Zimbabwe: Yesteryear
Bushpigs By Moonlight
By Doctari

My book, “It Shouldn’t Happen,” contains four stories: Being Dumb, Even Dumber, Dumber Still, and Dumbest Yet. This incident also qualifies.

In the early 1980s my wife Catherine and I purchased Halstead, our Zimbabwean farm. With it came a small herd of six very wild and spookish sable antelope. Halstead lies in Mashonaland West, just outside the one-horse town of Karoi (now Chinoyi), and those of you who have ever driven from Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, to either Lake Kariba or the nearby Zambezi Valley that lies beyond Makuti and Marongora will have passed through it. The area is described as miombo woodland and it is prime agricultural country with reliable rainfall, good soils, and an almost perfect climate.

Sable used to occur in this area naturally, and I made it my mission in life to protect the traumatized few that hid out in a remote and undisturbed area of Halstead farm. I never high-fenced Halstead simply because I couldn’t afford to in the kick-starting years of my farming career, but what I did manage to create, however, through careful management and the employment of three game scouts, was the right environment in which the sable could thrive – and this they did. Without fail their number doubled every two-and-a-half years, and by the time my world was turned on its head by Mugabe’s disastrous land reform program, there were at least 120 of these magnificent antelope on not only Halstead, but neighboring farms as well.

I soon became convinced that Africa’s various wildlife species can in some way communicate with each other, because all of a sudden waterbuck, bushbuck, impala, even warthogs appeared in the wildlife haven I had created, which I referred to as my “game section.” Unfortunately Potamochoerus porcus, the bushpig, also flourished there, and they are the reason for this story.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Zimbabwe’s cattle industry was booming. The reason for this was the Lomé Convention – a treaty that granted cattle ranchers access to the lucrative European Economic Union export market. Deboned, vacuum-pack and chilled, Zimbabwean beef hindquarter cuts commanded a premium price on the EEU markets and this translated into good prices. Only the best quality beef was exported and this necessitated the pen finishing of young steers with high-energy, maize-based diets.

Like much of Zimbabwe’s higher rainfall areas, Karoi was also good for growing maize, and I took advantage of this so as to be able to finish for slaughter the offspring of my rapidly expanding beef herd. My cattle thrived on the maize I grew for them, but so did the bushpigs!

It’s amazing the knowledge that could be gathered at the local country club’s pub. One evening after a farmers’ meeting, I complained to Jack Waddle, a grizzled local farmer, about the damage bushpigs were causing to my maize crop. Over a couple of scotches he told me of a “plan” to alleviate my problem. He said he’d done it once and claimed it was “deadly.” Due to being both young and, in those long ago days, foolish (and a few too many beers), I neglected to ask Jack why, if his plan was so “deadly,” it was not more commonly practiced. I also should have asked why he’d only used the plan once, but foolishly I didn’t…

The plan is as brilliant as it is simple. On a full-moon night (because any form of artificial light makes bushpigs very wary and this defeats the object), take a 44-gallon metal oil drum to where the bushpigs are causing havoc, and stand in it while clamping a domestic piglet between your legs. Squeeze the piglet enough to get it squealing nicely and the action will quickly be forthcoming. (Remember, this all took place well before predator-calling gadgets became available.)

To his credit, Jack did offer up a piece of very sound advice – and it was simply this: “Make bloody sure you dig the drum into the ground and fill it with the soil so removed – otherwise the bushpigs will knock it, and you over!”

Thanks to good Scottish Highland genetics and the typical Zimbabwean “three Bs” diet – beef, biltong and beer – I soon realized there wouldn’t be enough room for both myself and a “Babe” in the oil drum, so I prevailed upon the services of my ever-faithful tracker, Special. He was slightly built and just the right size to fit into an oil drum along with Babe.

The plan was subsequently modified to use two oil drums. It just so happened there was, in one of my bushpig-damaged maize lands, an area about half the size of a basketball court that was stony. When preparing it for planting, we just ploughed around the stones; to mark the spot, a nice and big msasa tree had been left to grow there. This made the area easy to find at night, and I soon realized it would make a fine bushpig killing ground.

In the storeroom that secured all my safari equipment were two good, thick-metal oil drums usually used in my operation to heat bathwater during the winter hunting season. They were perfect for my plan, so I had then carried to the open stony area in my maize land. My labor also cut all the grass there nice and short so the all-round visibility would be good.

