I remember when I downed my first Cape buffalo. I felt I’d finally arrived in the hunting world. Heard that bellow, waited ‘till he expired then walked up with PH Marius Kotze to claim my first African dangerous game (DG) trophy.
The first time I saw a buffalo I realized the adrenaline rush of hunting one would be much greater than an impala. No disrespect to any species, there are pinnacles of achievement. There’s a reason we call them the Big Five, the decorated quintet of the Dangerous Seven.
In a perfect world, Africa’s dangerous seven can all be dispatched with one shot. But all hunters and scenarios are not created equal. No two of them are the same. Every stalk, targeted animal, shot and difficulty level are different.
Setting those aside for a moment, there are tactics we can take and improvements we can make to get better. That safari rookie who saw his first buffalo 25 years ago has matured as a sportsman today. He hunts, shoots and selects better. He has more patience, sharper instincts and can field judge African game like a tape measure. Repetition on dangerous species has honed those skills.
I break it down this way. There are four steps to getting it in the salt. A) Stalk into position. B) Select your target. C) Settle into a comfort zone and D) Execute the shot. (Sometimes “B” before “A”.) The high-profile hunters on the videos pull all this off instinctively. Yes, it runs together seamlessly but I promise you, if we analyzed a buffalo video hunt in slow mo from start to finish, I could breakdown each phase, pointing out to you what’s happening at what moment.
Multiple movements, cognitive developments and body functions are happening simultaneously. And it all boils down to impact one thing; making an accurate shot. Isn’t that what it really comes down to? How you handle your business with your gun?
Your quest for the D7 will take you through every type of topography and terrain Africa has to offer. Water, wetlands, jess, savannah, desert, forest, miombo, bushveld, thorny acacia, mountains or open woodland. Dangerous game animals are not getting any more dangerous. They can maul, stomp, gore and mash you to death.
There are, however, upgrades you can make in your hunting game that reduce danger, improving your chances at success. Every year a few hunters pay the ultimate price and we want to avoid that. If our heritage is hunting dangerous game, let’s do it the best we can. I’ll reveal to you in this essay how to improve your DG skills in A,B,C & D from above; the stalk, selection, comfort zone and shot execution.
So here we go in order, from least dangerous to the most dangerous, what you need to know to get the upper hand on DG. I’m presuming you’ve practiced shooting extensively before arriving and have exercised yourself into prime physical shape.
#7 NILE CROCODILE
If there is one profession I could time travel back to the early 1900s and carry out, it would be that of a commercial crocodile hunter. My friend Peter Chipman, has kept me up late at night telling me wonderful stories of how he’d accompany his father, who was a commercial croc hunter on the Western Zambezi River. He used an open sight .22 caliber rifle. Don’t try it with a .22 today.
The main attraction of today’s crocodile hunt, besides it being a croc, is two-fold. 1) The stealthy nature of your approach to bait sights along shorelines and sandbars where crocs bask. 2) The pinpoint accuracy required for your first shot, which will be the only shot you get, if you miss your mark. The first real danger is to your wallet. If you fail to anchor the croc with your initial shot, he’ll slither back into the water, likely gone for good and even if you wound it you must pay the trophy fee.
The second danger of hunting a croc is retrieving it once dead. It’s tempting to traipse through the river with the recovery team to drag your croc back to shore. I know because I did this once in Zambia’s Luangwa River. Don’t do like I did! Instead, allow the trackers to fetch your trophy. It’s their honor to venture into croc infested waters and bring him in. The blood from the one you shot has drawn other crocs to the area. They’ll slap the water to scare off approaching crocs, wondering with each step in the muddy bottom, if this is the end for them— while reeling your croc to land with a rope or tugging him by the tail.
NOTES FROM THE FIELD|TANZANIA, ZAMBIA & ZIMBABWE
Avoid shooting off the sticks unless it’s a downward angle shot. The shot is slightly more makeable because on a top-of-the-head brain shot, the target area is larger. And in order achieve the proper vantage point for your bullet trajectory to clear, let’s say a ledge, shooting sticks can be required. If you’re checking baits daily, pick up rocks, sticks or tree branches you can pile up to make a steady rest. Some PH’s will offer a shooting sled or sandbags. This is Africa and if you want to taste the nostalgia of how it was done back in the day, build a rest from stuff you pick up along the way. If shooting from a ground blind, allow the PH to describe exactly where to place your bullet as you’re lining up your shot. He can tell you exactly where to aim in relation to the croc’s eyes and mouth line. You’re trying to impact a brain the size of a golf ball. Practice such a shot on ping pong balls.
