Boddington: Hunting Water Buffalo in Australia
March 07, 2014
On the first afternoon, we came to a broad floodplain stretching away into heat waves and mirage. Somewhere beyond lay the northern sea; across that'¦Indonesia. It was still hot, and the floodplain was seemingly empty save for one scraggly tree that persisted in the center and a few lumpy bushes.
We bumped slowly along the hard-baked, corrugated ground, and the haze retreated northward. The tree was real enough and served as a major landmark. But as we drew near, the dark bushes turned into buffalo, very tall buffalo stretched into the horizon by mirage.
These were water buffalo, introduced from across that hidden sea in the 19th century, and they do not congregate in large herds like African buffalo. So there was no concentration on that floodplain, but rather a scattering of family groups and singles, grazing peacefully in clumps and drifting aside grudgingly as we approached. At one vista I lost count in the 90s, but as we rolled northward and left buffalo behind, more and still more appeared out of the retreating haze.
In the last 20 years, I've made several trips to remote corners of Australia's Outback in search of these buffalo. I've always found plenty'¦but I've never seen so many water buffalo in one place.
A Different Problem
We were hunting on aboriginal lands just inland from the village of Elcho Island, on the northern coast of Australia's Northern Territory. The country is huge, and although we flew into Elcho Island, which was quick and simple, I drove back to Darwin, a tough ten hours, mostly on gravel roads.
I was hunting with Greg Pennicott, and for the first several hours of that drive back, we were in his hunting area, millions of acres of the trackless scrub forest that composes so much of the Outback.
Buffalo are scattered throughout, and there are some big ones, but in recent seasons Pennicott has focused his buffalo hunting on a series of floodplains in the far north'¦obviously because the buffalo are concentrated there.
Although I've seen a lot of water buffalo on both coastal and riverine floodplains, most of the hunting I've done for them has been stalking in the bush, pretty much as all African buffalo are hunted. Here, in this wide-open country, it was a different deal. If they were pronghorns, they could be gently stalked and sniped at longer range. But these are not antelope.
Removed from predators for the better part of two centuries, my experience is that they are not as wary as African buffalo'¦but they are a lot bigger and just as tough. In this country, it's unlikely to stalk within 50 yards. This can also be the case in Africa, but the maximum remains about the same: 100 yards, possibly 125 yards — and you need to hit them well with a fairly large caliber.
Donna and I were joined on this hunt by Kansas City friends Mike and Susan Hagen and our friend and frequent cameraman Conrad Evarts. The plan was for Mike and Donna to take trophy buffalo, while Conrad and I, switching off on the camera, would look for older cull bulls. That completed, we'd move northwest to hunt banteng (more about that later). In the meantime, we'd have plenty of opportunity to stalk these floodplain buffalo.
Aside from the open country, the other problem was the sheer number of buffs, which made isolating one for a stalk a bit tricky. On previous trips, I looked high and low for big horns. I saw a lot of nice bulls, but only once did I find the kind of buffalo I was really looking for. In this area, they were right there.
A lot of people want bulls with wide, flat horns — what the Aussies call "sweepers." More common are horns that curve up and back, which produces more inches. In this area, most of the buffalo had well-curved horns with massive bases measuring 18 inches and more.
On every outing we saw bulls that were hard to pass, so it was sort of a matter of getting the wind right and making an approach without spooking the bull and losing him in the dense forests and mangrove swamps that lined the plain. Mike had never taken one of these buffalo, so we insisted that he shoot first.
Although well intentioned, this wasn't a good deal. I had no idea we would see so many buffalo — and so many good ones — and on that first afternoon we found a bull that, well, just couldn't be passed.
He was with a couple of lesser bulls, but he was closest to us, and we had a good breeze in our faces. Greg led us on a slow, angling stalk that, over the course of several hundred yards, brought us gradually closer. I figured we'd eventually have to do some crawling, but we stayed close together to confuse our profile and eventually landed behind some slightly higher grass at about 125 yards. Mike shot him well with his Dakota .375, and he had a fantastic water buffalo with no incident whatsoever.
A Buff for Donna
That seemed just a wee bit too easy, but it doesn't always go that way. It was properly Donna's turn next, but we saw a magnificent old bull with a broken horn tip, so Greg and I made a long, circuitous stalk. We were almost there when some cows beyond him spotted us and started to run. He followed, leaving a cloud of dust all the way to the mangrove swamps. That day we saw plenty of buffalo, but none that Greg wanted for Donna.
Another day, on another part of that vast floodplain, we had looked over and passed a lot of bulls when we glassed a lone bull feeding very close to a treeline. At distance he looked pretty good, but judging these buffalo is subtle, and between heat waves and mirage, you have to get fairly close. So Greg took us on a perfect stalk along the edge of the trees, and the closer we got the bigger this bull looked.
At about 70 yards Donna hit him hard, and the shot looked really good.And then he was in the trees. Now we had quite a different situation as we followed up in a heavy eucalyptus forest. As the trees closed around us, I found no comfort in the belief that these buffalo don't seem as wary as African buffalo. Once you open the ball game, I don't think there's much difference!
Fortunately, she had hit him well and he didn't go far — but he also didn't want to go down. We danced with him for several minutes, just black feet with the body hidden in foliage. She hit him again, just a black spot in green leaves, and almost inexplicably, he turned back into the open and stood for the finisher.
I've never seen this before, but my guess is these buffalo (or at least this buffalo) find open country, where they can see, to be just as safe as the thick stuff. In any case, this was an awesome buffalo, bigger than any I have taken.
