April 21, 2016
By Craig Boddington
I can honestly say that I have never gotten into serious trouble with a buffalo. In fact, I went thirty-five years hunting scores of buffaloes and never saw a genuine charge. In 2014 I saw three charges, but the ground and the circumstances were such that they could be stopped — without incident or, honestly, without what could be termed a "close call." This record certainly isn't because I haven't messed up, because I have...more than once.
Evidence suggests that only a relatively small percentage of buffaloes will actually charge, even when wounded...and then it's a matter of where the charge occurs. A buffalo in relatively open ground, even at fairly close range, can be stopped if you shoot straight.
Just this year, in Burkina Faso, I had the rare situation of a buffalo charging immediately upon receiving a bullet. In this case, there was a bit of distance and the ground was wide open and burned. The first shot was fine, but the buffalo turned, dropped its head, and came straight in. I shot him in the neck and that did the trick.
A charge at close quarters is quite another story. I have certainly made mistakes; I've just been fortunate not to have been caught by any of them! First mistake, and probably the most grave of all is not placing the first shot properly. Second mistake, and almost as bad is failing to shoot again if there is any chance at all. Then comes the follow-up. Is it better to follow a stricken buffalo immediately, before it gathers its wits, or is it better to wait a half-hour before taking the track?
Realistically, there's probably no right or wrong answer because it depends entirely on where the buffalo is hit...and although you may think you know, you really don't know for sure until the animal is dead.
Generally speaking, the prudent choice is to wait, listen for the death bellow, and whether you hear it or not, proceed cautiously. There are times, depending on the terrain, however, when it can make sense to rush forward in order to keep the animal in sight. We can argue about that. What cannot be argued is that, if the goal is to get the animal down as cleanly and efficiently as possible, then it should be shot again as soon as a reasonable shot is presented.
A buffalo is no different than a white-tailed deer or anything else: The follow-up shot(s) or coup de grÃ¢ce should be delivered as soon as possible, and as sensibly as possible. This means that, if the animal appears to be down, you approach from the rear. The last thing you want to do is approach the animal so that it can make eye contact with you. Please remember Boddington's Law: Not all charges can be stopped! Nor does the Good Lord always protect pilgrims from their own foolishness.
It was in Tanzania in 1994 when Scotsman Andrew Fraser, youngest son of Lord Lovat (of World War II fame), was killed by a buffalo. He had just shot his first buffalo and he was excited — maybe too excited. His buffalo went a short distance and went down in sight, and he ran forward to collect his prize. He approached from the front and the buffalo had enough strength left to gore him in the upper leg, severing his femoral artery. Inevitably, he bled to death in just a few minutes.
While unprovoked charges are rare, they can be tragic. The problem is that the hunters are totally unprepared to receive such an onslaught. My old friend Paddy Curtis was guiding British Columbia outfitter Bob Fontana in Masailand when, late one afternoon, they saw an exceptional lesser kudu. It was too late to make a stalk, so they went in carefully early the next morning hoping to see it. A buffalo came at them from the side, and although Curtis got a shot off, the buffalo hit Fontana and tossed him, then, as he came down, smashed his head with its boss. Bobby Fontana was a great guy and a fine outfitter, and he was dead before he hit the ground. The buffalo was not recovered, so the reason for the attack is not known. The truth remains: Not all charges can be stopped!
It was already deep in the night when they started the long drive from camp to the nearest hospital. Noel Wolfe was reasonably certain he was bleeding to death. He knew the signs from his days in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne. The tourniquets had slowed but weren't stopping the bleeding. They had already been on too long, and it would be many more hours before he could get to a hospital. His son, Eric, had been in camp with him, and Noel had left him there...he didn't want his son to watch him die.
They had been hunting in southern Zambia, where the Luangwa River joins the Zambezi. It had been a tough and disappointing buffalo hunt, and this was the last day. They were about six miles from camp when, almost like a gift, tracker Maximilian Phiri saw a bull close-by the road.
The professional hunter was still getting his rifle out of its case when he directed Maximilian and Noel forward. They made a quick stalk and got in a shot from about forty yards. Shooting a .375 H&H with open sights, Noel took a quartering-away offhand shot, hitting the bull behind the right shoulder. The bull started to run, so the second shot was a going-away shot, hitting just to the right of the spine.
The buffalo traveled a short distance and then disappeared in some thick vegetation. With Maximilian on the left and Noel on the right they advanced toward where they thought the bull was last hit. Suddenly they heard branches cracking, and they knew the bull was coming their way. When the buffalo appeared, Noel got in a third shot, slightly high over the boss...and then he got hit.
The initial impact hit him on his chest, square on his binoculars, breaking three ribs, separating his shoulder, and, of course, knocking him flat, half stunned. The buffalo then ran over him, turned back, thrust a horn into the inside of his left thigh, and threw its head back, tossing him over the horns. The enraged beast then attacked a third time, goring him in the right thigh and tossing him once more. This time Noel landed on his back and, despite his wounds, managed to grab his rifle, but he couldn't close the bolt. As the buffalo turned back to attack again, tracker Maximilian dashed up, took the rifle, closed the bolt, stuck it in the buffalo's eye, and pulled the trigger. That part of the ordeal was now finished. It was time to assess.
