June 30, 2011
Let's start with a couple of basic assumptions. First, hunting is supposed to be fun. Getting scared out of your wits may be memorable, but it isn't necessarily fun. Getting seriously hurt may also be memorable, but there's nothing fun about it either. I've been fortunate; I've never been seriously hurt on a hunting trip by an animal (touch wood), and during a fairly long and extremely active hunting career I've had very few genuine close calls. I definitely don't seek them, and I don't think they're fun.
A second assumption: Almost any wild animal can be dangerous when it's injured or cornered. More people in North America are hurt by semi-tame deer every year than hunters in Africa are injured by the entire Big Five put together. Even the animals we consider "dangerous game" are generally not dangerous until you mess with them. You usually don't get into serious trouble unless mistakes are made, and the most common mistake lies in not shooting straight the first time around.
I've never been particularly comfortable in ranking various game animals in order of ferocity or the inherent danger in hunting them. I'm personally more afraid of lions than all the rest, and I'm convinced that a leopard is the most likely to get to you. But the real danger is always somewhat situational. Going after a wounded brown bear in thick alders, for instance, strikes me as a lot hairier than following a wounded buffalo or even lion in open country. Make it tall grass and things change! The question posed, however, wasn't what animals are the most dangerous, but rather my opinion on some of the most hazardous hunts. The answer to that one is suddenly very situational: The environment or the hunting methodology (sometimes both) combines with the animal to create, er, interesting circumstances. Here's my spin on hunts that could kill you — in no particular order — that you shouldn't go on unless you've got plenty of good insurance.
Last year, working with Ivan Carter, my partners and I produced a pretty darned good film on hunting elephant. There are numerous close encounters with elephant, mock charges turned by waving a rifle (to look taller) and so forth. Elephants telegraph their intentions with fairly consistent body language. An elephant bull in musth, with his forehead glands secreting, well, you steer clear of that one. But in general, elephant bulls are big bullies. Confront them and they'll turn away.
Here's the big secret: Only an idiot messes with elephant cows. They are naturally protective of not only their own offspring, but the young in the herd, and they are considerably more aggressive by nature than bulls. Now, elephants are overpopulated in Zimbabwe, and there is a fairly strong (and definitely inherited) tuskless gene. So, as a management tool, Zimbabwe Parks & Wildlife has instituted an aggressive quota for tuskless elephant, either sex. This is without question the least expensive elephant hunt on the African continent, and in my view it's one of the most exciting and dangerous hunts in our modern world.
When encountered, tuskless bulls are often more aggressive than tusked bulls (perhaps persecuted by other elephants?), but they're actually not common. When you have a tuskless permit, you're generally looking for a tuskless cow. This means you have to go into the cow herds and try to winnow out a mature cow that is without a calf at heel. This is very much a trophy hunt in reverse, a very difficult and dangerous task. The elephant you want to look at will invariably be hidden in the herd. All the cows are aggressive. As you're crawling around, looking at their mouths and for smaller feet nearby, you take absurd chances making sure you select the right animal — and avoid shooting the wrong animal.
This tuskless quota has been in effect for several years. It's a wonderful management tool. Given the fact that there are too many elephants, tuskless is clearly a less desirable gene. But with every season that passes, there are fewer tuskless elephants and more herds that have been penetrated, and they are ever more alert and hostile. Hunting tuskless elephants must rank as one of the most dangerous hunts available in today's world.
LEOPARD WITH HOUNDS
The first time I saw a leopard followed with hounds, it was a wounded cat, a leopard we initially thought dead but was very much alive. He fought the dogs briefly in a patch of brush, but he saw us approach with his baleful yellow eyes. The leopard seemed to immediately understand that the dogs weren't his real problem, and he instantly left the dogs and launched into a full-blown charge. We got the leopard, and nobody got hurt€¦that time.
A hundred years ago, before telescopic (light gathering) scopes were in common use, hunting with hounds was the most common leopard-hunting technique. It died out as African hunting moved into tsetse-fly hinterlands, where dogs couldn't survive. It has resurfaced today in the ranch country of southern Africa, where leopards have increased considerably but after a century of persecution are very unlikely to approach bait in daylight. Hunting with hounds, currently legal in relatively few areas, is thus an alternative to hunting at night with artificial lights — which is also currently legal in relatively few areas.
