To Kill an Elephant

By Mike Schoby, Field Ethos COO

I laced my Courtney boots by the dim light of the incandescent bulb powered by a janky old diesel generator that is considered high tech in this chunk of Africa nestled between the Okavango Delta and the Zambezi River.

I was purposely working slowly, thinking while I laced, delaying the inevitable while questioning my sanity. I double-knotted the boot, not really looking forward to the day. In fact, I was seriously questioning why I was doing this at all. Over the last week I had discovered elephants are terrifying on a magnitude far greater than any buffalo I had hunted, or crocodile from tiny wooden m’koros or hippos on dry ground and tall grass. 

Elephants are obviously massive, extremely powerful, damned-aggressive, but most of all what had me spooked is their intelligence. They have enough gray matter to figure, reason and hate. That alone makes them terrifying.

With the last knot done I pulled the short kudu leather gaiters down over my boot tops and I again thought to myself, Why am I doing this? This is foolhardy. Stupid. I have a pregnant wife at home—wouldn’t it be nice to see my daughter born instead of getting stomped into pulp? It was a similar foreboding I’d felt before every boxing match. I would have rather been anywhere other than here, getting ready to do anything other than to wade into thick brush after a dangerous animal. But when the bell rings, I can talk myself into damn near anything.

Here I go, I’m doing it again and I’m paying for the privilege, I thought as I ducked under the tent flap and met the darkness.

Elephant hunting is a strange dichotomy. Every morning I overcame my fear, and every evening I returned with the highest high I have ever experienced—a euphoria of wanting to go right back out and do it again. Around the fire, the strongest drugs were nicotine and alcohol, but the conversations were electric, almost coke-fueled. Punctuated with rapid machine gun chatter, staccato laughter with the retelling of the close calls—the sound a big bull makes breaking branches as thick as your leg, the group of females that split around you in the evening gloam, the young bull that mock-charged only to stop at 10 yards screaming and flapping his ears.

At this point in my life I had seen thousands of elephants. On various other hunts, while driving through Africa, in parks–but all that changes when you get out of the vehicle, set off on a track and try to get within pistol distance of one of the gray beasts to put a bullet into him. People ask, “Why can’t you just take pictures of animals?” I had taken lots of pictures of elephants, but it is nothing like the experience of hunting one.

We were hunting on a non-exportable-trophy “Own-Use” license which means we were hunting around villages, trying to eliminate particular bulls that are causing problems with crops while also providing meat. All the elephants you encounter have adapted to people, and by adapt I mean that they have realized if they raise their trunk, scream and charge, the unarmed, half-naked natives beating pans immediately piss themselves and run off screaming. If they don’t run off, the smart-ass elephants just turn them into pink froth with trunk, foot and tusk.

After some experience, I realized that a lone bull or even a small group of bulls didn’t scare me that much; a hunter and guide who stand their ground and can shoot reasonably well should be able to stop a charge—baring a catastrophic one-in-a-million failure like a dud primer. What is downright terrifying is wading into a herd of cows, sometimes two dozen or more, with limited visibility while looking for a bull. The cows are aggressive by nature, protective of their young and just plain ol’ mean bitches who don’t like being fucked with. When disturbed, they often charge, or circle downwind and come back hunting you like a bird dog, trunk in the air testing the wind to find your scent. It’s spooky work.

The game was the same each day: Out of camp as soon as it was light enough to see a track, bounce along sand roads in the early morning looking for tracks, and when one is  large enough to indicate a bull, get out and follow it. Sometimes it would be a mile or so only to discover a small-tusked immature bull, other times it would be all day and over a dozen miles. Sometimes you never catch up to them.

You wouldn’t know it by looking at them, but elephants are crazy-fast. At a normal elephant walking-pace, a human is hard-pressed to catch up at anything less than a slow jog. If an elephant is walking even moderately fast, forget about catching up at all.

This particular morning we cut fresh tracks of four mature bulls. Alone. No cows. Thank God.

We were maybe an hour behind them judging from the heat still in their dung. We anticipated getting on them quickly, but by midmorning still had not laid eyes on them. Judging from the discolored broken branches, crusted-over dung and the track, we weren’t making up much distance.

Then the tracks turned and milled about in the sand that our tracker read like a book.  The bulls had joined up with a dozen or more cows. Shit. Cows. But we kept on the track anyway. By midday we finally spotted them in the middle of an open savanna a mile or so away, single file walking away from us—so we kicked into middle-aged, white guy, semi-jogged mode. After an hour we had barely cut the distance at all. If they didn’t stop there was little chance we would catch them.

