Double or Nothing Elephant
By Bill Head, Byron Hart, Rob Blake
We were motionless, adrenalin running, hearts pounding, standing by our elephants after all that excitement and shooting, trying to take in what had just happened, not wanting the experience to go away. The years of preparation and planning had resulted in a chaotic but incredible 12-second sequence. How did I get myself into this danger, when all I wanted was to participate in an international conservation event?
I hoped the memory would not fade. Well, it did, and surprisingly each of us remember that day very differently. Because I am a campfire cowboy where it’s sometimes compulsory to exaggerate, I offer my version last, after the African and the former Californian.
The facts according to the PH: I was asked to guide a safari with Jamy Traut, October 2013. Jamy’s two hunting clients had booked a double elephant hunt in the Zambezi Region (formerly Caprivi) of Namibia. Texans, Rob and Bill, lifelong friends and hunting buddies, having hunted most places together, decided to come to Africa to hunt their first elephant.
Jamy’s Kasika concession is directly across the river from Kasane in Botswana, a popular tourist destination for Victoria Falls where folks like us are incorrectly considered poachers. The confluence of the Zambezi and Chobe rivers, with lots of surface water, back waters, channels and swamps, is an area known as the Eastern Floodplains.
The two hunters alternated every day, one hunting party cruising the rivers and channels by boat, the other driving around looking for the big grey pachyderms. We walked among and between them in the tall reeds. The idea on those first days was to accustom hunters to being near elephants and “practice” shot placement at every opportunity. It became apparent that there was a primary group of 18 elephant bulls that preferred the riverside tourist area by day (directly in full view of the numerous tourist safari lodges on the Botswana side), and only moved to the game-management area by night. There were two interesting bulls in this group, always close to each other. We could only approach this group to about 100 yards by truck, but to within about 15 yards by boat, along with many tourist-laden boats. We drifted the boat past them repeatedly, scoping out two nice bulls. Rob and I were quietly discussing shot placement on the various angles of all the bulls standing there, while keeping rifles and hunting paraphernalia out of sight; not an easy task in a tiny five-seater boat towered over by double-decker ferries.
One evening, we saw the group of bulls moving back towards the hunting area, but the two biggest bulls were not there. Eventually they appeared about 200 yards behind the rest, but we could only just see them through the reeds. It was going to be tight – light was fading, the boundary still a few hundred yards off, the other 16 bulls in between us, no cover… Eventually Martha, Rob’s wife, called a halt saying she was not comfortable with the situation, meaning walking up on elephants near dark in tall grass was a poor idea to her.
Discussing with Jamy’s group, a plan was formulated: 04.00 up; 04.20 coffee; 04.45 depart camp for the Chobe River and the boat. We docked the boat on the edge of the two zones as day was breaking, climbed up the bank and saw the group about a mile away, slowly heading back to the river. We walked in together, hunters, PHs, trackers, game scouts and Jamy’s PH apprentice Kabousie. Again there were only 16 bulls – the two biggest could not be seen. Closer yet at 200 yards, suddenly we saw them both, sleeping on the ground with only a grey mass and one tusk protruding above the grass. The morning sun was on the horizon. The two stood up to follow the group when we were only 25 yards from them. Rob, having drawn the longest straw was first, and he and I moved in to about 18 yards when his bull saw us and turned face-on. Rob’s .458 Lott barked; the bull dropped on the spot with a perfect frontal brain shot, landing on his haunches in an upright position. We’d discussed about immediately reloading and putting a second one into the chest of the elephant as back-up. But this was not going to work, because from our position we could only see a giant head immediately in front of us followed by a massive grey body protruding out behind. Thankfully so – had we done this, Bill’s elephant would have been long gone.
While this whole five-second episode took place, Jamy and Bill moved about 20 yards to the right, catching the attention of their bull who was alerted by the shot. It took a few steps towards them. The other 16 younger bulls moving 40 yards off to the right were in full flight. Only Bill’s bull remained and confronted the hunters. The .470 NE spoke, the shot just missing the brain. The bull shook his head, spun round and headed towards his fallen comrade. Jamy’s double jammed on its second shot, so he put in some insurance. The bull held up just behind the other, turning back to face the hunters. Bill pulled the second barrel, and the elephant went down, right behind the first. It could not have worked out better! We all stood in silence, absorbing what had just happened, then as the adrenalin drained, joy, and absolute excitement followed for hours on end. One cannot begin to describe that moment.
It just so happened that the bull that Rob hunted, had shorter, thicker tusks that had been favored by Bill. The longer-tusked elephant had been favored by Martha and was supposed to be Rob’s. It didn’t really matter who shot whichever bull – two lifelong friends had hunted their first elephant together, and had hunted two elephant friends. A special moment.
“I wanted that one!”
He shot my bull? The plan changed with the first shot.
