A Hunter’s Heritage – Of Storytelling and Buffalo

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Time for storytelling. As an anthropologist, I can appreciate the importance of storytelling in human cultures – storytelling is an important method to educate, communicate and transfer the cultural mythos from one individual to another. And no human culture does storytelling better than the community of hunters. Whether it’s sitting around the campfire after a hard day’s hunt, drinking beer at the local pub or around the BBQ at a family gathering, when you get two or more hunters together the stories start to flow. And some of the best stories often center around danger or narrow escapes. While dangerous game exists throughout the world, there seem to be some places that seem to be the source of more than their fair share of dangerous animal stories. Which brings me to Africa.

I’ve been fortunate to have actually taken African game. Nothing large or overly exotic (and we were strictly meat-hunting) but I can say I have plains game under my hunting belt, so to speak. There are lots of African game animals, and anyone who has read Capstick or Roosevelt knows a bit about the mystique (from an American perspective, anyway) of hunting various species in Africa. The continent boasts some of the world’s most dangerous game animals – lion, leopard, elephant, to name a few. But there’s an additional host of deadly creatures one has to contend with, whether or not the game itself falls within the category of “deadly”. Cobras, mambas, crocodiles, hippos and entire legions of deadly crawlers can give anyone pause when they’re walking the trail, wading a river or climbing a tree. There’s a smorgasbord of ways to die when living in the African bush.

Cape Buffalo
The “Bush Tank”; author’s photo of a Cape buffalo in Nairobi National Park, 1993.

However, when I’ve been asked which animal scared me the most, there’s only one that comes to mind immediately – the Cape Buffalo. Lions are pretty predictable, elephants can’t typically sneak up on you, hippos are fine as long as you don’t get between them and the water, and snakes almost never stand their ground (almost!). Cape Buffalo? Well, we often said that a buffalo weighing a ton, KNOWS it weighs a ton! They’re belligerent, crafty, afraid of absolutely nothing and give you the definite sense that they’ll go through anything that gets in their way. They’re basically a bush tank with a bad attitude.

And buffalo are as tough as AR500 steel. Let me tell you my first story to explain. In Tanzania in 1990 I had my tent pitched next to a hunter’s camp while I was doing research and one night was invited to a fabulous dinner of impala steaks, beer and cigars with the crew and their clients. One of the hunters was from Minnesota, and while around the campfire that night the talk shifted to stories of hunting and the nature of African game animals. He told me the story of his first buffalo hunt. After days of hunting he and his guide found a nice bull that he decided he wanted to harvest. He was shooting something like a .470 Nitro Express – picture a round that’s bigger around than your thumb and just topping four inches in length. His first round landed in the animal’s shoulder. The bull went down on its front knees, but then, like a prize fighter shaking off a left hook, he got up and started looking around. The second shot spun the bull around, but by now the animal knew what was biting him and began charging toward the source of his irritation. A third shot again dropped the bull, but only temporarily, as the animal shook that blow off and continued its charge. The hunter leaned over to his guide and said “What do I have to do to drop this thing?” The guide leaned toward the hunter and, with a hint of urgency in his voice, said “KEEP SHOOTING!”

Now, I had experiences with Cape Buffalo in the field before – one drove me back to my truck in a hurry while I was trying to sneak up on it to take a picture! So, the Minnesota hunter’s story only served to put an exclamation point on something I already knew well: don’t mess with Cape Buffalo! So, my story of what happened in the late night hours of December 4, 1990 will only serve to point out the other important ingredients of a good dangerous game story – adding youth and stupidity! That night, I was awakened just before midnight by strange growling sounds around my tent. I was thinking “mating lions” in my foggy head as I sleepily unzipped the door to see what all the commotion was about. It turned out to be a herd of Cape Buffalo slowly feeding through the large bench I was camped on (the “growling” sound was actually them grunting back and forth as they fed). I watched until they started to enter the brush at the far end of the bench and was about to go back to sleep when my Tanzanian game warden friend Juma ran up from the guide camp and said “Leta banduki!” (bring the gun!). I knew what he had in mind – getting a buffalo would feed the camp for quite some time. A couple of days earlier he had given me his .458 to carry with me when I was alone in the bush during the day conducting research – he was busy marking tags and licenses of the hunters staying at the camp.

So, despite my knowledge of buffalo “issues” off I went with him. There was a moon, but it was still difficult to see. I had shorts and tire sandals on. I had a very old, beat up .458 with one shell in the chamber (and later discovered that about one in three shells that Juma had for the weapon were duds!). And we were chasing buffalo in dense brush! I wrote in my diary the next morning:

“I was thinking all the while: this is a good way to get yourself killed; chasing one ton, ill-tempered tanks in the dark! But my sense of adventure quickly destroyed my sense of self-preservation and I was soon following behind, carrying the 458 with its single bullet”.

You know, a good story also has characters that communicate well. Fortunately, Juma and I had had enough adventures together that reason came over us and our escapade came to an immediate halt. No words were spoken, however. About 20 minutes into trailing buffalo in dense brush in the dark, with a single round in the rifle, we both stopped, looked at each other, and in an instant realized we were both thinking the same thing: this isn’t a good idea! We turned around and made our way back to camp.

The final ingredient to a good story? Some stories you don’t tell your wife until at least a couple of decades have passed!

Good hunting!

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