Under The Shadow Of Elephants

Tuskless Elephants in Zimbabwe Test An American Hunter’s Courage 

By Jon Peterson

Originally published in the November/December issue of SAFARI Magazine.

I will admit to fearing elephants, but I suspect I’m not alone. Their sheer size, power and unpredictable nature is a dangerous recipe. Few animals are as volatile as a cow elephant. 

In contrast to elephant bulls, which tend to be solitary, cow elephants are rarely seen alone. They are almost always found in groups, and they are extremely protective of their young. 

So, it may be a surprise to know that when the opportunity arose to hunt a female elephant, I didn’t hesitate. More specifically I would be hunting a tuskless elephant cow in the Zambezi Valley of Zimbabwe. Elephants born without tusks have a sex-linked trait. Females born without tusks are much more likely to have tuskless offspring. These genes are passed on to the next generation and more and more individuals are born without tusks. As such Zimbabwe has a fairly liberal quota on these animals to keep the population in check. 

A tuskless elephant hunt is very much a trophy hunt in reverse and arguably the best bang for your buck in dangerous game hunting. It is painstaking and hazardous work, and the danger is real. In fact, the most common animal shot in self-defense in Zimbabwe are cow elephants. 

The hunt appealed to my sensibilities. I was attracted to this hunt because of its strong conservation ethos. While I wouldn’t be taking home any ivory, I would be improving the gene pool and providing meat for the community. 

This was a last-minute hunt, so I had only a short time to prepare myself physically and mentally. I immersed myself in books that explained elephant behavior, learned the requisite anatomy and sought to master the double rifle I would be using.

Several weeks later, I found myself in the Zambezi Valley of Zimbabwe. The Omay concession borders Matusadona National Park and the shores of Lake Kariba. After an hour-long kidney-bruising ride down the escarpment, we reached Ume Camp at dusk. The camp was quaint and comfortable. I could hear the grunting of hippos at the water’s edge and later the lonesome undulating roar of the lion. The night sounds were the perfect accompaniment to my safari.

I quickly discovered that elephant hunting is a walking-man’s game, and it isn’t uncommon to cover 10 miles or more a day in pursuit of pachyderms. Since only 3% of elephants in the Zambezi Valley are tuskless, it would be a numbers game as well. We had to wade into herds to not only see if there was a tuskless elephant in the herd, but to also make sure it didn’t have a calf at heel. If there wasn’t, we needed to beat a quick escape without the elephants knowing. To be among these giants made me anxious, and I had to control my fear and conquer anxiety.

Each morning and afternoon, my professional hunter Pierre Hundermark, two trackers and a game scout would look for fresh tracks to follow. Finding suitable spoor, we would take up the track not knowing if and when we would catch up with the herd of elephants. If the track was lost the trackers and the game scout would fan out to search, communicating with hand signals, and decide which direction to go. We walked in silence, hour after hour, mile after mile. 

It was a pleasure watching the trackers work to suss out the track. It’s an art that requires critical thinking. In short, tracking elephants is graduate-level study. A walking elephant will quickly outpace a person, so it is essential you follow tracks that are fresh. The sun, wind and temperature are all taken into account. I tried to learn what I could and even put my finger in elephant dung to test its relative freshness. 

When we did catch up with the elephant, my boredom gave way to terror. Now came the tricky part: seeing if there was a tuskless elephant in the herd. This meant carefully sneaking among the herd without being detected. At these times it felt like my feet had turned to lead and my stomach had twisted sideways. 

It amazed me how elephants could disappear in the bush. While we were close enough to hear them feeding, we seldom saw an entire elephant but instead a trunk twisting or an ear flapping. It sounds ludicrous, but because of the thick bush we had to use our binoculars to identify potential tuskless elephants. On one occasion, we found a tuskless elephant in the very center of the herd, but it was impossible to get close enough for a shot. No matter how we tried an approach it stubbornly stuck to the center. There was nothing to do but silently withdraw. 

Unfortunately, I gave away our presence. I was looking at Pierre’s hands for instruction when I inadvertently stepped on a stick. It made a deafening crack in the stillness of the bush. Now Pierre was frantically motioning to retreat immediately. Suddenly, an irate cow appeared through the thick bush in front of us trumpeting her displeasure.

One morning we passed through a small village. There were just a few huts and a couple of cooking fires. We stopped a young woman with a small boy in tow to ask if she had she seen any elephants in the area. One has to be careful when asking this question. It isn’t that they mean to deceive, but with the prospect of fresh meat, you have to be slightly skeptical. 

As Pierre and the trackers talked to the woman, I bent down to make eye contact with her son. He was happily pushing a toy car around the sand with a stick. I motioned to him with my hands asking if I could see it. It was beautifully made from wire and aluminum cans. I couldn’t imagine a more inventive and ingenious plaything, and he was perfectly happy entertaining himself with it. I wish I had thought of taking a picture of it with him. It might be an important reminder come Christmas time back home. 