Rob visualizes the “Poli Poli Bulls”
“Stand up and confront your bull!” my PH whispers at dawn on the Caprivi flood plain, after a knee-shredding 300 yard crawl. We are downwind of 18 elephant bulls. Bill and his PH lie just eastward hoping for a chance at an old askari bull.
My vision narrows with each step forward. At 15 yards the old bull senses me, shuffles to face me with raised head, outstretched trunk, and flared ears. We look into each other’s eyes… “Take him!” I don’t hear the shot. Instead, the ground rumbles as my bull drops straight down and the herd stampedes toward the Chobe River.
“Are you reloaded? Don’t shoot! Lie down!” The askari bull now faces us to check on his fallen companion, instead of stampeding with the rest of the herd. My hunting partner runs forward and takes a shot. His bull whirls to rejoin his fallen companion, and is now focused on us. “When he comes, WE WILL SHOOT!” My PH is agitated, his rifle shouldered. We exhale as Bill’s next shot drops the bull. The African sun brings a bittersweet morning as we sit with the two bulls, sharing their last sunrise.
Often I think about sharing that sunrise with our two bulls. I also remember the following morning when our Game Guard, took my hand and gave heartfelt thanks for the meat which fed his village. I then asked him what elephant tasted like. With a puzzled look he replied, “Like elephant.” At which point Jamy burst into laughter – after all what answer should I have expected! Martha still has her heart set on some long, symmetrical ivory.
“Cowboy. Practice Counts!”
I was not looking for elephant when we booked at the DSC Annual meeting, but Rob was. When Jamy mentioned the cost of a conservation bull, my wife immediately signed me up. Acquiring a single trigger .470 NE double cost me my Jeep Wrangler. I practiced shooting weekly. I walked to the back of my place, threw up sticks, and took two shots over open sights, scaring the heck out of my neighbours. I ended up not having time for sticks.
Stalking the same herd, Rob preferred one elephant, but Martha another. The elephants decided for us. The PH’s plan worked, as the elephants were close to a mile from the river. Important to the hunt, both elephants and lodges were concealed by morning river fog. We marched single file for a while, when Jamy turned and asked, “Can you crawl?” The crawl turned into a belly scoot. The sword grass was wet and brutal.
As we crawled among the herd, the two large bulls were lying down while younger bulls around us were watching, but not alarmed. However, I was! A day earlier we had come upon a dead croc in these same weeds wearing a deep elephant foot print in the middle of its back. The younger bulls began moving, some heading towards the river. The big boys rose. We had to act, or would have nothing if they made it to that exclusion zone.
I rationalized that Rob would shoot, the rest would take off and I would spend more days to get an elephant. Those days turned into seconds. Rob and Byron stood up at the same instant as Jamy and I. Time stood still. Rob shot, no sticks. His bull was hot-breath-close, facing him with that “Who are you?” look. The bull dropped from the Lott, hindquarters down, front following like Boddington’s DVD. There were elephants 360, making unbelievable noise.
The second older bull objected and came right at Jamy and me. Ears flared, trumpeting, head up, then low. I was so focused on facing him that I shot just as he raised his head again, maybe 15 yards. The Hornaday solid penetrated that top fold of the trunk, passing millimetres above his brain. I held to shoot again, the Euro double failed. That was not in the DVD. I recocked. Nothing! Reloading, thinking at least I have a single shot, I pulled again as the huge elephant passed oh so closely by me, turning away from us, swinging his head. The second hit him behind his left ear, travelled across that massive skull and bedded above his right eye. The rifle clicked to the second barrel. Jamy shot simultaneously to the starboard of me. Now I am deaf. I thought Jamy was shooting at one of the other bulls near us. The perturbed bull went around the downed elephant, and paused. He looked down then at Rob and Byron, who were in motion with their rifles, and stared red-eyed at me. I shot as he stepped around the body, ears back, no trumpeting. The 500-grain bullet took him in the left side brain. He fell sideways on top of his companion, then rolled down next to him.
Reloading, I jumped on top of “my” elephant, jamming barrels into his ear. Jamy was yelling at me, “Don’t shoot, he’s dead.” We stopped everything, frozen. Me on top of #2, Rob and Byron guns pointed three yards towards the business end of either. Jamy had positioned us in the exit path of the herd. His shot was not at the others, but into the hip of my bull to change its thinking about retreat to the river. I had expected we would take two eventually, but not at once within seconds! This was a hunt like no other – double or nothing.
We took conservation bulls that had “escaped” Botswana national parks. Elephants have become a problem raiding local farmers and fishermen in Namibia. Food is limited in the parks, causing hundreds of animals to cross the croc-infested Chobe to avoid starvation. The Namibian CITES permit allowed us to take the ivory. Rob returned to the Caprivi last year for his second elephant on permit.
Me, I can still see those 12 seconds with my eyes open.
Rob and I have been hunting actively over 35 years, as committed conservationists, scientists, and rancher/farmers. I started as a teenager with a 22. and my second rifle was a .270. Years ago we decided to take the money spent on a deer lease in the Frio Canyon and tr