The ribs hurt a lot, and so did the shoulder, but both legs were a mess, the bleeding profuse. Noel assessed correctly that the femoral artery was intact, but he knew he was in trouble. This is not an event that anyone wishes to practice for, but he'd been there before. As a young man he took an AK-47 bullet through a leg on the Cambodian border. He knew this was far worse. He put a tourniquet on his left leg with his own belt; Maximilian's belt was used for the right leg.
They got back to camp and put a mattress in the back of a Land Cruiser for what would be an eighteen-hour run to the hospital in Lusaka. He was barely alive when they got there. By extreme good fortune San Diego surgeon Dr. Tom Neuman, who had been in camp with him (until a couple of days earlier), met him at the hospital and took charge.
There would be three surgeries in South Africa and three more in the United States. Opinion was divided on whether to amputate his left leg, but he kept it, with lots of muscle missing. That was in 2000. In 2003 he went back and hunted buffalo again, taking a fine bull with little drama...and he looks forward to doing it again.
Noel Wolfe's story is a textbook example of the horrible damage a buffalo can do. He was probably fortunate not to have been gored in the body, but he survived only by the narrowest of margins. There is one thing about this story that is quite different from most, however. Although unintentional and unwitting, Noel Wolfe and his courageous tracker faced the buffalo alone.
The professional hunter remains nameless and, fortunately for all, is no longer in the business, but here's what really happened: Somewhere between the sighting of the buffalo and the charge, he absented himself, and Wolfe never saw him again.
Noel Wolfe did a pretty darned good job. Quartering-away shots on buffalo are tricky: If the angle is too severe, there's an awful lot of buffalo for the bullet to get through. Noel's first shot was probably fine, and his quick second shot as good as he could do. He had a chance to brain the buffalo before it hit him; he failed and took the consequences. The real hero of this saga was tracker Maximilian Phiri, who not only killed the buffalo, but got Wolfe in the vehicle and back to camp.
When I first heard about the death of Zimbabwe PH Owain Lewis, I was surprised. I knew him and he was a cautious, thorough hunter with over forty years' experience with buffalo. He was not a guy that I would expect to have such an accident, but when I heard that it happened on the third day of tracking this buffalo, I thought I had the answer. By that time both experience and human nature should have dictated that no one in the party really expected to see the buffalo, so I assumed that their guard might have been down when the buffalo charged. In this case, I couldn't have been more wrong.
The buffalo was wounded by Pat Smith, who takes full responsibility for taking a shot he knew wasn't perfect. Smith was hunting in Chewore North in the lower Zambezi, accompanied by his two sons. It was June 2012, and the bush was thick and green. The shot came early in the hunt, so there was no real pressure for taking the shot except that Smith had a bad knee and had postponed surgery so that he could go on this long-planned safari.
They got onto a little herd in midmorning and bumped them. They backed off to let the herd settle, had lunch, and as they were finishing, a herd of buffaloes — actually the same herd — almost walked onto them. In a matter of seconds Smith was on the sticks, watching a small opening as buffalo filed through. Lewis, standing to his right, had a slightly different window, and alerted him that the bull was coming.
The bull stepped into the opening about fifty yards away and stood, perfect, except that Smith couldn't see the bull well because its chest was covered by a small bush. Lewis had a slightly different vantage point, and he urged Smith to "Shoot, man, shoot!"
He did, just as the bull turned away. A split-second earlier the shot would have been a perfect quartering-away heart shot, but when the trigger broke, the shot was too far back. No other shots were fired, and the herd was gone.
Then began a long saga of determination and incredible tracking. The bull only went with his herd for a short distance and then broke off. Neither the shot nor the blood looked especially good, but initially this was a good sign so they took the track with some expectations that they'd catch up. Not that day — they followed until nearly dark but the bull got the wind behind him and kept moving ahead of them.
The next morning, Day Two, they picked up the spoor at the last GPS reading and resumed tracking. The bull had walked slowly through the night and was clearly a long way ahead, but there was still plenty of blood. After tracking through the day the spoor began to wander and circle, as if the bull was looking for a place to lie down. They kept on with renewed confidence, but in the afternoon, as they tracked through a riverbed and up a rocky ridge, the blood was now almost gone.
At the end of Day Two it was a lost buffalo, and no one could blame anyone for calling it quits. Smith was prepared for this, but at dinner that night Owain Lewis said that they'd try again the next day. First, however, he needed to make a report at the game guard station.
"No one said it better than Robert Ruark when he wrote that the African buffalo 'looks at you like you owe him money.' "
Day Three took them back to the riverbed, which was dry, but there were pools. They found no tracks to suggest that the bull had drunk there, so rather than specifically following the tracks from the day before, they cut back toward the last GPS reading and circled, hoping to find where the bull had turned toward water. So ended Day Three.
