ELEPHANT!

By Roberto Salema


The place was Mozambique, in a concession that included forest and a large river. A pristine and unique wilderness with a diversity and abundance of game and their predators, notably leopard and lion.

In that part of the country the terrain was quite level or only gently undulating. Some small hills, either isolated or in small groups, rose above the adjacent plains, leftovers of millennia of erosion that removed less resistant soil, leaving the harder ground.

Savanna shrubs, grass and miombo woodland covered most of the vast hunting concession. On the vast terrain depressions known as “pans” could be encountered, some with only seasonal water, others with permanent liquid, allowing the growth of grasses and even sedges on the wettest parts. The river fed a fringed riparian forest. In some places the river narrowed, but in others was large and generous.

The Search

Reveille sounded in the encampment at first light. It was still very dark. Only a very diffuse light appeared in the darkness, letting us know that day will come soon. On a far hamlet roosters could be heard breaking the silent air with their strong musical cry. The still burning firewood attracted all of us to fight the morning African chill, a reality that many find difficult to reconcile with the imaginary scalding Africa. Natives squatted around the fire in their typical manner, with the chin almost touching their knees and stretching their hands to the comfort of the heat.

Slowly the encampment was taking life as the light moved darkness away. It was the time for some hot beverage and breakfast.

When all were aboard, driver, trackers, helpers, PH and the hunter, the 4x4 moved to the river trying to find some recent elephant spoor. It didn’t take long to find imprints in the riverside mud. From there we would be on foot and in a single line, with the trackers in front, to start the search.

After about one hour one tracker stopped and said “Kambaco! pointing to a large round impression on the wet grass, an unmistakable sign of a front foot of a large elephant. We all close around it; moving ahead more could be seen, together with the oval imprints of back feet.

Foot prints are known to give precious information. It is important to study the inprints of the hind feet because, when moving, the heel contacts the ground first and then the foot rolls forward leaving a very good mark of the front part. Trackers pay attention to this front impression, because there will be a toenail scuff that is the surest way to know the direction the elephant is moving in. Front feet are used to judge body size. A diameter of a foot and a half, or larger, indicates a big animal, possibly an old bull.

We found other signs, such as cracked branches and some small green leaves, leftovers of a meal and also marks on the rough bark of a large Mgombo tree, improvised masseuse of some tons of flesh seeking comfort. The search continued following the graphic tale left by the pachyderms that amounted to height, two of them with very large footprints. The sun was already hitting heavily on our backs and temperature had risen accordingly, but the trackers maintained their agile, rhythmic and steady march, seeing all the details and stopping from time to time, hoping to hear the characteristic noises of elephants feeding.

The forest was already on our backs and again the terrain was changing as we proceeded, the grass replaced by annoying thorn bushes. In this type of harder soil the march was slower, because the spoor was less visible and sometimes there were crossing paths that had to be studied carefully.

The wind that was in our favor, blowing in our faces, became shifty, possibly taking our scent to the group we were following. The P.H. constantly used a bag of fine ashes to test the wind. Our walk was already more than ten miles and we feel that the return to camp might be empty handed, because of that almost imperceptible swirling breeze.

After moving about  three hundred yards, we could see larger steps with the round imprints of the front feet deeper in the front part, showing that the animals were running, certainly because they had detected us. We were despondent! Those elephants would continue on the run for quite some time and could not be found by us, at least on that day!

The Hunt

We stopped near some thin trees that provided a mockery of shade, drinking water carried by the helpers and swallowing some more calories, while we tried to plan our next move. Hope is the last thing to abandon a hunter and we choose to look again for tracks. The hold African saying “you hunt elephant with your feet” sounded truer than ever!

Tracks were everywhere. Some were old, others from running animals that showed it was not possible to catch them. After walking for some time, we reached a small clearing and our spirits improved, because mounds of dung were everywhere. Fresh elephant dung has a green-yellowish color, warm and with a strong smell; it changes to brown as the outer shell dries. Elephants could not be very far away! We all caught our second wind!

Judging the tracks, we decided they were moving in a way as to return to the river area for the night rest. This journey in the afternoon is generally more relaxed, slowly feeding, stopping here and there. The wind was in our faces. The trackers were happy, showing us signs of the track, looking at us with pride.

We entered the forest again and the vegetation became very dense. All of a sudden the silent air exploded with a piercing bellow, from not more than a few hundred yards away. We froze with only our eyes moving and carrying messages between us. We moved forward, but the very dense forest did not allow more than some thirty yards of visibility. However, we could hear the characteristic noises of elephants feeding – branches being broken and, from time to time, the strong snap of a stem.

Slowly, very carefully, we moved silently forward, steadily shortening our distance to the feeding pachyderms. We could not see them yet, in the short horizon that the forest offered, but we sensed them, a danger close and invisible that made our bodies alert and our hearts quickened, a set of emotions dear to the true hunter. Only one tracker remained and he was now behind us, eyes wide open and no longer smiling; all the others had vanished.

The P.H. was very close to the hunter, almost touching his left shoulder. Testing the wind again made change our course accordingly; the distance was now some thirty yards; two more steps and we stopped like statues. We could see two enormous grey and monstrous masses.

Suddenly one of them stopped feeding and, still with some leaves in his mouth, stepped forward, clearing the branches that were hiding him. He stood in front of us in all his magnificent grandeur! The hands tightened around the Winchester Model 70 and the mind thought of the .458 reload topped with a Speer African Grand Slam Tungsten Core bullet in the chamber. The eyes of the elephant were on us and it seemed that he was really troubled, because intruders disturbed his feeding. His enormous ears were extended, listening, but in a moment started to pin back, a most frightening sign.

There was no time for hesitation. It would be an almost classic frontal brain shot. The rifle quickly came to the shoulder and, considering the upward angle, the horizontal cross-wire settled level with the bottom of the eyes, the vertical cross-wire between them. The trigger seemed to release of its own accord. At the shot the elephant collapsed, as if instantaneously all strength had left his legs, lying down on the chest and the bent legs, his tusks and trunk touching the ground. Moving sideways a second shot was delivered to the neck, a most recommended insurance.

Our native trackers and helpers appeared as if by magic, clasping hands and smiling from ear to ear! In a short time many more persons would come, as if the news of our kill were transmitted by some type of telepathic signals. They carried baskets, basins, machetes and knives to partake of this appreciated – and much needed – protein. The hunt was over!




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