Luckily, the afternoon sun was now beating down with an intensity only seen in Africa and the northern region of Hell. The herd began pausing in the shade of trees they passed. When they entered a stand of mature acacia, they stopped for a midday nap.  We had our break. Sneaking in, we got within 40 yards of the group of bulls.

“That is the largest bull in the group,” my PH and old friend Kabous said. Pointing out a broadside bull half dozing against a tree, “You could shoot him from here in the chest, like a pussy, or we can sneak up and get within yards and go for a side brain shot,” he grinned. The tusker was asleep and it was a perfect opportunity–except cows were now milling about, some feeding between us and the bull. We couldn’t make a stalk and if they kept the direction they were heading, they would wind us soon. 

As if the hunting gods knew we needed help, they shone on us. The bull magically awoke and started slowly feeding on leaves and branches heading in our general direction. Before I knew it, he was coming through a screen of trees 20 yards in front of us.

“Get ready to take him,” whispered Kabous. “Likely frontal brain shot.”

The bull cleared the screen of brush; 18 yards, 17, 16 yards, he stopped, sensing something amiss. When I clicked the safety off he stopped and stared right at me seemingly looking at my soul. In a bluff to see if I would run he shook his head and flapped his ears, dust rolling off them. Picking out the zygomatic arches on either side of his cheeks, I envisioned where his brain, the size of a loaf of bread floating inside a VW bug-sized skull, would be. I picked out a wrinkle on his trunk and squeezed the trigger.  The .500 Nitro Express crashed and bucked. Dust flew exactly where I aimed. The bull staggered and started to turn.

That is the good and bad about a frontal brain shot. If you connect, the result is as spectacular as it is instantaneous, the back legs go out, and the bull collapses. Conversely, as in my case, you know immediately if you don’t. As the large double came out of recoil, I placed the second slug into his shoulder, which dropped him. A quick reload and I paid the insurance with another through his chest as he lay on the ground.

The forest erupted with screaming cows and bulls, limbs snapped and crashed. Trees shook. The ground vibrated. Then as quick as it started it ended and went silent. I was alone with my elephant. Kabous, sensing my mood, having experienced it personally and with clients many times before, walked off a ways and allowed me to absorb. A rush of emotions flooded over me. Relief of doing it right, of no one getting hurt, of standing my ground, bounced through my synaptic gaps.

My hands were visibly trembling with the dump of adrenalin. I placed them on his thick gray hide feeling through the scars and scratches the years he had walked this African veldt. I felt the slight remorse of shooting an animal likely as old as myself. I marveled over the sheer size and the magnificence of a mature elephant, and somewhere back in my brain I had the realization that a childhood dream, like losing your virginity, had occurred. It was never to be repeated, and while it could be chased again and again it would never be the same or as good as the first.

I sat alone with the elephant for perhaps five minutes when Kabous appeared next to me and said in a quiet, but tense voice, “The cows are coming back, we have to move now.” We quickly moved 40 yards away to a stand of acacias no bigger than 14 inches in diameter—not my idea of good concealment or cover. I could now see the backs of a dozen cows working toward us. Kabous whispered, “Don’t move. Don’t do anything. If I start shooting, pick out a cow and do the same.” 

I realized I didn’t have enough cartridges to adequately defend ourselves against a group charge of the herd, nor would I have the time to reload even if I did. So there we stood, flattened against our scrawny trees while the mopane flies buzzed in our ears and crawled around our tear ducts, not daring to flick a finger at them. The cows approached within 20 yards, sniffing the air, looking for the people who took one of their own. Our wind was right and they didn’t catch it. They moved on through, now 40 yards, now 60, now out of sight. I finally took a breath.

When I am asked why one would shoot an elephant–which is never an honest question looking for an answer but a slightly veiled condemnation–I give the rationale answer:

“Like any animal they need to be managed. There are more elephants in certain places than the land can sustain. Africa’s human population keeps increasing, elephant’s habit keeps decreasing. Plus natives have to be fed, both with meat which an elephant provides in quantity and with crops which an elephant’s death preserves.” All of this  is true; elephant hunting is sustainable and righteous, but that is not the reason.

Elephant hunting is damn exciting. It is a feeling of being alive like I have never experienced in all of hunting. It is overcoming fear each day and celebrating life each night. I don’t need to shoot many more elephants in my life, but if given the opportunity I will always grab a double rifle and follow a track at dawn just to relive some of that first experience.

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