By Enrich Hugo
The smoke stings something in the lungs and the ash particles that whirl through the air tickle the nostrils. And occasionally we had to deal with glow around us. In addition to the ash, the air is full of insects and other small crawlies. Wherever you look, there are birds of prey that, in breathtaking maneuvers, catch mice and other small mammals fleeing from the fire.
We were in the north of Uganda, near the border to South Sudan, where the dry grass is being burned down to provide the soil with new nutrients that grow fresh green grass. As well as the abundant waterholes, this nutritious green grass provides the base for a thriving and diverse wildlife in Uganda. The Dark Continent wears many shades of green in Uganda, leaving no doubt as to why it is called the Pearl of Africa.
The starting point of our safari was the Kidepo Valley, where our hunting area is separated from the Kidepo National Park only by a gravel road. Everywhere you looked there were big herds of oribi and Jackson’s hartebeest. But our goal this time is to hunt Nile buffalo, which is only to be hunted in Uganda. It looks very similar to the Cape buffalo that is found in Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Botswana and Tanzania. With a weight of 600 to 700 kilos, the Nile buffalo is about 200 kilos less than the Cape buffalo. It is a shade lighter in color than its stronger, almost black-colored cousin. Significantly more pronounced is the difference in the horn. Generally, the Nile buffalo’s horn is not as wide and has a slight downward curvature. This flatter curl gives it its characteristic beefy appearance.
Normally, I organize and accompany my hunting clients, but this time I was the hunter carrying the rifle. I was with Christian, who has been living in Uganda for years and has made a name as the leading outfitter from Uganda, and we have a long and strong friendship. I was excited and looking forward to hunting with him.
From my numerous hunting trips where I have accompanied my clients in Uganda, I know the hunting area already very well, but nevertheless I am always overwhelmed by the fauna and flora which is offered here. The temperature is extremely pleasant and there are no big differences between day and night as we know in other African hunting countries. The several light rain showers over the year are also a reason for the lush green which covers the country, but do not detract from the hunt.
We used the first few days of the hunt to get a good overview and we repeatedly encountered large herds of Nile buffalo, which were often more than two hundred head strong, but this time we were on the way to find single bulls. Here, a buffalo is never shot out of a herd. Only old bulls expelled from the herd, known as Dagga Boys, are stalked and shot. These Dagga Boys were usually the lead bulls of their herd for years and have passed down their genetics over time. But even for these strong leadership bulls comes the time when a younger bull takes his place and he is rejected by the herd, and it is precisely this expulsion that makes the buffalo even more dangerous. These loners can no longer rely on the protection of the herd and are on their own.
Of course, the main threat is from lions, which have a much easier time attacking a single buffalo than an animal protected by a herd. Always keeping an eye on these threats makes them nervous, irritable and extremely dangerous. In some cases, several of these Dagga Boys join together in smaller groups. It is these two to five groups you must be extremely careful of. Irritated, nervous, aggressive and an all-round radar of several pairs of eyes can define a buffalo as Dangerous Game.
We tracked one of these groups, a group of three. They were still small black dots near the horizon, but the trained eyes of our trackers clearly confirmed them as Dagga Boys. Christian considered the situation, and we briefly discussed it with a tracker. It would not only be reckless and risky to stalk through the head-high grass between us and the buffalo, but it would also be a matter of luck if we stalked almost without knowing where to go. However, the wind was very good for us and Christian sent two of his trackers ahead.
We were on a small hill, and he could instruct his trackers by radio. Then they started to set a fire. The dry grass burnt like tinder and spread quickly with the wind in behind in the direction we wanted. In this controlled burning it is essential to know the area one hundred percent. The wind blew from east to west, and about two kilometres to the west it lead to wider gravel road which acts as a natural barrier to prevent the fire from spreading. Behind us, in the north, the grass had already been burnt a few days previously and therefore there was no dry grass left in that direction.
The fire was started in a small depression and Christian explained that there was a small waterhole where the buffalo could safely go to drink. The fire that was placed on the other side of us did not bother them, and as the wind was blowing our way, they did not smell us. And indeed, the three Dagga Boys walked undeterred in our direction. The two trackers joined us and we started our stalk, crouching and often on all fours. Without the protection of the high grass, we had to now proceed very carefully. We used every bush and tree that lay between the buffalo and us to hide behind.
Everywhere there were ash particles from the fire. It smelt of burnt insects, and over our heads flights of hawks and falcons were swooping for food. Again and again Christian stopped to scan with binoculars to see what the buffalo were doing. The careful stalking took much time, but the distance was decreasing between the buffalos and us. Just as Christian foresaw, they were moving towards the waterhole. After another half hour suddenly only two of the three bulls appeared on a small edge of the terrain. Somewhere between the last two smaller hills, number three must have decided to take a break in the shelter of a group of bushes and no longer followed the other two bulls. But we needed to take extra care now. Christian instructed one of the two trackers to wait and keep an eye on this edge of the terrain, and if the third bull should appear to tell us immediately by radio.
After more than three hours of stalking, we were now very close to the waterhole. And at that precise time, the two bulls appeared. The distance was now about 40 meters between us and the buffalo. The terrain in front of us sloped down, and from our cover we could easily watch the two buffalo. Both were very old boys. Numerous scars decorated their faces and bodies, irrefutable witness of many fights with their own kind, but also remains of attacks by lions. Each bull had a huge hard boss emphasizing his age as an old warrior. But that was not the only thing that stood out. Both bulls had similar massive testicular inflammation. In all my many years as a professional hunter and hunting companion of my hunting clients, I had never have seen anything like it. Christian shook his head and said that it was a first for him. The two must have been in hell of a pain. The testicles were red to purplish-blue and were extremely long and swollen. There was no doubt that my goal should be to kill both and free them from their agony.
I had an open sight rifle without a scope in .460 Weatherby with Mauser system, with two cartridges in the magazine and one already in the barrel. Christian as backup carried a .500 Jeffery. By now the two bulls seemed to become nervous. I do not think they were aware of us, but it may be that they have sensed a predator. I decided to take the first shot on the right buffalo. My instinct told me that the other buffalo would turn to the left and escape to the open side of the terrain. Christian was ready as my insurance.
My first shot broke and the first buffalo went down where he stood. Automatically I reloaded. The second buffalo stopped after only 10 meters to see what had happened behind him. He took two steps towards the fallen buffalo, giving me enough time to take him too. The .460 Weatherby had done a great job. After a short wait in our cover, we went to inspect the beasts, and up close the inflammation looked a lot worse than we had already seen.
We took some tissue samples which Christian later handed over to the National Park Authority. One thing was certain. The game meat that is usually handed over to the local population to provide them with much-needed protein would be destroyed in this case, and the two buffaloes left to the vultures. For safety, Christian still ordered three park rangers to guard the carcasses until only the bones were left. He did not want to take any risks in case some people from the neighboring villages decided to acquire some pieces of meat.
For me, but also for Christian, this hunt goes down in our hunting history books. Both for him in Uganda and for me personally, it was the first double with two buffalos. It could not have been better.
Once again, this proves that ethical hunting is a main tool of conservation.