We decided to have an early lunch of sadza, which is cornmeal balled in the hand and dipped in a meat gravy. While everyone was relaxing, I spotted a group of elephants drinking along the lake shore many hundreds of yards away. As I used my binoculars to scan the herd my heart skipped when I realized that I saw a tuskless elephant in the group. I rousted Pierre who was napping on the back of the Land Cruiser. He quickly confirmed that I was right. Our excitement quickly gave way to frustration as the herd scented us and pushed their way back into the almost impenetrable bush. However, Pierre felt that it was worth pursuing them, and we quickly worked to break down our lunch table. 

We started on the tracks and the trackers noted that the elephants were moving fairly quickly. It was unlikely that we would catch up unless we stopped and let them relax and slow down. As much as I wanted to keep up the pursuit, I knew the logic behind the decision. With not much to do, I sat down and contented myself with tracing figures in the sand. 

When the time came to take up the track, my energy level returned. Every sense seemed to be heightened and I felt that this could indeed be the moment of truth. My hands gripped the twin pipes of a double rifle over my shoulder as I watched the tracker flick his ash bag to test the wind. 

My heart beat quickly. We slowly closed the distance and got within 30 yards. I glanced at Pierre and when I had his attention, I tapped the side of my head indicating that I was going to attempt a side brain shot. 

I slowly raised the double rifle and tucked the bead of the front sight into the bottom of the notch of the wide express rear sight. The slit of the ear offered the perfect landmark. I placed my shot a hand’s width in front of it and pulled the trigger. 

The rifle rocked in my hands, and the stock slapped my cheek. As the barrels came down, I watched as the back legs collapsed first and her head and trunk were thrown back. I had executed the perfect brain shot and the elephant felt nothing. I wanted to congratulate myself, but I knew the danger was far from over. Looking at the brush in front of me, I pulled a fresh solid from my cartridge belt and broke open the action of the double. I heard the metallic ping of the casing being ejected over my shoulder and without hesitation stuffed a fresh round home. 

For a moment I thought the action was over, but a few seconds later I heard Pierre shout “Run!” I quickly followed him up a small embankment. Sure enough, another elephant came tearing in precisely where I had been standing. 

From the safety of the hill, we could see the other elephants milling around agitated and angry. We shouted and waved our arms above our heads. At our shouting, the elephants began to disperse and move off.

After an insurance shot, I bent down to examine the elephant. I placed my hand over the fold of skin where a tusk would normally lay. I examined its feet and felt the cracks and ridges that make each foot as unique as a fingerprint. I lifted one of the giant ears and looked at the blood vessels just beneath the skin. I felt a bit of sadness as I knelt beside the animal. 

Many hunters say they feel a tinge of melancholy after taking an animal. Standing next to the elephant, I admired her majesty and knew I was forever changed. With the sun starting to dip in the horizon, we covered the elephant with brush to conceal it until we could return the next morning. 

Overnight the bush telegraph worked overtime with the news that an elephant had been taken. The next morning, we returned to the elephant and Pierre climbed to the top of a nearby kopje to look for villagers and direct them to us. He performed a strange semaphore with his hat and shirt that said “Come here, the elephant is here.” 

People started filing into the small clearing next to where the elephant was being butchered. Singly, then doubly, and finally small groups filed in for their share. Excitement was in the air, and I could hear the word “nyama” lifting through the growing crowd. The translation is “meat and lots of it.” 

I was surprised at the orderliness of the meat distribution. The elderly and mothers with children went first, and each got one piece of red meat and one portion of offal. By tradition, the trunk went to the village chief. Everyone who came got a share and the people doing the butchering received a double share. 

It was only at the last minute that a melee ensued to pick up the tiniest portions of flesh that remained. In all, I had watched an entire elephant reduced to a wet spot on the ground. Nothing was wasted. I felt privileged to have witnessed this.  

The following evening, we had a dual celebration. It was my birthday, and we celebrated the taking of the elephant. The camp played a joke on me by covering elephant dung with chocolate and presenting it to me as a birthday cake. When I discovered their ruse, they quickly replaced it with a proper cake. The community and the camp staff also arranged a dance to be performed in my honor. One member dressed up as the elephant and another played the part of me as the hunter. We were all laughing uproariously as the two circled each other and pantomimed with exaggerated actions. I was presented with a bracelet made from the tail hairs of the elephant, and I felt incredibly honored. 

That night as the professional hunters talked among themselves, I sat contently looking at the stars and pondering my place in the universe. 

As I looked at the bracelet on my left wrist, I was reminded that I was now an elephant hunter. I had conquered my fears, taken an elephant, and I was a better man for it. 

Jon Peterson is a Life member from Colorado. 

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