By Ken Moody
We’ve all heard the stories. The maniacal, charging buffalo bearing down on the quivering client as our hero, the professional hunter, brings his mighty double rifle to bear, ending the chaos with a well-placed shot, or worse – getting killed in the process.
Yes, buffalo tales have been told and re-told around the African campfire since man began hunting the beasts, and many of these have appeared in magazines and blogs dedicated to our love of buffalo hunting. But how much of it is true and how much is just simple lore, embellished to give the buffalo demon-like qualities, and unstoppable powers? Let’s see if we can separate fact from fiction and give our hunting brethren a look at old ‘Black Death’ and see if this gentleman really deserves his dark reputation.
I am the owner/director of Ken Moody Safaris, a close corporation opened in South Africa in 1994, and since that time have had the privilege of conducting around 400 hunts for Cape buffalo. While most of my safaris have been in South Africa, I’ve also hunted Zimbabwe for twelve years and Mozambique for eight, all for buffalo as the primary species. In Zim, I’ve hunted buff in the Omay, Dande, Chirisa, Matetsi, Gokwe, and the Beitbridge areas, and in Mozambique, I mostly hunted Coutada 10 and other areas bordering KNP. South Africa has found me hunting buffalo in seven of the nine provinces, mostly the Limpopo, NorthWest, and Kwa-Zulu Natal. I offer the above as only an indication of my experience hunting these animals and knowledge gained in doing so. I know buffalo, but if anyone, regardless of their level of experience, claims to know it all, they are lying.
So, what made Cape buffalo so different from their bovine brethren?
That can be summed up in one word: environment. Unlike other species of wild cattle, the Cape buffalo lives in a hostile world. The environment that is home to the African buffalo is also home to an array of predators including lion, wild dogs, hyena, and others, which single out sick, weak, or young buffalo and hound them until they can kill and eat. Then, there’s man that hunts them for sport and food. It is this constant pressure that has forced Cape buffalo to evolve into such tenacious survivors. Living, for them, necessitates their fighting spirit, for if they displayed the traits of their brothers in Asia, South America, or Australia, they would have been wiped from Africa long ago. It’s kill or be killed in Africa, and no species knows this better than the Cape buffalo. They will fight for life until the very end.
Hunting buffalo is generally a standardized process depending on where they are hunted.
Ideally, the focus will be on finding lone bulls or small groups of bulls that have moved out of the herds. In wild areas one focuses primarily on water sources, talks to locals, and checks the roads for tracks indicating movement. Once an acceptable track is found – generally a large, circular, square-toed print – the tracker will take the spoor and eventually lead the professional hunter and his client to the buffalo or herd. Then, it’s up to the skill of the professional to get the client onto the correct buffalo and into position to make a shot. When hunting the floodplains and river areas in Mozambique and other places, where tracks are often difficult to discern, glassing for cattle egrets which ride atop buffalo is one of the best options. Once the birds are located, and with the correct wind, the professional will lead his client into the proximity of the herd and begin the selection process of bagging a nice bull. Google Earth and apps such as On X Hunt nearly preclude the need for the old topo maps, but when hunting wild, open areas, a good map combined with GPS are, in my opinion, necessary tools.
The outlier for buffalo hunting is South Africa.
It is here where international clients can have either a superb buffalo hunting safari or a canned, less than desirable experience. It is also here where less experienced dangerous-game professionals can be found operating, as the licensing procedures and mandates necessary for the acquisition of a dangerous-game hunting permit are somewhat less stringent than in other countries. Being open on one’s register does not equate to having experience. It simply means the professional is legally qualified to conduct the hunt.
While there are areas in South Africa which can technically be classified as open or free range, bordering KNP and other locations, most hunting for buffalo will occur on high-fenced, privately owned ranches of various sizes. These ranches will feature either naturally propagating animals, a combination of naturally propagating and released, or purely ‘put and take’ small affairs where game is bought and released specifically for hunting.
Game sourced for stocking is either acquired through game-capture companies that locate and capture game and move it from one ranch to another, or by purchasing at auction where game has either been raised/bred for auction, or captured and moved to auction. Buffalo are no exception and are frequently moved and restocked. As the hunting environment is controlled by the presence of high fence, the landowner must decide how he will operate his property. He may opt to simply breed animals, or he may choose to hunt them. If he acquires a P3 Exemption Permit, he will be allowed to legally regulate his own game and allow hunting on the property for all species indicated on the P3 (I am a former landowner in South Africa have gone through this process myself).The landowner may then offer his game for hunting to a licensed outfitter who must have written hunting rights from the landowner, and have the venue inspected and approved for hosting international clients. The landowner will also provide a specific game quota to the outfitter for what game may be hunted and in what numbers.
The above is the process, and anyone being secretive regarding it should be a red flag to potential clients.
