Big Feet and Tusks to Match
By Don Stoner
Dilemma! In 2013 I had arranged a two-week safari with friends to a favorite plains-game area that also had great numbers of dangerous game. Then about six months prior to this safari, I was offered a bargain cancellation elephant hunt in Zimbabwe. The price was right, the location was exceptional, and the professional hunter was one of the storied men. The only problem was that I was already scheduled to hunt with my friends and I couldn’t go back on that. What to do?
I had adequate vacation days accrued and a very understanding work place, enough financial reserve, and the PH was willing to swap the time with another willing client so that I could simply add it on to my planned safari. How can you say no to that? And when my wife Nancy agreed to join me for the second safari, it was a done deal!
So after seeing off my friends after a wonderful and exciting fourteen days, I was able to kill time in Pretoria. At my age, some rest is needed after a couple of weeks’ hard hunting and a nasty spider bite.
Our Zimbabwe safari wouldn’t start for another three days after our arrival there, so we spent the time at a lodge in the Hwange Park. The lodge had just opened and we were the only guests. The guide was a man I knew from his camera work on one of my favorite safari tapes, and when he learned I was a hunter and also knew his video, we got the tour of our lives.
We were picked up late on the third afternoon by our PH Russ Broom. He had been up all night tracking a lion a client had wounded, and after a four-hour drive to our camp, it was almost midnight. Next morning Russ informed me that our hunting license was not properly signed and that he had sent his tracker back to the park office for the proper signature, so we enjoyed a restful day in camp checking the sights of our rifles. It was mid-afternoon afternoon when the correct licenses arrived.
By now we had lost two valuable hunting days, which might have put some hunters into a less than joyful mood, but we decided to take a philosophical approach. It was Africa, and we were on African time. Just smile, thank God for being here, and enjoy whatever comes each day.
So with all our permits and licenses in place, Russ offered Nancy and me a ride to check four waterholes and look for any spoor. At the first waterholes we found spoor of baboon, eland, buffalo and lion, but no elephant. I was not surprised. I knew that looking for elephant would take time and miles of tracking. My biggest concern was if, at my age, I would still be able to cover the distances that might be necessary.
There was also one other issue. I had taken four elephant on previous safaris and felt I had taken enough of these magnificent creatures. Three of the four had been select problem animals and, while the hunts were fantastic, the ivory was not trophy size. I had always wanted to hunt a big tusker, so I had set unrealistic goals with the outfitter and PH: I would take another elephant only if it were very old and carried at least seventy pounds ivory, though I made them fully aware that I didn’t realistically expect to find such an animal. What I most wanted was to enjoy the experience of hunting elephant again, even if I went home empty-handed.
At the second waterhole, were tracks of several very large bulls. The largest track allowed two of my size twelve boots to fit in with a couple of inches to spare. Wow! If this old boy had teeth to match his feet, he must be something special. Unfortunately, in this day and age when so many of the great old bulls with big feet and heavy ivory have been thinned out, large feet no longer mean a great deal. More likely he had lived so long precisely because he didn’t have heavy ivory. He would surely have been tracked before, because anyone seeing that spoor would definitely follow it. But it was a good starting spot for the next day.
As we moved between the second and third waterhole, our tracker tapped on the roof of the vehicle and stopped us. He had seen the flash of late afternoon sun on ivory out in the bush. As we glassed the bush, we made out some elephant slowly feeding along in the direction of the next waterhole. They were big, but we couldn’t see the ivory clearly enough to draw any conclusions. What the heck! We needed to take a little walk anyway. And as we were not hunting, Nancy elected to come along.
For the first time in my life, we didn’t have to hike a hundred miles to see big elephant. Within less than twenty minutes, we had cut just ahead of them and watched as they fed slowly toward us. The afternoon sun was low, casting a beautiful golden light across the bush making the ivory glow. There were four of them and all were huge. Two were easily in the fifty to sixty-pound range. But one was magnificent. I watched in awe from about seventy yards as he materialized from the thorn bush. I had never seen a bull that large or ivory that thick. We were looking at the owner of the big feet, and he had tusks to match!
Russ looked at me and I nodded, and we moved cautiously ahead of them, but parallel. The wind was blowing steadily at about five miles an hour in our favor. It was a perfect setup. The thorn was thick enough to give us good cover but not so thick we couldn’t find a shooting lane. We moved ahead of their line of march, but closer to the center. Nancy remained in the rear and a bit back with the junior tracker, both very aware of their fast heartbeats. Nancy had also judged her escape route back to the vehicle, but it was too late to leave.
As the big bull slowly fed, he moved slightly toward us and I watched as the hawser-sized trunk reached up into one tree after another. We were now at about forty yards to the side and just slightly ahead of them. Russ and I held a whispered conversation. Was I sure I wanted to shoot this bull? He thought it would go over sixty pounds and maybe seventy but wasn’t sure. It was only the first day. Of course I wanted this bull. He was exactly what I had said I wanted and fully didn’t expect to find. He had the ivory of my dreams and was obviously a very old elephant. His skin hung baggy, his temples were deeply sunken, and he moved like an old man.