It took some careful thought as to how best to position the oil drums, because the very last thing I wanted was to inadvertently shoot Special when the action got going. His drum was subsequently positioned behind the msasa tree, the trunk of which was thick enough to offer him good protection. Large stones and some strategically placed branches behind Special’s drum would also force the pigs to only approach from the front. The best position for my drum was a couple of paces off to the side so that I could get a clear, close-range view of any bushpigs that approached Special, but without me being able to see either him or his drum. Holes were dug and the drums duly buried to about a third of their length. Special’s was also wired to the tree for extra support – just as well that this precaution was taken!

My other profession, that of being the local veterinarian, made it easy for me to acquire a suckling-sized, just-ready-for-the-spit, domestic Babe, small enough for Special to carry and to fit into their drum together.

We chose the night for our “attack” carefully – the night after full moon so it would still be dark when we entered the field after sunset but with enough time to prepare ourselves before the moon rose. On a clear autumn night, the bright rising moon would provide enough light to see the end of my shotgun barrel and any bushpigs that Babe’s squeals would attract.

For the occasion. I armed myself with a Mossberg 12-gauge pump-action shotgun. With its magazine plug removed, it could be loaded with six shells. This number, plus one up the spout, would be plenty of very effective firepower, especially when stoked with Special SG buckshot.

To say that the plan worked would be an understatement! Two things really surprised me. The first was the level of noise that comes out of such a small bundle of bacon, ham and pork chops! No doubt, the amplifying effect of the empty metal drum had something to do with it, but WOW, what an ear-splitting racket Babe produced when dear old Special firmly squeezed her abdomen between his knobby knees! The second was the ferocity of several big bushpig sows and the protective boar that soon came running in, in response to Babe’s ear-numbing squeals.

It quickly became obvious why the oil drums were a necessity and why, indeed, they needed to be dug in and secured. In fact, so vicious were the attacks to Special’s drum, they dented it! A large, very angry bushpig is a fearsome creature. By moonlight, when it’s trying to climb into the drum you’re standing in, is something extremely intimidating.

Unless you’ve done it before, shooting at night, even with a shotgun and at close range, is something a lot easier said than done. I shoot a shotgun with both eyes open and at night, even in bright moonlight, the muzzle flash blinds you for a few seconds. In such situations you’re supposed to close your eyes the moment you pull the trigger, and I simply could not force myself to do this. Alternatively, you’re supposed to close your non-aiming eye the moment you pull the trigger, and then close your aiming eye and open the non-aiming one immediately afterwards, so you can still see what’s going on around you while your suddenly night-blinded aiming eye re-adjusts itself. (As a result of the muzzle flash, the pupil of the aiming eye quickly closes. This results in temporary night blindness. A few seconds are needed for it to open up again and for your night-vision to return.)

But unless you’re thoroughly practiced in this art – and an art it really is – because to be able to open and close your eyes alternatively, like a blinking railway-crossing warning sign, takes lots and lots of practice. I wasn’t, and in the heat of all that action I quickly became confused. Every shot I took, and it was many, was with both my eyes open and this repeatedly night-blinded me.

To stand totally night-blind, with screaming pigs all around you, even banging into the drum you’re standing in, is most definitely not for the faint-hearted! In all honesty, it soon became very clear to me why you only do this “plan” once in your life. The action was fast and furious, and I can recall having to recharge the Mossberg’s magazine more than once. However unpleasant the experience might have been, as a population reduction exercise the occasion proved itself to be extremely effective.

Over an almost two-decade period, a lot of which was spent pursuing dangerous game in the Zambezi Valley, I never once had to question Special’s intestinal fortitude. Many was the time we’d together faced tense moments and yet, although he carried only a knife, ash-bag and the shooting sticks, while I was invariably armed with my .505 Gibbs, he never once displayed an ounce of fear. For this, I respect his courage and admire him greatly.

Special’s date with Babe in the drum that night was, I somehow suspect, different. Like myself, he too, was very obviously out of his comfort zone. At the conclusion of it all, at least a dozen bushpigs of different sizes littered the killing field; and despite the fact that he and his family were to gorge themselves on their meat for the next few weeks, Special absolutely refused to even consider doing such a stupid exercise again. I can’t say I blame him. I’d held the shotgun, and even I had been scared spit-less! Like those before me, I also only ever tried this foolish exercise once.

Kevin Robertson, a.k.a. “Doctari,” is the author of the well-known Safari Press published books, “The Perfect Shot,” “Africa’s Most Dangerous,” and “It Shouldn’t Happen.” A Zimbabwe-licensed PH and wildlife veterinarian, Kevin spends many months each year in the mid-Zambezi Valley, and currently lives in Namibia.

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“Due to being both young and, in those long ago days, foolish (and a few too many beers), I neglected to ask Jack why, if his plan was so “deadly,” it was not more commonly practiced.”