts, it seems to me that more leopards just keep going. When a leopard is wounded, the incidence of a lost animal seems to exceed those hair-raising charges.
The answer, of course, is shot placement. The leopard's vitals actually lie a bit farther back between the shoulders than with ungulates. This is greatly exaggerated when the leopard is reaching forward with its paws and feeding. Hence, the most common error is to shoot a bit too far forward. If you do there's going to be trouble. Likewise, if you hit too high, you may just shock the spine but not break it. Like with all animals, such a shot may knock the leopard out for a few seconds, but he'll quickly be up and gone.
In my experience, leopards shot too far forward or too high are very likely to be lost. While I certainly don't advocate shooting too far back, leopards hit a bit on the far side of the shoulder are often recovered, although they may wreak vengeance along the way. If a leopard is standing broadside, a shoulder shot one-third up into the body is certain, but in poor light, or if the leopard is reaching forward to feed, it is safer and much more certain to consciously aim just behind the shoulder, again one-third to no more than one-half up into the body.
There's one more thing. The majority of leopards I have seen lost have been shot with .375s. This is counter-intuitive until you really think about it. The .375 and the majority of its bullets were designed for animals several times the size of a leopard. Large-caliber bullets designed to penetrate will do exactly that, and they will essentially punch through on a leopard without doing much damage.
Since the leopard is "dangerous game," some countries require a minimum caliber, and if that's the case, obviously follow the law. Given a choice, however, I am convinced that a "deer caliber" with a fairly quick-expanding "deer bullet" will anchor a leopard much more quickly. Because while he isn't big, this dangerous cat must not be underestimated.
The wolf has generally been hunted as an "add-on," taken as a target of opportunity when encountered on hunts in Canada and Alaska (and, for that matter, on many mountain hunts in Asia). This is changing. Specific "winter wolf hunts" are becoming more popular in the Far North, and with wolf season now reopened in several states, a lot of tags are being sold and more hunters are specifically trying for a wolf. However, provided one considers the wolf a big-game animal — which I surely do — there is no animal in North America as elusive as a wolf, especially when hunted on purpose rather than taken by accident.
Actually, far more wolves are taken by trapping than by hunting, so relatively few hunters have much experience shooting them. But many of us have lots of experience shooting coyotes. I think everyone would agree that coyotes are extremely tough; pound for pound as tough as any animal I have hunted. This applies to all canines. And the wolf is, at minimum, twice the size of any coyote. Larger males can be up to four times larger.
Not only that, but wolves are used to surviving harsh winters and constant fighting for dominance'¦or just to survive as part of the pack. The biggest wolf is no larger than a medium-sized deer — very few will exceed 150 pounds — but in my experience (some good, some not so good) the wolf has far greater vitality and will to live than any ungulate.
If you hit a wolf well, in the chest cavity, with an expanding bullet, you will surely get him'¦but even with a devastating hit you may have to do a bit more tracking than you expect. In snow this is not so difficult, but on bare ground it can be very hard. Serious Northern wolf hunters often use relatively small rifles — semiautomatic .223s are favorites — but they do most of their wolf hunting in snow and wish to minimize pelt damage.
It's no secret that I have had my difficulties with wolves, so in the last few years I've carried mostly fast big-game calibers with bullets designed to expand. With this formula I've taken five wolves (not all in North America). Three, hit perfectly, were down on the spot. Another, also hit perfectly, traveled 200 yards. The last, hit not quite so perfectly, took a going-away shot from a .300 Weatherby Magnum with a 180-grain bullet. We found it dead, but we trailed it nearly a half-mile into thick timber. To me the wolf is not only one of our most elusive animals, but also a truly great game animal and matchless trophy. He's pound for pound one of the toughest. Hit him well, but also hit him plenty hard. The chances for a shot are slim enough that you don't want to blow your one-and-only opportunity.
Big bears are just plain tough, and the bigger they are, the harder they fall. This applies to all bears pretty much equally. A really big black bear can be bigger than an average interior grizzly. Such a bear is an altogether different creature from the average 200-pound black bear — but even small and medium-sized bears are tough; it's just a matter of degree and magnitude as bears get bigger.
Although highly intelligent creatures, bears have relatively slow nervous systems that seem impervious to shock. (After all, in winter they sleep for months on end.) It isn't unusual to see a bear drop to a shot, apparently stone dead'¦and then get right back up as if nothing had happened. At close range bears may immediately charge upon receiving a bullet, perhaps more frequently than wolves, leopards, or buffalo. More likely, however, a stricken bear will head for thick cover with all the strength that remains. He'll wait for you there.
These things can be true of a mid-sized black bear. They are just as true — and a lot more frightening — with an Alaskan giant weighing possibly 1,500 pounds. Because of the strength, tenacity, and ferocity when wounded, bears should only be taken with relatively close and certain shots, and shot placement is essential. Most experienced bear hunters and bear guides are adamant about shoulder shots, aiming for the chest so as to take out at least one shoulder.
