Staredown with the Devil

The black form, with its menacing horns, loomed to its feet just twelve yards away. James Reed, Director of BookYourHunt – North America, shares his fascinating story.

The evening light seemed to be draining from the sky much faster than normal. I could just make out a black form on the ground in front of me, barely discernible in the darkening shadows of the dense bush. We crept forward. At fifteen yards I saw a flick of the tail. I knew now he was facing directly away from me and not dead. Only our slow footsteps broke the eerie silence. At twelve yards, the buffalo sprung to its feet and whirled to face me. In the dim light I could only make out a featureless black silhouette with horns protruding menacingly from the sides. It was as if the Devil himself had risen from the ground.

I first met professional hunter and outfitter Dawid through a mutual friend at the DSC convention a few years ago. After that first meeting, I often ran into Dawid in the lounge after the convention had closed for the day, usually sitting alone in a dark corner having a drink. I always looked forward to seeing his warm smile, and our conversations usually centered around stalking old buffalo bulls, Dawid’s passion. We chuckled to realize we were two old bulls at a watering hole ourselves.

Dawid and I talked many times about my dream to someday hunt in the Caprivi Strip. After many years of watering-hole discussions, plans were finally made for my hunt. While Dawid also hunts free-range plains game at his farm outside of Windhoek, he specializes in dangerous game in the Caprivi Strip of northeastern Namibia. Dawid’s area in the Caprivi is a communal conservancy where the local villages benefit financially from the hunts conducted in the conservancy and also receive all the meat from the hunts. The communal conservancy program is a huge conservation success story. In areas where the local people receive direct benefits from the wildlife, they in turn protect the wildlife. This is in contrast to many parts of Africa where wildlife is eradicated to make room for livestock and crops.

Dawid picked me up at the airport in Katima and we headed out to his hunting area. Camp was situated on the water’s edge in a grove of large trees and surrounded by the tall reeds of the swamps. Dawid showed me to my quarters, a very comfortable bungalow with a king-size bed, flush toilet, and shower. I sorted my gear, then joined Dawid by the fire for a sundowner. As the setting sun painted the sky with in brilliant colors, I stared into the fire, reveling in the wonderful smell of the burning mopane wood while listening to the chorus of birds, crickets, and frogs accompanied by the jolly bass-toned chuckle of a nearby hippo. I had a smile that wouldn’t leave my face; I was finally in the Caprivi.

While it wasn’t the old dagga boy Reed had hoped for, this bull would provide much-needed meat for the residents of the conservancy.

We were up at dawn for a light breakfast, then loaded our gear and copious amounts of water into the Cruiser and headed out in search of buffalo. Dawid’s area is home to large herds of buffalo, sometimes numbering in the hundreds. The drought that was strangling all of southern Africa was being felt here as well. Everything was lush and green, but areas that were normally under water were now dry and we were driving through them with ease. The buffalo had recently been in the area but the trackers were worried the herds might have moved out of the area to fresh pastures. To our relief, we hadn’t driven very far before we spotted buffalo. We parked the truck out of sight and began approaching the herd for a better look.

Circling downwind of the herd, we found some cover to begin our approach. Maneuvering between small islands of trees and thorn bushes, we slowly closed in on the herd for a look at what it held. Carefully working in to about seventy yards of the herd, we could see cows and younger bulls, but no mature bulls. Part of the herd was still behind a screen of trees, so we backed out and made another approach. After getting into a new position we determined there were some nice young bulls but no mature bulls.

Leaving the herd, we set out in search of more buffalo. Stopping to glass some big flats, we spotted a herd of elephants working through the reeds in the distance. By now the brutal heat of the day and our empty stomachs were signaling it was lunchtime, so we headed back to camp.