Hunting buffalo in South Africa is not very different from hunting them elsewhere. While the terrain and experiences vary from province to province, most buffalo hunting will occur in the thick bush. Buffalo love the thornbush, and it is here where they will likely be found. Well-maintained ranches in South Africa usually have good road networks, and good professionals in SA take full advantage of them. Concentrating initial search efforts around waterholes, trail cams are usually deployed to capture images of potential target animals and pinpoint the area where they operate. They can also allow one to see the actual buffalo so that a quick determination can be made as to whether to pursue or pass. This time-saving effort allows the professional to move on to seek better options for his client if necessary.
If trail cams are not deployed, then a manual sweep of the waterholes is required to see what is drinking where. Once a reasonable track is found, then an initial track is established to see the buffalo’s direction of travel. At this stage, the road networks come into play, as most ranches in South African are divided into blocks with roads around them. These blocks can be 100 to 1,000 acres in size, sometimes much larger.
The savvy professional will then begin jumping blocks by taking the buffalo track into a block and then driving around it to see where the buffalo exited into an adjoining block. Once the buffalo is isolated in a particular block, the party will return to where it entered, and track into the bush until finding the herd. If the wind is wrong, as it usually is, then the professional may cross track or back out and return when more favorable winds are present. The process is repeated daily until a buffalo is bagged or other tactics utilized.
Block jumping is a tedious process but does save time when compared to simply taking the track from the point at which it is initially found and walking it for the duration, entering/exiting blocks as progress is made. In areas of large buffalo concentrations, sweeping the roads by dragging brush behind a vehicle will help in finding fresh spoor the following day, getting the party onto a good track more quickly.
It’s always the client’s choice as to how he wants to hunt his buffalo, and many opt to track it from the onset of finding the first good track. Regardless, even in South Africa you can count on doing a lot of walking unless hunting from a
hide/blind. Hunting buffalo properly in South Africa can be an exciting, fulfilling adventure provided quality operators are chosen to conduct the hunt. One must simply decide on what type of buffalo hunt is wanted, and then select the team that offers it.
And now we get to what makes a Cape buffalo that of which nightmares are made.
Going on the track of wounded buffalo requires the correct mindset and preparation because yes, Cape buffalo really are that dangerous. Whether you’re hunting them in the northern Omay of Zimbabwe or among the baobabs of South Africa, a buffalo is a buffalo, and, once wounded, will quickly revert to his well-earned reputation regardless of lineage. While only about five in a hundred will charge, it’s the chargers that must be dealt with calmly and professionally.
A buffalo charge is controlled chaos. How much ‘control’ depends on the experience of those tasked to stop it. In my company, I have one standing rule that cannot be violated… a professional hunter will NOT track a wounded buffalo alone. There must always be two experienced guns on the track and the client doesn’t count.
An inexperienced client can be a bigger threat to life than the buffalo itself. The professional is there to protect the client and cannot expect the client to properly handle a buffalo charge. Of much benefit to all is a good tracking dog. A dog saves lives, and the little Jack Russell terrier seems to have found a niche in finding and baying wounded buffalo. Small and nimble, the little Jack will bark and harass the beast, allowing the hunting party to close in and drop it. Without a dog, everyone must have their heads on swivels, spatial awareness being critical.
If shot from a herd, the wounded bull will usually stay with the herd for as long as he can, the herd pulling the wounded one along with it. As he weakens, the bull will separate, hopefully staying alone. If shot from a group of old Dagga Boys or a small bachelor herd, the entire group will generally stay together moving into the thickest parts of the bush. The track may be direct or meandering depending on whether the buffalo is moving to a place of known safety or just wandering about looking for cover. If the wounded bull is badly hurt and moving slowly, he might separate from the group, but always expect to find the wounded bull ‘covered’ by a comrade. It’s these satellite bulls that must be accounted for, as they charge and kill as many people as the wounded ones. ALWAYS expect that there’s another buffalo lurking.
The initial track must be steady and deliberate, as the best time to close and kill a wounded buffalo is the first encounter. You can expect to find the wounded bull on your flank, as they often circle back like a fishhook to watch their backtrack, and it is from here that they will launch a charge or run away.
Mostly all of them will run away so if the wounded bull isn’t killed on the first encounter, the hunting party must press the track, moving quietly but as fast as feasible, as the buffalo knows he’s being pursued.
He now must be ‘walked down’ and forced to stay put from fatigue and blood loss or charge, as giving him rest breaks during the track results in a continuous string of bump-and-run encounters until darkness stops the track. A professional who believes it best to move very slowly and over cautiously after the initial encounter is simply afraid and/or inexperienced. The bull will almost certainly go with the wind in his favor, so your odds of sneaking up on a wounded buffalo are slim. You simply must close and kill him.
Eventually, the buffalo will come to a decision point. The constant hard pursuit combined with the effects of the wound will cause the bull to find a thick, nasty place to stop and wait for his pursuers. A good tracker can sense when the bull is close, and a good dog knows it. The presence of any fresh blood should be a good indicator of proximity. If the buffalo has decided to make his last stand, one of two things will occur… he will stand motionless hoping to be passed by or he will charge. A motionless bull you will find and kill even in thick cover, but a charging bull is a different story.