Craig and Conrad
Water buffalo are believed to have been introduced at the mouth of the Mary River, not far from Darwin, in the 1830s. It's said to have been a very small release, and in those days of sailing ships, I'd imagine the animals were extremely happy to get on dry land. From there, increasing slowly, they spread primarily eastward along the major river systems, and at one time were found across much of Australia's Top End.
In fairly recent years, because of concerns over bovine diseases, they were nearly eradicated in the accessible areas by both helicopter gunning and market hunting for the pet food industry. Neither option is economically viable today, so my sense is they're increasing on private lands northeast of Darwin and Alice Springs — but the largest populations are unquestionably on aboriginal lands in the vast Outback wilderness of Arnhem Land. Here, in order to ensure sustainable quality, Pennicott operates on a self-imposed quota of trophy bulls.
Conrad and I didn't need monsters, so we were looking for nasty old bulls with worn or broken horns, sort of the Australian equivalent of an African "dagga bull." Based on my experience with all kinds of buffalo, this sounded pretty simple'¦but in this area was not.
Life on the floodplain must be fairly easy, because we saw lots of trophy bulls, but very few of the old "downhill" bulls we were looking for. In fact, the bull that gave me the slip was the only bull we saw — out of dozens and dozens — that had a broken horn.
The alternative was to find mature bulls that weren't quite there but, based on apparent age and body condition, weren't likely to grow much bigger. This also wasn't easy. On the second day, we saw a magnificent old bull, heavy in the base with wide horns and worn tips, and he was perfect'¦but we were in that golden period in late afternoon, and it was still Donna's turn, so we kept looking.
A few days later, when it was officially my turn, we found the same bull again'¦but instead of being near the treeline and wonderfully stalkable, he was miles out in wide-open floodplain.
Donna used the Zeiss-scoped Blaser R8 in .375 H&H, a perfect choice for these open-country buffalo. Mike had his Dakota — also well-scoped, also in .375 H&H — and Pennicott had a Blaser R93, still again in .375, and also with a Zeiss scope. I could have borrowed any of these, but being stubborn, I wanted to use our Heym double in .450/.400 3-inch.
This is not double rifle country and, moreover, is not country for open sights. But I was committed, and as I looked across the floodplain at that buffalo — with absolutely no cover whatsoever — I wasn't sure how this was going to turn out.
I got lucky. We closed to about 110 yards, and although the front sight covered an awful lot of buffalo at that distance, the 400-grain Hornady DGX caught him in the center of the shoulder. As he turned to run, I managed a solid in his bum, and he made it about 50 yards and fell over, no drama.
Now it was Conrad's turn. After a lot of looking, he had the best stalk of all. The floodplain looks dead flat and mostly is, but there are little watercourses and depressions that form mudholes, and the buffalo love these.
We saw a group of cows and calves with one bull that looked suitable, and as we watched, they disappeared into one of these low spots. Perfect! So I took the TV camera, not my arm of choice. Conrad took Greg's .375 — he's much better with a rifle than I am with a camera — and we started to creep and crawl.
We were just within possible range when the buffalo moved out, headed toward the treeline a few hundred yards to our right. We set up, but the bull wasn't in the group. OK, so he must still be in the mud. We duckwalked a bit more, and finally saw horns above the grass. Just the horns; the rest of the buffalo was immersed in soft black mud.
We ran out of cover a few yards later, but now we were in easy range so we set up. Smelling a rat, the bull launched, throwing mud everywhere, and then stood on the far bank. It was Conrad's first buffalo of any kind, and he shot him very well.
I'm no biologist, so I get really confused between the terms "buffalo," "bison," and "wild ox." Australia's other wild bovine is the banteng. The genus and species is Bos javanicus and the water buffalo is Bos bubalus, so they're related but quite a lot different.
The banteng is native to Java, Borneo, Bali, and the Southeast Asia mainland. The original release was made in the mid-19th century at the Dutch settlement on Cobourg Peninsula. The references say the banteng can get up to 2,000 pounds, but not these. The Australian variety, probably from Java, is much smaller; the ones I've seen are more like 700 to 800 pounds for a big bull.
They're a colorful animal, with the females tawny but the mature males very dark, ranging from dark brown to black with white underparts. Horns are round, straight, or slightly curved and extremely sharp at the tips. In the wild, they're a jungle animal, so Australia's population has stayed in the dense bush of the Cobourg Peninsula and its southern approaches, sort of a micro-system that is much thicker than the buffalo country to the south and southeast.
Local hunters consider them aggressive; I can't confirm that, but in the thick bush where they live, encounters tend to be much closer than with water buffalo. I do know this: The closer you have to be to any of the wild bovines, the more likely you are to get into trouble.
To me it makes a perfect Outback adventure to hunt both banteng and buffalo. However, banteng permits are much more limited and thus costlier than buffalo. I'd hunted them before and didn't see the need to take another, so the two available banteng permits went to Donna and Mike.
Mike's was a single bull, stalked along a treeline and flattened with his .375. His was the kind of banteng I still covet, coal black and absolutely gorgeous. Donna's bull had a little extra horn, but hers was dark brown. We hunted south of Cobourg proper, where the banteng seem to be increasing and spreading. Donna's was in a herd of about 20, a big herd for banteng. They maneuvered into position with the herd feeding toward them in really thick stuff.
The biggest bull was in the back of the herd, so before they could take the shot, they had cows and calves within ten yards. Given the banteng's truculent reputation, those were tense moments, but when the bull stepped clear, she dropped him with a clean shoulder shot, and the rest of the group scattered without incident.
I think a big water buffalo is really cool. They are noticeably bigger than Cape buffalo and, if not as wary, just as hardy — and the horns on a good bull are spectacular. But the banteng, Australia's "other buffalo," though much less known, is a magnificent creature. Both on the same hunt — now that's an awesome Outback adventure!