After lunch and a short nap, Dawid wanted to show me the other part of his area. This area is unique in its diverse landscape and animal species. One half of the area is the typical Caprivi mix of swamps, reeds, and thornbrush, which is the preferred habitat of buffalo, warthogs, lions, and hippos. Crossing to the other side, you i drive into beautiful open mopane forests. Here we saw herds of zebra, roan, and sable, and Dawid said this was where elephants were usually found. Heading back to camp for the evening, we were treated to another breathtaking African sunset.

The following day we resumed our quest. The trackers soon signaled they had spotted buffalo and we headed in for a look. The herd caught our scent in the swirling breeze and thundered off, giving us only glimpses. Circling far out and downwind again, our party approached for another look. We stalked in to about fifty yards and began to look over the herd. There were a few good bulls, but not any old dagga boys.

As we left this herd, the disappointment from the trackers and game scout was obvious. The chief of the area had sent a message that they really wanted a buffalo shot for the meat, so we knew the pressure was on. Dawid and I discussed the matter, and I told him getting much-needed meat for the locals was more important to me than a taking a very large bull. We decided to take the next mature bull that opportunity presented.

The hunters were able to get within fifty yards of the buffalo herd.

As we headed out for the afternoon hunt, the heat was suffocating. The sun was just getting low enough in the sky for us to start to feel a little relief when we spotted a buffalo in the distance. Our party had a reinvigorated sense of hope as we circled into the wind for a look. As we approached, four bulls jumped to their feet and thundered off in a cloud of dust. This was our chance—a group of four bulls. We noticed one of the bulls was limping. We followed the trail of dust in hopes of getting a chance at the bulls before we lost the light. Everyone was watching ahead for any sign of the bulls when I caught a glimpse of something black off to our right. I froze and the rest of the party stopped. I had almost talked myself out of it being anything, and then it became clear—a buffalo leg. The bulls had circled back into the bush and were watching their back trail.

Working behind some cover, we closed the distance. The evening was silent with only a slight breeze, so the leaves we were walking on sounded like potato chips. Dawid and his tracker, Da Silva, expertly got us within seventy yards undetected, but the bulls were behind a screen of brush and there was no chance for a shot. Dawid and I dropped down and began a crawl to close the distance and get a better look. I could feel thorns piercing my knees as we tried to crawl through the noisy leaves. Finally we were within about fifty yards of the unsuspecting bulls. We noticed the bull that was limping severely would only walk a bit then would lie down again. He wasn’t the old bull we had hoped for, but we decided that under the circumstances, he was probably the bull we should take.

We had been looking at the bulls for a bit when I felt a slight breeze on the back of my neck. I dropped and crawled to a downed tree to use for a rest. The bulls caught our scent and began to move into the open. The limping bull was the last one out, and when he reached a small opening I hit him behind the shoulder. The bull reacted to the shot and I hit him again, angling forward toward his offside front shoulder. Dawid could see lung blood on the side of the bull but we both agreed the shot was probably just high of the heart.

The bulls ran into a thick patch of thorn thicket and disappeared from sight. The sun was getting lower in the sky as we approached the thicket. We slowly and cautiously began to circle the thorn patch. Each step on the crunchy leaves was almost painful, as hard as we were trying to make each step as quietly as possible so as not to alert the wounded bull and his three compadres. Capstick once wrote, “You will only have half-lived your life if you never feel the icy clutch of danger for its own sake.” We were feeling it now. All of our senses were on high alert and all communication was now only through subtle eye and hand movements.

Suddenly the silence was broken by crashing brush and the thunder of hoofs as the bull’s three companions came busting out of the wall of brush behind us, and after stopping to give us one last stare, they departed in a cloud of dust. Our eyes and ears were straining to sense the slightest clue that might betray the location of the fourth bull. The tracker, Da Silva, and I both froze at once and pointed to the thicket. We could hear the bull breathing. Da Silva motioned that he thought the bull was down and kicking his leg. Moving a bit farther I saw a flash of movement to my left and pointed to the location. Da Silva and Ernest, the game scout, backed off and Dawid and I began to move in.