First day or not, I have long since learned not to look a gift horse in the mouth. But I didn’t want to shoot from that distance. I wanted to do it right and get close. Russ nodded and indicated for me to lead. I moved another ten yards to our left, ahead of the elephants, and then slipped directly in toward the big one which was now feeding on the upper branches of a large thorn tree. When I was directly ahead of him, I turned to face him and approached very carefully. We were now standing in the middle of the line of march they had been moving on. The big bull was still feeding behind the tree and I didn’t have a good shot, so I waited.
That was almost a disaster because another of the bulls came forward from my left and passed between me and the big bull. At about ten yards he was far too close. I couldn’t believe he neither saw or smelt us. I felt sure that he would turn and come right at me and I was desperately trying to figure out how to handle it. I certainly didn’t want to shoot the fifty-pounder. Thankfully, he circled around the big bull, and fed back the way he came, moving to my left again. What a relief!
I kept saying to myself something I had read from an old book about elephant hunting: “Get as close as you can, Laddie, and then get three steps closer.” I did just that. Small step by small step, and careful not to put my foot on a branch or dry leaf, I edged forward. I stopped at what we later paced at 12 yards. At that range, looking up at this giant was truly impressive. I watched as his trunk snapped off branches the size of my arm. After what seemed an eternity, he turned slowly to my right and stepped from behind the tree. I expected him to come directly toward me but he didn’t. He continued to move broadside to my right, presenting a perfect side brain shot.
I don’t remember squeezing the trigger. I don’t remember the recoil, other than trying to regain my sight picture for a second shot. But it wasn’t necessary. I watched as the massive, gray mountain collapsed with so much force I could feel the impact in my feet. His tusks drove into the sand so hard that I was fearful he had broken one. My shot had notched the top of the zygomatic arch, up and straight through the brain. He rolled on to his left side and I paid the insurance shot into his chest, but it wasn’t needed.
I will never forget the next few moments standing there looking at the completion of a dream I had held since I was a child. I felt both stunned and immensely grateful. Every moment had to be savored, every respect for this fallen giant; every appreciation for the skill and dedication of my PH and the trackers; the joy of sharing this experience with my wife, and the profound thanks to God for such a remarkable event.
He was old, very old, probably about seventy years, I learnt later, almost as old as me, and he was on his last set of well-worn teeth. I had saved him from a slow, agonizing death from starvation and decay in the bush within the next year.
We hurriedly measured the ivory. It was slightly oval in shape and we had underestimated the diameter, but we also misjudged because the elephant was bigger-bodied than normal. He had been the largest-bodied of the four very large bulls. At the lip he was almost twenty inches in circumference, and he protruded forty-eight inches. Not only that, but he carried his weight all the way to the broken tips. Both sides had probably lost the last foot or so of ivory, leaving thick stubs. In his prime he must have been simply magnificent. Easily over the magic one hundred pounds. By the time we had honored him and taken pictures, it was getting quite dark so we could do nothing further. Russ assured me that the ivory would be safe since we were in a remote area and that we would retrieve it the next day.
Back at camp I just couldn’t quite believe it all. Where had this bull come from? No one had seen him or his track previously. No one had seen the other bulls accompanying him. Had he wandered in from Botswana? How had he managed to avoid detection for so long? Never mind where he came from. We now just celebrated that he was here. Sleep did not come easily for me – I kept replaying the event over and over.
The following morning, Russ procured a tractor and a flatbed trailer. We passed by the local village and everyone hopped on the trailer. It was quite a festive ride. We arrived at the scene far ahead of the recovery crew. I examined every inch of the great body trying to take it all in. I hefted his trunk, or tried. It was too heavy. I felt the ivory over and over. I had a strange feeling that this giant was a gift from God, and I honored him all the more.
When the tractor and trailer arrived, the skinning started. The huge head was removed and loaded into a pickup truck. It completely filled the bed and the ivory stuck up and over both sides. All the trophy parts were carefully preserved and then the villagers were turned loose to take their meat. They treated us with great respect. They put chairs in the shade for us to sit and watch, and built a small fire next to us. They started bringing choice pieces of the meat and roasting it for us in the fire. It was a gracious show of appreciation, and quite touching.
The following morning we returned to find nothing but vultures sitting in the trees and a huge red stain on the sand. There were some huge bones lying around but little else. The entire twelve thousand pounds of elephant were gone. Nothing was left as waste. I would add that the feeling of having provided so much meat to such eager and needy people is satisfying. It is one very real joy a hunter can experience.
We had been waiting to extract the ivory to weigh and finally Russ came with the news. The nerve root proved to be very small, consistent with an old elephant. The first wet weight was 93 and 89 pounds. I was beside myself! I would bet that with their full length they would have easily made 120, but who cares. Even with drying from long years of display in air conditioning and heat at home, they still weigh 90 and 86 pounds. They are simply magnificent.
Russ turned the remaining time into a fascinating, productive safari experience that produced a buffalo, leopard, and a beautiful sable.
More stories, more memories…
Don Stoner has hunted since the early 1990s, completed 17 safaris, many of them 3-week affairs and two of one month. He has done most of his hunting in South Africa (not on small farms), in Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia. Some of the men he has hunted with are Harry Claasen, Willem van Dyke, Russ Broom, Craigh Hammam, Keith Boehme, NJ van de Merwe, Leo van Rooyen, and Steve Tors, as well as others who are less known.