I shot a 15-foot Zimbabwe croc on an island in the middle of the Zambezi River with PH Andrew Dawson. On approach to the shooting spot I picked up a chunk of driftwood. We laid in the prone position 116 yards away, and I propped the driftwood in the muddy Zambezi, using it as a shooting rest. It worked. The first shot anchored him, but if the PH tells you to shoot again, immediately do so in the shoulder and then again in the neck. The Nile crocodile has a reflex ability that causes muscles to contract and generate movement when he’s seemingly dead. Loosely known as a reptilian spasm, this muscle tissue movement is induced by brain damage. It only takes a little movement for him to nudge himself into the river and you’ve lost him. I’m not a big fan of overkill, but in that situation, don’t take the animal’s immobility for granted.
#6 WHITE OR BLACK RHINOCEROS
It’s easy to get close because rhinos don’t see very good, but they can smell and hear you really well. In order to experience the most from a rhino hunt, I recommend that you try to get close. Reduce the gap to about 30 yards and you’ll feel you’ve stepped back into pre-historic times. Huntable only in Namibia and South Africa now, rhinos have roamed Africa for 50 million years. Both the white and black rhinos will charge when threatened and, of course, they’ve been responsible for a number of human deaths. The black rhino is traditionally considered the most aggressive. The older ones are ill-tempered and will beat up on the younger males. Rogue rhinos will even charge a vehicle.
NOTES FROM THE FIELD|SOUTH AFRICA & NAMIBIA
Do not make the mistake of shooting too high on the animal. Hunters shooting freehand with a double rifle have a tendency to go high on a rhino at close range. Stick with a safe heart-lung shot, keeping your aim low. Do not shoot the animal when it’s running, unless of course your life depends on it. If you’re doing a dart hunt, trust the process. It works. Your PH will be masterful at guiding you in range. Eat lightly if you’re setting out on your rhino hunt in the morning, with minimal caffeine intake. There’s quite an adrenaline rush, the closer you get to the rhino, that impact other body functions from a full breakfast. If you’re overcome with the shakes or queasiness, tell your PH you’re feeling sick. It’s fairly easy to back out and start over later, once your nerves have calmed. Most certainly it’s not worth the risk of an ill-placed shot.
Although the hippo kills more humans in Africa than any of the dangerous seven, its danger to safari hunters is fairly low, because of the way it’s hunted. Avoid riverine areas from dusk to dawn and you’ll be fine. Hippo and human conflicts occur near rivers as villagers collect water and transport it during daytime and early morning hours.
During daytime hours hippos congregate in pods submerged in rivers. And this is where they’re shot for most hunts. After it bloats up, same rule as croc, don’t walk out in the river to help retrieve. You don’t win any bravery points from trackers if you do this. Let them do what they’re good at.
If charged by a hippo during a land hunt, be warned they are fast and sometimes they initiate mock charges. They are much faster than they look. Factor their speed into where you place the shot. I’ve seen many guys shoot right over the top of the head at a charging hippo. An accurately placed frontal brain shot will drop him in his tracks. If that’s the adrenaline rush you’re shooting for, the opportunity is certainly there for you. Treat your initial shot from your double rifle as your “only” shot, heightening the emphasis on a precisely placed first shot. Don’t embark on a charging hippo hunt thinking you have “two shots to make one.” Setting out with the proper mindset can mean all the difference whether you come back dead or alive.
NOTES FROM THE FIELD|ZAMBIA, TANZANIA, ZIMBABWE, MOZAMBIQUE & BOTSWANA
When attempting to execute a brain shot on a river hippo, be mindful of this one very important fact. The hippo is moving ever so slightly as it wallows; backward/forward as to the river current and up/down as part of his normal behavior. They will sometimes “yawn” as a territorial gesture. Once you and the PH select the right one, just monitor the hippo’s behavior for a moment. Determine if the movements are random or fairly consistent. Count in seconds the intervals in which he dunks his head. Then factor the shot placement and timing of your trigger pull, relative to those movements. This explains why hunters often miss over the top, because the target dips. On the first hippo I took in Zambia, he kept bobbing his head up and down, five seconds at a time, popping back up in a slightly different spot in the river. Finally I patterned him, figured it out and got him with a side brain shot. It took patience and a study of the bull hippo’s movements to carry out the accurate shot.–Bwana Moja