The line of march on track is primary tracker; professional hunter; client; backup rifle, then second tracker. The second tracker comes forward when the primary needs help, and the backup rifle may move to a flank from time to time to help scan the area and provide unobstructed frontal fire if needed, but generally, this is how the party moves on track. It is a good idea, terrain permitting, to have the client up with the professional so that he can be directed, sometimes with a hand on the shoulder to guide him into position. Everyone wants the client to kill his buffalo, so every opportunity is given to him.
A buffalo charge is sometimes preceded by a ‘woof’ from the bull, alerting the group as he comes. Not always, but sometimes. The charge will be fast and deliberate, an explosion of noise from breaking branches and hooves pounding the ground. In thick bush, it will come from close range, so don’t expect to see any bolt actions being cycled. For a professional, a good double rifle is a must, in my opinion, as a close-range charge will likely only allow for one decent shot and maybe a last-second lifesaving shot.
These are expensive investments, but how much is your life worth?
The internet professionals that speak of shot placement on a charging buffalo have likely only seen one on TV as, in truth, all you can do is put the front bead of your barrel on the area of the buffalo’s bobbing head and wait until your odds of making a crushing shot are the greatest. This moment is the most anxious you’ll ever experience. Never try and follow the head, just level your barrel, and wait until he closes then give it to him. For the professional, a backup rifle caliber must start with a 4 or larger, and the bullets used should be of a meplat type solid, capable of finding their way to the brain or spine, which are the only places you can hit to stop a charging buffalo. You may turn a charge with enough lead, but only a brain/spine shot will end it. After the buffalo is down, one or more follow-up shots are a must. Never, ever assume a buffalo is dead until he’s in the salt.
Cape buffalo by Joffie Lamprecht
If contemplating a buffalo hunt, think about what it is you want in your safari and don’t romanticize about it.
Reading is easy, and marveling over the adventures of others while seeing yourself doing the same is great, provided you can do it. Do an honest assessment of your capabilities, and look for an adventure that fits you, not one that you cannot enjoy. If you’re unfit, or unhealthy, please don’t burden a professional with your presence on a 12-mile-day buffalo hunt into the wilds and woolies of Zimbabwe. No one will enjoy it, you least of all. Customize your hunt to your capabilities, and you’ll have a helluva good time. Getting yourself in better shape by walking is highly advised.
Choose a rifle that you can shoot accurately. Bringing a .600 Nitro double rifle that scares the hell out of you is not impressive. Rather opt for a good .375 or .416 with a 1×4 scope that you are ‘dead nuts’ with and can help the professional help you.
Once you’re honest with yourself and decide on how and where you’d like to hunt buffalo, do a little research. Be wary of internet postings either praising or tearing down an operator, as many of these are simply other operators posting as if they were clients, agents of other operators, cousins, friends, whatever. Social media is full of misinformation, and the hunting industry is no exception. Also, watch out for the ‘too good to be true’ ads that offer buffalo hunts at unreasonably low rates. There are reasons for them, and, while some are legitimate, most are certainly not quality hunts and almost all of them are from South Africa where animals can be bought and dropped for shooting quickly.
The bottom line is to be wary, regardless of your hunting destination desires. Make sure your assigned professional hunter is dangerous-game qualified for the province you’ll be hunting in, and ask specifically of the company you’re considering a hunt with how many buffalo it bags in a season. Is it a buffalo hunting company or do they only do a few each year, spending most of their time shooting impala and warthogs? A dangerous-game license in SA can be obtained with a few photos and testimonials, so ask about the PH and his actual level of experience. You wouldn’t want to ride in NASCAR with a driver in his first race, so why risk your life hunting buffalo with an amateur? Most buffalo hunting fatalities occur in South Africa, and while most of that can be attributed to the fact that most buffalo are hunted in South Africa, there are also instances of inexperience which has led to death.
With that being said, I can state for the record that South Africa offers the best buffalo hunting value on the continent, has the best logistics, best accommodations, best food, and some of the finest professionals to ever walk a track. Those ‘fly by nights’ that give the country a bad name are greatly overshadowed by the vast majority of those who want to do things the right way. Seek out those guys and you’ll have one of the most enjoyable, satisfying adventures you can imagine. Good reputations are hard earned, not made up.
So, is Cape buffalo hunting really that dangerous?
You bet your last dollar it is.
Regardless of where you hunt them and under what conditions, once a buffalo is wounded and flips that switch, all the survival instincts of his ancestors are immediately brought to bear. This ‘Bush Tank’ is relentless and his unwillingness to succumb to the reaper is legendary. He can take more lead than a foundry and is not impressed by you. He will not give you his life willingly. It must be taken. Those who wish to pursue him, should do so totally prepared for what might happen, as there’s nothing more humbling than facing one’s fears and shortcomings when the possibility of death is present. You can possess all the wealth in the world, but Nyati don’t give a damn! You can’t buy your way out of the trouble you sought. You paid for it, and you came looking for it on his turf.
So, what now, Bwana? Did you choose wisely?