By now Smith's knee was inflamed, and he knew he was slowing things down. His two sons suggested he stay in camp while they tried it one last time. Owain agreed, so Randy Smith took Pat's .375 Ruger, and, accompanied by a young apprentice, Shane, they started out early on Day Four. Owain was hoping the bull might have gone to the pools in the riverbed, so they checked that first and found no fresh tracks.
They hiked up the ridge to the last GPS reading from two days before, and started following the old spoor. The tracks quickly lined out toward another spring seven miles away, but, good Lord, they kept following, as if they had a date with destiny.
About two miles from the spring they cut fresh tracks of a bull coming from the water. A hundred yards farther on they found fresh dung with blood in it. They knew they had the right bull, and they were close. Even on a hot track, Owain traditionally called at least a half-hour break at midday, and this seemed a good time. So they found some shade and rested for a while.
They had barely started again when the trackers dropped and scrambled back. The bull was lying down just ahead of them, not thirty yards away. As with any train wreck, here's where details start to vary. From Randy Smith's perspective, Owain and Shane fired two quick shots each, and then the buffalo stood up. Randy fired three solids — and then the bull, that surely should have been dead, charged.
At the last second Shane fired an angling shot into the buffalo's head, missed the brain, and a swing of one horn knocked him out of the way and out of the fight. Now the bull turns toward Randy Smith. He's trying to reload, trips on a root, falls, and his cartridge wallet spills. At this point it is unclear if Owain's rifle is empty — had he fired two shots or three? Does he fire a last shot? Maybe, but for sure he moves into the buffalo, drawing the charge from Randy.
On the ground, Randy crawls a few yards and fumbles for cartridges. He thinks he hears a shot — Owain's last shot, or was that Shane's third shot? Then he hears a terrible "Pop" and turns to see Owain Lewis, up in the air. The bull hit him under the chin with its horn, lifting and tossing him, breaking his neck. He was probably already dead when he came down, but the bull stayed with him, tearing into his body with its sharp horn tips.
Shane, now reloaded, fired three rounds into the shoulder. The trackers, who had not run, picked up Randy's spilled cartridges and handed them to him one at a time. He believes he fired four more rounds into the buffalo. The count is uncertain, but at this point the buffalo had taken at least seventeen, possibly eighteen, fully adequate rounds. At long last it stopped worrying Owain, rolled its eyes back, gave a low bellow, and fell over dead.
Owain Lewis was sixty-seven years old, a tough hunter of vast experience and extremely popular among the tight-knit Zimbabwe professional hunting community. At the last he held true to his profession, rushing in to save his client from the buffalo and giving his own life in the process.
Surely there must be lessons in this disaster? The first major error falls to Pat Smith, who rushed his shot and made a bad initial hit. He has to live with it, but it happens. Whether a first animal or the thousandth, all hunters make bad shots now and again. This is part and parcel to the game. It is very unusual for a mistake like this to turn into such a tragedy, but the risk is there every time one squeezes the trigger on a dangerous animal.
So, for what it is or isn't worth, here's a bit of speculative thought that may be of some value: In thick bush just a few inches one way or the other — in any direction — radically changes the perspective. In the heat of the moment it is very difficult to remember that what you are seeing may not be exactly the same picture your client is seeing through the sights. Was Owain aware that Pat didn't initially have a clear shot? Just maybe, the shot shouldn't have been taken at all...
It was thick and there was a herd, so this may well have been one of the many situations where a backup shot could not have been taken. But, in general, and Monday morning quarterbacking being such a marvelously futile exercise, extra bullets help! For the client it's easy: Practice working the bolt — fast, or finding the second trigger on your double, and if there's a chance to follow up your own first shot, do so — especially on dangerous game!
For the professional hunter it's more difficult, and it's a fine line to walk. A good professional hunter does not want to shoot; it's his hunter's animal. On the other hand, the professional hunter is responsible for the safety of the party, including his unarmed trackers. It's a tough judgment call to make and must be made instantly, but I believe it is well within the professional hunter's purview to shoot to prevent the escape of a potentially wounded animal.
It's a miracle of marvelous tracking that they found the buffalo on the fourth day. In retrospect perhaps this wasn't a good thing, but to keep after a wounded animal after almost all hope is seemingly lost is truly the essence of ethical hunting. As for what happened, well, not much can be said. Whether seventeen or eighteen shots, this is the most punishment I have ever heard of a buffalo taking and still be able to dish out his own terrible retribution. Unlike my original supposition, it wasn't a matter of fatigue. The party wisely rested when the fresh tracks were found because at this stage in the game they knew the buffalo had to be close. I'm sure Shane, Owain, and the trackers were on full alert.
I will say that, at least according to Randy Smith's account, the buffalo was lying down when they opened fire, and was quite close. With any bedded animal it is often very difficult to determine precisely where the vitals lie, and although this salvo was ferocious, clearly it didn't have the desired effect. Perhaps they might have waited a few heartbeats, gotten set, and possibly even allowed the buffalo to stand. However, the African buffalo is incredibly strong — and this one had been in pain for seventy-two hours. At the last, it comes down to this: Not all charges can be stopped, so it's best to shoot straight the first time.
Autographed copies of Deadly Encounter and additional Craig Boddington books are available from craigboddington.com.
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