I have hunted leopard with a good pack, and I defend the technique as being highly selective. The dogs shouldn't be released unless the track of a suitable tom is found, and if the dogs cross tracks with a female or young male, a good pack can be called off. Hunting with good hounds is selective, but it's not a sure thing. However, our discussion here is about danger. Oh, my! If everything works well, the leopard will tree — not much different than our mountain lion, except the leopard is much more aggressive by nature than the mountain lion€¦and there isn't always a suitable tree.
A leopard hunt with dogs can turn into a wild melee, and if the leopard happens to see the hunters, it seems able to instantly understand that the dogs aren't the primary issue. A charge isn't certain, or even 50/50, but as you close on the dust-shrouded cacophony of barking dogs and snarling leopard, you'd best be ready.
BUFFALO IN THE THICK STUFF
Everybody is entitled to an opinion. Despite the buffalo's reputation as "two thousand pounds of black fury" (and other such malarkey), my opinion is that the Cape buffalo generally isn't all that dangerous until you mess with him. A charge from an unwounded, uninjured buffalo is almost unheard of. Even when wounded, only a relatively small percentage of buffalo seem disposed to stand their ground and fight it out. Should you make a mistake and shoot your buffalo poorly, the most likely result is not that you will face him in a hair-raising charge. It's actually far more likely that you will never see that buffalo again.
On the other hand, it would be unfair to buffalo as well as to buffalo hunters to ignore the danger factor that makes buffalo hunting the great experience that it is. Most of the time the danger is potential rather than clear and present, but that depends on the cover. Tracking buffalo in really thick stuff is serious business. Even without evil intent, a buffalo — or an entire herd — can run over you just trying to get away. Following up a wounded buffalo in tall grass, jess or early-season riverine cover, well, that's the stuff of nightmares.
You go one step at a time, rifles trying to cover all the angles€¦but you really can't. You'll hear the charge coming long milliseconds before the black muzzle breaks clear. If you're both lucky and good, you can probably kill him. But you probably can't stop him, so you hope you're also fast enough to get out of his way.
I have no fear of buffalo, certainly not the way I fear the great cats, but to follow buffalo in really thick stuff, like early season in the Zambezi Valley, is amazing work. You smell the cattle smell and hear the cattle sounds, and sometimes you see black shapes moving in the green mass. You might get almost close enough to touch them, but you still can't work out the individual shapes or pick out the bull. This can go on for hours€¦and these are unwounded buffalo. Put a wounded buffalo in the heaviest cover and you have one of the most dangerous of all hunting situations.
GREAT CATS AT NIGHT
The concept of fair chase was created here in North America by Theodore Roosevelt and some of his friends, and it has become the credo of the organization they established, the Boone & Crockett Club. As ethical North American hunters, we have, and should have, an ingrained horror of certain practices that are extremely effective in taking animals, such as use of an artificial light at night.
The only thing is that not all areas, and not all animals, play according to our rules. Most game laws the world over have been adapted and adopted based on both traditional local hunting techniques and effective management. The great cats, both lions and leopards, are primarily nocturnal predators by nature. Add a bit of pressure and "primarily" becomes "strictly."
I believe in strongly adhering to local game laws regardless of where you are. In many African jurisdictions, hunting at night — with or without a light — is illegal. If that's the law, then it should be followed. In some other areas, hunting at night is absolutely legal. In most cases this is a matter of practicality. For instance, on Zimbabwe's Parks & Wildlife estate, night hunting is strictly illegal. That's fine, because it isn't necessary. In the wild, uninhabited designated safari areas, the great cats move naturally. Though not always, and often with great difficulty, you can get cats to appear on bait in daylight. In the same country, shooting at night, with or without artificial light, is perfectly legal on private and tribal land. I don't believe this is an expedient. Rather, it's a simple reflection of the fact that in inhabited areas the more pressured cats learn to become nocturnal.
Given a choice, I much prefer daylight hunting. With leopard I prefer hound hunting to hunting at night. There is no doubt in my mind that hunting the great cats, whether lion or leopard, is far more dangerous during the hours of darkness. It should also be pointed out that a whole lot of daytime hunts either begin or end in darkness.
The added nocturnal hazard comes from several sources. First, since cats are nocturnal creatures, they are much bolder — in the case of lions, downright brazen — at night. Obviously, one tries to avoid the darned things when going to and from a blind, but it's pretty easy to stumble into lions at night, and at night they have no fear. In 2006, while packing out my leopard, shot at last light and recovered in darkness, Andrew Dawson and I walked smack into a small pride of lions. No, thanks! Actual danger in the blind is much greater as well.
