HARARE (April 4, 2005) by Don Heath -- Two fatalities and three gorings of sport hunters by Cape buffalo certainly grabbed the news headlines last year. What went wrong? Without knowing all the details of each case it is impossible to be absolutely certain but one thread connects all the incidents: The PH made a mistake.

Yes, there are far more tsetse fly around these days and in some areas there is extensive poaching, which keeps the buffalo bad tempered. But buff have always been ornery, and buffalo kill an average of five villagers a year in Zimbabwe. In terms of “native” casualties both in Zimbabwe and Tanzania, 2004 was a normal year. Why was it so bad for the hunters?

A large part of the problem is the pressure on both the PH and client to get the animals down and drying in a hurry.

Many clients book a seven- or even five-day hunt and want a 42” buff. You hunt hard, chasing herds that you would otherwise walk away from, using a vehicle to the maximum, which adds to the disturbance, and all the while annoying the buff. Whether an animal is shot or not, the disturbance is great, and as the old tsetse department records show, when buff are persecuted “incidents and fatalities amongst hunters increase.” Admittedly the tsetse-control hunters were often trying to eradicate the game and many were good hunters but very poor shots. But still, the lessons stand. Disturbed, persecuted, pushed -- the buffalo’s short fuse runs out. In all the incidents last year, the areas had been hunted hard for several months prior, so one can assume the buffalo had had enough of man some time previously.

Still, the final fault lies with the PH.

Elephant are always inclined to try to kill any man who makes a mistake. The number of villagers killed by them is steadily rising, and is already exceeding hippo kills in Zimbabwe. But they are not killing hunters even though the number of cows and tuskless elephant on quota is nearly ten times what it was five years ago. Familiarity breeds contempt, or at least a casualness that can be fatal when you are being pushed too hard. When hunting elephants hunters are focused on one thing only. Get in, do it right, shoot only the one you choose and get out -- alive and without having to shoot any additional animals in self defence. Also, the number of PHs specialising in elephant is quite low, the hunts are longer, and there are not two or three hunts for elephant going on at the same time in the same concession. The PH is not being pushed by the client or the operator – and if he is pushed can legitimately say “back off or someone will get killed” and everyone appreciates the fact.

With buffalo it is different. They are, in fact, harder to kill than an elephant, more of them are hunted, and all too often, it is “just another safari’ for the PH. He is concentrating on keeping the client happy, getting everything done as quickly as decently possible, chatting the client up and taking the booking for next year. When something goes wrong, let the trackers get on with it, keep entertaining the client. Yes, the client will be sad that he has wounded something. Yes, it is a pain that you have to waste time on a follow-up. But all too often the trackers are just that: trackers, not hunters. They will follow the spoor across bare rock, but they are not trying to out-guess the buff. Everybody knows a wounded buffalo will circle round to watch its own back trail; everyone has heard stories.

Actually it doesn’t happen that often, particularly if the buffalo is dying on its feet. More often than not, they run off as they see or smell the hunters passing their position. One can hunt for many years before a situation arises where you have a wounded buff with the courage to charge, and in a position to do so. As a PH you need to experience that sudden crashing sound from behind to believe the old tales.

It has happened to me, and to many others. Four of the incidents last year were exactly that: The buff doing what, when wounded, they by legend do. They circle round, watching their trail for their pursuers, and then charge from the flank or behind. Still, there should be no problem. Shoot straight, and sort it out! With longer and longer strings of people, though, the PH is often too far in advance to protect his clients in the rear. They have to look out for themselves, which is a problem when they lack the experience. Ideally, you need the client one pace behind you, but realities often make that difficult.

Getting shot by your client is one of the real dangers of the profession, but you cannot complain if you are hit whilst under, or impaled by, something. You have a rifle and should have stopped the charge. Lack of regular practice with one’s rifle is the usual culprit here. The last instance was a case of the PH being inappropriately armed. One party of hunters wounded a buff and abandoned the follow up. The next party were hunting kudu when the wounded bull came from diagonally behind. The PH was armed for the kudu they were stalking and the client was not experienced enough to look after himself.

Buffalo hunting is a serious sport. Make a mistake and you can easily die. As a PH, you have to trust your own eyes and senses. Your trackers are concentrating too hard on tracking to think and see for you. In dangerous-game country, you need always to be armed so as to be able to deal with the biggest thing that you may encounter, and you have to be sufficiently in practice to put a bullet in the right place the first time.

Finally, you need to keep your client where you can protect him.

All of the above is the ideal. But when you have been hunting almost continuously for six months, when do you go and practice with your rifle? When you are trying to concentrate on supplies, the next client, satisfying this one as well as your boss, it is sometimes hard to stay focused on the job on hand, especially when the tracks are hours old.

When you get closer you will concentrate -- unless the buff didn’t go very far after being hit, and is sitting on old tracks waiting…