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Our Feathered Friends

Respect for Birds In Africa Is Sky High Among Hunters 

            There have been many times in Africa I thought I was a dead man. The closest brush with death is the time a Cape buffalo almost gored me. He was waiting for me and I was waiting for him. Blasting out of thickets behind an anthill, a shot from a .470 Nitro Express killed it before the buff reached me.

            I was jacked up at a border crossing once in Mozambique, ordered out of my Land Cruiser with hands behind my head. I was accused of being a weapons trafficker, and a bandit put a Kalashnikov to my forehead. Five hundred dollars later, we were all good, and I was allowed to pass through. That day I learned there’s nothing in Africa money can’t resolve.

PH Charles Horsley, left, taught me the art of patience. Here Charles explains to me why we should just chill to allow time for a Cape buffalo to expire. Hovering vultures had pinpointed the downed animal for us.

             The most painful time, in which I thought I was dying a slow death, was when I met dehydration. Hunting in Central African Republic, out of water with no water holes within miles, one of my trackers began to stumble. Dehydrated, dizziness and lightheadedness had begun to get the best of him. Patches of salt crystals had formed on my face from dried perspiration. I could barely even sweat as I was down to the final ounces of water in my body, as disorientation began to set in with me as well. Our savior was, of all things, a honeyguide bird, which led us to a beehive in a moabi tree. It was 116 degrees Fahrenheit. The trail for giant eland had evaporated, and we were all on our last legs. That’s when our tracker, Francois, started somehow communicating with the bird. It led us a half mile east to a beehive.

            The trackers climbed up the tree and blew smoke into the beehive, which calmed down the bees. We devoured the honey and returned to a normal state as our insides were replenished. Francois laid a chunk of the hive on a flat boulder, and the honeybird flew down from the tree and feasted on his reward, the beeswax and larvae remaining inside. I am not lying when I say that little bird saved our lives.

Ever since that day, I have learned to keep my head focused on what’s above. The sky is a roadmap to what’s on the ground in African savannahs, rainforests and tall grass. Let me tell you few few stories…

Zambia,

Lower Lupande G.M.A.,

South Luangwa River Valley

After 10 unsuccessful days of leopard hunting, I was concerned. I was running out of species on license to shoot as bait. The cat was particularly finicky and seemed to only bite on zebra carcass. Early one morning we took down an uneaten portion of zebra hindquarter from one tree and re-baited another tree where we had built the blind. We had been sitting that evening for 90 minutes. Fatigue began to set in, and I got restless in the blind. As I got up to stretch, I heard the excited distant chatter of monkeys and tree birds. Because I wear ESP audio devices in both ears, I heard that leopard alarm in stereo, before the other two men who were in the blind with me heard anything. I motioned to my cameraman with my index finger winding in a clockwise rotation, which is the universal sign to start video recording with the camera.

            In the still of the late afternoon, the audible monkey chatter and bird cries will daisy chain from branch to branch as the prince of darkness makes his way to your baited tree. The tomcat didn’t know it, but he was made. Three minutes later my professional hunter unplugged my peep hole in the front-facing thatched wall of the leopard box. I positioned my rifle through the opening, looking in the scope to view one of the most wonderful sights in Africa: a leopard in a tree feeding on a bait. Slowly I brought the trigger straight back exerting no lateral pressure. I felt the slack disappear, then the explosion as the .300 Jarrett boomed. After absorbing the tight recoil, I brought the glass back on target and tilted it downward to find a motionless leopard under the sausage tree, dropped by a punishing shot to the heart.

            Shooting a leopard, is the easiest chip shot on dangerous game that hunters sometimes miss. By detecting the distant chatter of birds and monkeys, I was able to begin settling into my comfort zone a full 2 minutes before I ever saw the big cat through my scope.

“Spotted leopard” fever is buck fever multiplied by a factor of 50. Once you start to get the shakes, it’s hard to stop, and that can be catastrophic for accurate shot placement. But I got a heads up from my friends above, who first spotted the leopard stealthily positioning himself towards my tree. I was able to calm my nerves even faster and was able to deliver. An accurate leopard shot is an exercise in mental execution, far more than anything else. By staying plugged in to your surroundings, connected with wildlife you’ll be offered clues to the puzzle. At first decibel you might think it’s all just noise, but it’s way more than that — for communication is being carried out constantly by a variety of species, on the ground and above.