I could now make out a black form on the forest floor about twenty yards in front of me. In the rapidly fading light I could make out no features or even which way the downed bull was facing. At fifteen yards I saw the tail flick, and only by that could tell the bull was facing away from me. Dawid was circling a bit to my right as I crept even closer.

At twelve yards the bull sprang to his feet. I hit him with a solid behind his left shoulder and chambered another round as the bull spun to face me. The darkness and shadows had reduced the bull to a barely discernable silhouette against the quickly darkening backdrop of the bush. I’m not sure if there was a pause or if time stood still in my mind, but the thought that flashed through my mind during this staredown was that it looked like the Devil had just risen from the depths and was looming before me. For buffalo hunting I use a Trijicon scope with an illuminated reticle, and I’ve never been happier to have it. I put the glowing green dot between the bull’s horns but could make out no details of where to place the shot. I lowered my point of aim to where I thought I would break his neck and just as the bull started to move I squeezed the trigger. The bull stopped, spun, and disappeared into the bush. We heard crashing, then silence. Was he dead or just waiting for us to follow him into an ambush?

It was now completely dark in the bush and our only option to follow the bull would have meant heading into the bush with flashlights. The bull had also now crossed into the neighboring conservancy, so we wouldn’t have been able to recover him without contacting the game scouts from that conservancy. We decided to play it safe and come back in the morning. I was sure of my shots and as we turned to leave I thought I heard the familiar death moan from the bush.

I hated to leave the bull for fear of predators getting to him and losing some of the meat the locals needed so badly. Arrangements were made to meet the neighboring game scouts first thing in the morning. At first light we headed out and met the scouts. Reaching the spot where we had the showdown with the bull, Dawid and I loaded our rifles just in case. It was unnecessary, though—we entered the thick brush and there lay the bull a mere fifteen yards from where he had disappeared the previous night. Something had just begun to gnaw at the rear end just under the tail, and the fresh pug marks of lions leaving the scene revealed the culprits. Fortunately we had interrupted their meal, and no meat was lost.

My initial shot had gone through both lungs but passed just above the heart. When the bull jumped up, my shot had passed through one lung and the heart, exiting the front shoulder. The final shot entered his neck just under his jaw, to the right of his spine, and went through the arteries above the heart. They were all killing shots, but as everyone who hunts buffalo knows, these animals don’t accept death easily.

The bull wasn’t the old dagga boy we had originally hoped for, but the smiles on the faces of those receiving the meat made up for the lack of a few years of age on the bull. It was easy to see people in the area all held Dawid in high regard, and his contributions to the conservancy were evident.

Now more than ever, I see and hear people, even fellow hunters, condemn hunting in Africa. Some of this is driven by emotion, but mostly I think it is a lack of information. To all these good people I’d like to say, “I gave direct financial support to a rural region in Africa and helped feed a village today. What did you do?”

Hunting for Soccer

The communal conservancy programs in Namibia are a great success story of how everyone can benefit from sustainable-use hunting. Each conservancy is comprised of a few villages and the people living in the rural areas within the conservancy. Money generated by the sale of permits goes directly to the conservancy. Just as important, meat from hunts is distributed to the people as well. The people tolerate and protect wildlife because they receive direct benefit from the wildlife instead of viewing it as competition to their livestock and eliminating it as is the case in much of Africa.

Dawid takes his commitment to the area a step farther. Each year Dawid sponsors a soccer tournament for residents of the conservancy. He buys them new uniforms each year, supplies balls, a trophy, and cash prizes. The excitement and importance of the tournament could be seen everywhere we went. Teams were practicing in remote fields and people were walking and catching rides from all over the conservancy to attend. When we arrived at the tournament there was a large crowd, many dressed in their Sunday best. Music was blaring, people were dancing, and everyone was cheering their favorite team. The excitement was contagious. I was filled with a sense of pride that this enjoyment for so many was made possible by hunter’s dollars. — J.C.R.

This Story Originally Appeared in Sports Afield.
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