Well-constructed bullets designed to penetrate are essential, and the caliber must be adequate. I figure the .338 Winchester Magnum to be the sensible minimum for use on big bears.
Even though they're often referred to as "black death" and other scary nicknames, difficulties with unwounded African buffalo are very rare. In thick cover there's always the chance of blundering into a buffalo within its "fight rather than flight" radius, and while working a herd it's unwise to get between a cow and her calf, but in general simply hunting a buffalo isn't a particularly dangerous undertaking'¦until that first shot is fired. If the caliber and bullet are adequate and the shot is directed properly, that's pretty much the end of the story — lots of tension but little drama.
Ah, but place that first shot poorly and the game changes quickly! I don't know if African buffalo have overdeveloped adrenal glands, a hyped-up nervous system from dealing with lions all their lives, or if they're just plain tough. Whatever the case, the Cape buffalo is very strong and powerful, and if the first shot doesn't do the trick, it might take a bunch more to get the job done. One of Jack O'Connor's more famous stories was about a buffalo in Tanganyika that required 14 large-caliber hits before succumbing. I have never seen one take quite that much, but genuine, pure one-shot kills are fairly rare — even if the first shot is extremely well-placed.
Here's the deal: Upon receiving a bullet a buffalo usually doesn't turn and charge. Instead, he usually turns the other way and heads for cover. The legend is that he will then circle on his trail and lay an ambush for his tormentors. Yes, some will'¦but many will simply keep going as long as they are able. The most likely outcome when a buffalo is hit poorly is not a hair-raising charge, but that the buffalo will never be seen again. Sometimes, in thick cover or especially in herds, there is simply no chance for a follow-up shot.
But all too often, hunters place that first shot as well as they can'¦and then wait to see what happens next. No matter how good it looked, until you recover the animal you won't know how perfect that first shot really was, and even if placement was perfect, you have no idea how well the bullet actually performed.
Though body-shot buffalo rarely drop in their tracks, I've seen many drop within 50 yards to shoulder or lung shots. On the other hand, I've seen several that went a quarter mile or more after receiving seemingly fatal chest shots. Some were still standing, ready to fight. In open country I've seen buffalo taken down very cleanly with good bullets from light calibers, but the general legal minimum of 9.3mm (.366) or .375 caliber makes sense, preferably with a good, tough expanding bullet for the first shot, followed up by solid(s) when the buffalo turns away and makes for cover.
Buffalo are herd animals, and when things are happening fast, they look pretty much alike, so follow-up shots cannot be fired unless you're certain you're on the same buff. But if you're sure, then I believe follow-up shots should be fired so long as the buffalo remains on its feet. Your buffalo hunt hasn't really been dangerous yet'¦but it gets deadly when you take up the blood trail.
African Plains Game
African game is legendary for its toughness. To some extent this is a myth, but behind most legends and myths there is a grain of truth. Africa's prey species develop in a predator-rich environment. In wild Africa they still have to dodge cats and canines great and small on a daily basis. Because of this, I believe that African game is generally edgier, more keyed up, than many species with which we are more familiar. It is true that most African antelope, even the very small ones, can take a solid hit through both lungs and travel farther than one might expect.
And don't even think about how far the trail might lead if you hit too far back. We Americans tend to prefer that double-lung shot because it offers the largest target and spoils the least amount of edible meat, but African professional hunters generally recommend the shoulder shot, through the heart or just over the top of the heart, because it absolutely works more quickly.
That said, I don't believe all African animals are equal in toughness when hit in the shoulder. Here's a short list of the toughness of the plains variety.
The eland is the largest of all antelope, with a big bull of the Livingstone or Central African giant eland races weighing as much as a solid ton. This is bigger than any buffalo, and because of sheer size, caliber and bullet selection are important. But the eland is not tough for his size and succumbs readily to a well-placed bullet. Many who hunt them will be surprised, though, at how elusive this big antelope really can be in the open plains of Africa.
Lest it appear than I'm picking on the spiral-horned tribe, the bushbuck, the smallest of this group is very tough for his size. Also, he is among few antelope with a reputation for ferocity when cornered. Few races weigh more than 125 pounds...but you'd better hit a bushbuck properly.
Ethiopia's unique mountain nyala, genetically closer to the bushbuck than kudu or nyala, is also very tough. I've hunted them twice, no problems, but among the relatively few hunters I know who have pursued this magnificent antelope, I know a full half-dozen who have wounded and lost their mountain nyala. Ouch.
Another small antelope that is notoriously hardy (though not aggressive) is the impala, maybe 140 pounds of great venison but seemingly immune to bullet shock. As former partner Tim Danklef once said, "If impala were as big as buffalo, we'd all be dead."
Lest we overlook Africa's many prey species that are not antelope, we arrive at the zebra. Never underestimate a zebra. A big stallion might weigh 800 pounds and is very, very strong. Poorly hit zebra may be tracked endlessly and are often not recovered. Obviously, the sure cures for such problems are: Use enough gun, use enough bullet, and be careful with your shot.
For more, check out the October issue of Petersen's Hunting on newsstands September 9.