AFRICA’S SYMBIOTIC WILDLIFE RELATIONSHIPS

Much has been made over the years of animal conflict in Africa, even within their own ranks. There are numerous examples, however, of beneficial partnerships between opposite species. The honeyguide bird’s way of communicating with people is prevalent throughout the bush. While traversing the rich hunting lands throughout Africa over the years, I’ve observed many animals teaming up with each other, in ways mutually positive to each species. I’ve watched mongooses fleece the hides of warthogs free of ticks, fleas and other insects. Larger warthogs will even lay down to oblige the mongooses in the extraction duties as they groom warthog hair by consuming ticks.

            Olive baboons can occasionally be seen following elephants because a herd of pachyderms will sometimes lead the baboons to water. And it’s no coincidence to notice zebras and ostriches hanging out together. Ostriches, the largest of all the bird species, with their round bug eyes have superior eyesight. Zebras have a superior sense of smell and hearing compared to ostriches. So, each side helps the other when predators are detected and it’s time to dash.

            The most photographed and painted partnership is between oxpeckers and larger mammals in the bush, such as cape buffaloes, hippos, rhinos and giraffes. Nothing wrong with scratching your friend’s back from time to time, and that’s the function in essence that oxpeckers serve to a handful of herbivores in Africa. They cleanse their hides of ticks and other insects.

            And then there is the sometimes obsequious, relationship between vultures and lions. From their lofty perch in the skies, trees and cliffs, vultures track lions on the prowl. Africa’s bush undertaker, vultures are the dominant scavenger in the circle of life. They’ll wait patiently on the ground around the periphery or descend from above when it’s their time to feed. Not only do they keep close watch on lions, but lions follow vultures as well. Vultures that circle and hover are often a sign of dead or injured animals. Lions follow these avian scavengers because they are led to the meat.

The largest in body size is the lappet-faced vulture. Their down-hooked bills allow them peel small slabs of meat from an animal. They penetrate, rip and tear. The largest in numbers is the white-backed vulture. In all, nine species of vultures roam the skies in Africa. Give them 30 minutes and a pack of vultures can skin clean a medium- to small-sized carcass, leaving hyenas, jackals and wild dogs with nothing but bones.

            The big birds in the sky also tip off anti-poaching rangers to the precise location of bandits illegally killing African game. Poachers have now struck back. They are launching their own assault on vultures by poisoning rotten carcasses on the ground to kill the scavenging birds. Vultures have strong stomach acid kills off most toxins like anthrax and botulism, but their systems can’t overcome certain man-made poisons.

            Vultures will scavenge a lion’s carcass, and lions don’t particularly care to eat vultures. Lions use them for one thing, location. Killing them is not even worth it. They taste terrible, it takes too much effort for what would be just a snack and besides one dead vulture merely summons in 20 more. But I’ve seen it happen twice. On both occasions, a lion and a lioness felt crowded by a griffon vulture, leaving the territorial cats no choice but to kill.

             I’ve arrived on a handful of kills in the bush when a carcass is blanketed by vultures while a lion sits on the outskirts waiting his turn. If there are more than one lion, sometimes the big cats will interrupt the frenzy, make a mad dash into the scrum and to carry off the carcass into the cover of scrub.

Masailand,

Tanzania  

My first gold medal lion came in 2004 after a brilliant display of hunting by PH Peter Chipman,

who had survived a lion attack five years earlier. As dawn broke, we left the compound to check lion baits that we had strung up at four widely distributed locations. The morning sunrise in Masailand is spectacular as it blankets the steppe lands and plains with an orange glow. After 90 minutes of sight-seeing, Peter gently applied the brakes to the Land Cruiser and told me to grab my .416 Rigby. He saw a dozen vultures in the distance perched atop two trees. We set out on stalk and Peter then climbed up an anthill to glass from a higher vantage point.

            He came down the anthill knowing full well why the vultures were on standby. A lone lion had just finished feeding on a wildebeest and was walking away. Peter and I gently walked about eight paces to the northeast, and there he was in a clearing. From 116 yards, I took him with a shoulder-heart shot.

            Had Peter not spotted the vultures in the trees, we would have driven right past the that lion.  

African Fish Eagle: Vocal Air Support 

The most recognizable raptor for safari hunters patrols a wide range throughout Africa’s abundance of open waters and wetlands is the African fish eagle. With a wingspan of seven feet, it resembles the North American bald eagle, but the fish eagle has a leg up on the bald eagle. The bird’s voicebox elevates it to a class all by itself. The fish eagle’s distinctive call is evocative of the spirit and essence of Africa. Once you hear it, you will know it and you will never forget it. 

            So precious is this sound, that many bird watchers have gone to great lengths to record it. Many cell-phone service providers in Africa offer the fish eagle’s distinctive voice as a ringtone.