Another factor is that shooting at night is much more difficult, so odds for a wounding shot are greatly enhanced (which is my greatest argument against night shooting). Lions are always a wee bit dangerous, but when hunting over bait, leopards aren't really dangerous to humans at all. Wound one of the cats and the danger level goes up exponentially. It's a simple fact that more cats are wounded at night than in the daylight.
Tracking a wounded lion or leopard is one of the most dangerous things you can do. At night, well, there's just plain nothing good about it. Given a choice, most professional hunters wait until morning. But in hyena country a prized trophy will surely be long gone by daylight, so you have to try. Most PHs give it at least a few hundred yards in the dark, and this is when an awful lot of maulings occur. Ian Gibson, an incredibly experienced Zimbabwe PH, told me an odd thing. He said he prefers to track wounded cats at night because "you can see their eyes." Maybe, but I'd just as soon not track a wounded cat at all.
There's nothing dangerous about a wild sheep or goat, but the country they live in is the most dangerous of all. It was back in 1979 when sheep hunter Art Carlsberg was killed in a fall in the Caucasus Mountains of Azerbaijan, receiving the only posthumous presentation of the Weatherby award. His is the only climbing fatality that I'm aware of in the relatively small mountain hunting community, which is a pretty good record, but a lot of us have received various injuries, many serious, from slips and falls and rolling rocks.
That's the obvious. Not so obvious, but perhaps even more dangerous, are the horses, yaks and flying machines we use to access the high country — especially the planes. Light aircraft, heavy loads and rugged country that is often buffeted with severe wind are a recipe for disaster. While a danger, plane crashes are not the only threat to the mountain hunter. There's the combination of altitude and exertion. A lot of us have lost friends in the mountains due to some combination of these factors. I'm pretty sure the closest call I've ever had was a serious bout with altitude sickness in the Pamirs back in '98, when I was neither particularly old nor infirm. I refused evacuation, which was stupid, but I wasn't exactly in my right mind. Fortunately, I had the standard high-altitude medicine, Diamox, and it worked.
I love both high country and mountain game, so for me the rewards are worth the risk, but the hazards are there for sure. Both wild sheep and goats, especially the latter, can go places we cannot even dream of going, and the temptation to follow them is strong. Sometimes you just have to say, "No!" But that is the obvious; there's risk in the mundane as well: A bit of unseen ice on a rock, a mountain storm that comes out of nowhere, a horse that loses its step in precarious country — all can lead to disaster. The mountains of the world are magnificent, and I love them all, but I rate any serious mountain hunt as among our most hazardous undertakings.
This was a hunt I didn't know a darned thing about until it was way too late to back out. I suppose it's done differently in different places, but that first night in the Florida swamps I thought my friend Nelson Lopez-Reyes had lost his mind. But his method works, and he's taken more than his share of monstrous lizards. On public land — er, water — in Florida, 'gator hunting is done with bows or crossbows, essentially using the arrow as a harpoon.
Whether or not we admit it, most of us have our own hidden fears and horrors. I'm never particularly comfortable wandering around in the dark, but I have a deep-seated horror of water I can't see into, and I'm scared to death of most things reptilian. The Florida swamps and channels have it all. So there we were, on a balmy late-summer evening, cruising black water holding all sorts of unnamed monsters, all night long.
Undoubtedly, the actual hazards are more imagined than real€¦until you actually get an arrow into one of those things. Then you must haul it in, fighting the incredible power of a prehistoric beast. It comes alongside the boat snapping with powerful jaws and slapping with its deadly tail. You hang on for dear life while your buddy tries to position the bang-stick. There's no imagination here — it's just plain crazy. But I wasn't fortunate enough to get a good 'gator, and I look forward to trying again.
Editor's note: While night hunting gator last year in Florida, I was told a factual story by the guide while quietly floating through the inky darkness. "Yup, it was right along this stretch of the canal where a groups of kids were drinking and partying late one night last summer. After several hours of drinking, one of them took the bet of another and decided to swim across the canal to the other side. He didn't get halfway across before a big gator grabbed him and pulled him down. All they later found were a few remains." About that time we heard a large gator crash into the water from the bank. Gulp. Note to self: Keep your hand in the boat. — Mike Schoby