            The soles of its feet are equipped with powerful talons and tiny barbs to snatch slippery aquatic prey. Primarily they eat fish, but will eat carrion, other birds and small rodents when fish are in short supply.

            Their connection to African hunters is purely symbolic, emblematic in one species of the beautiful sights and sounds one will encounter on safari. A Tanzanian game scout told me that if you hear the call of the fish eagle while you’re on a stalk, accept it as proclamation of honor because it’s the fish eagle’s way of casting a blessing over your hunt. Africa’s most artful and decorated aerial hunter is a representation of strength.

Usangu Game Reserve,

SW Tanzania

Hunting with brothers PH Charles and Paul Horsley in the early 2000s, I enjoyed a close encounter with scavenging vultures, if there is such a thing. We had been on buffalo tracks for more than two hours before catching up to the herd. Charles told me to get ready. As I eased my rifle in the cradle of my shooting sticks, he glassed the pack of more than 100 buffaloes grazing in an open grassland.

            “Be patient Bwana,” Charles said. There was only one shooter bull in this herd, and we needed to wait for him to come in the clearing. Charles speaks in a polite monotone, which obliges the listener to accept as gospel whatever he says. Twenty minutes later the shot presented itself.

            “That one there with the deep drops?”, I said.

            “Yes, he’s about 100 yards away facing us.”

            “You finally found him huh?”, I said. “I thought you were gonna keep me here all night.”

            “Yes, Bwana, take him now!” Charles ordered.

            Upon impact of the shot, the buffalo lurched forward like a rodeo bull bounding from the gate. We stayed motionless for about 30 minutes, in the ready-position on the sticks. I was chomping at the bit to go chase the wounded buffalo as the entire herd scattered to the north. Off I headed.

            “Bwana Moja, stop!” Charles commanded as I started to jog forward. “He’s dead. You hit him right here,” as Charles motioned with his hand to the center of his sternum.

Ever since this moment my hunting rubric has changed. I grew up that day.

            You see, while I thought it would be rewarding to watch the animal during its final minutes and get an up-close view of its final breaths and death bellow, Charles taught me instead the patient dignity of allowing the animal to expire. And he was so right. By then I’d seen enough of them drop dead in their tracks. The uncertainty of knowing what the final struggle and steps look like, ironically now bring me comfort, thanks to Charles. I don’t need to watch. I only need to be told or know that the shot is fatal. A single properly placed shot can effectively dispatch anything in the African bush.  

            After comprehending that lesson from Charles, I wasn’t about to take a forward step. Another 20 minutes passed. We heard the bellow. Then almost as if on cue, the aerial cleanup crew started to hover as we walked closer toward our trophy. Then one by one, the lappet-faced, the white-backed and white-headed vultures dropped from the sky. There was a heavy blood trail from the heart shot, but we didn’t need it. We just followed the landing strip of the vultures. We found the buffalo dead 200 yards from where the buffalo was standing when the shot from my .375 H & H hit it. As we walked up to it, more vultures descended onto the scene. Bird by bird, they kept coming down. They kept their distance, at 35 to 40 yards because they knew what was next.

            We took photos, did our recap interviews with the video camera and then field dressed the buffalo. With a machete, the trackers halved him. The gut pile got larger as did the number of vultures on the ground. When the vehicle arrived, two trackers in the bed of the vehicle assisted two trackers on the ground and they hoisted the two sections remaining of what was once a 1,600-pound specimen into the back of the truck.

             The vultures, sensing it was their time now, inched to 25 yards. With everything, including all passengers now loaded, off we went. The ensuing scene at the gut pile made the Alfred Hitchcock movie look tame. As we drove away, even more vultures joined the feeding frenzy. In the deep heart of lion rich Southwest Tanzania, simba was certainly not far behind. In fact, how could he not already be there, given lions’ diligence at keeping their eye to the sky. I don’t need any more close calls in Africa, so I was at peace vacating the area.

But I reached into my imagination to visualize what it really looked like. My artist friend John Banovich has created a reminder hanging on my wall. This detailed painting, by SCI’s “Artist of the Year,” seen at the top of this article tells it all in the tens of thousands of strokes it took to illustrate this masterpiece. In this case it’s safe to say, art imitates life.

Bwana Moja, also known as Marc Watts, is an international hunter and 30-year journalist. He is a life member of SCI, author of two books and is featured in numerous hunting videos. Bwana Moja was the name given to him in Zambia by a PH and his trackers. It’s Swahili for “Mr. One Shot.”

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