Zimbabwe: 2013
Hunting the Tuskless Cow
By Dawie Bezuidenhout
Elephant hunting has many facets…

Hunting elephant bulls with good ivory is a tough, but rewarding hunt that certainly tests your skills in endurance and perseverance. But the excitement of hunting tuskless cows increases the level of danger and excitement to new heights. It is in my view by far the most dangerous and challenging African hunt you can get, as you often have to consider throwing caution to the winds and go into herds to find a tuskless cow without a dependant calf. That can often provoke a charge.

Tuskless elephant cows are born without tusks – a genetic fault at birth. Not only do they grow up without tusks in a herd where every other elephant has tusks to work with and brag about, it is possible they recognise this deficiency, which helps to make them particularly moody and dangerous. When they mate they can easily produce a tuskless offspring, and local councils in Zimbabwe offer tuskless cows at much cheaper rates.

Apart from other concessions, we hunt the beautiful Gokwe North concession in Zimbabwe, which is a large, unfenced and wild concession, where game roams freely. It borders the Matusadona National Park in the north, the Sanyati River in the east and the Chirisa and Chizarira National Parks in the west. It’s an area where elephant and buffalo herds are predominant.

The hunting concession with the partly dried-up Ume River in the back

Kautsiga camp is beautifully situated on the banks of the Ume River under large Acacia Albida trees


The hunting concession with the partly dried-up Ume River in the back

Kautsiga camp is beautifully situated on the banks of the Ume River under large Acacia Albida trees

In 2013, Dr Frik Botha booked a 10-day buffalo and tuskless elephant hunt with us. It was to be a very nostalgic hunt. I discovered that, many moons ago, at a young age, he had accompanied his father to the area as guests of the then Rhodesian District Commissioner, staying at his bush house, hunting buffaloes on the Ume River. Frik wanted to try and find what remained of this old DC’s house and relive his childhood memories. This was a daunting task, as the house and roads were left neglected about 40 years ago, and we would have to try and find it on foot, requiring many hours of walking.

Frik had brought an open sights custom-made .458 Express rifle shooting 500-grain Dzombo flat-nosed solids. It’s an excellent dangerous-game rifle designed and developed in South Africa, and built by well-known gunsmith Danie Joubert. It can do what a .458 Lott does at lower pressures, and can easily deliver 2300 fps with 500-grain bullets. The reason is that it uses a case that has been lengthened to three inches, giving it just that extra capacity and performance. It works very well on African dangerous game and other big game. I prefer flat-nosed solids. In Africa it has proved to have a better penetration and performance on large, thick-skinned dangerous game, than round-nosed solids. The local Dzombo banded solid bullet, developed by Bjinse Visser, a South African mechanical engineer, is an excellent dangerous-game bullet that has proved its mettle and is widely used in Africa, also by many Kruger National Park game rangers. A number of years ago I substituted my use of Barnes banded solids for Dzombos, which are also considerably cheaper. South African rifle and bullet development has definitely come a long way and can stand its ground in the thick of African hunting.

On our first day we connected with a herd of elephant. We stalked carefully to within shooting range, but alas – no tuskless cow. Then we spotted another part of the herd further down the bush, and slowly circled downwind to get a closer view. As we approached nearer, a cow (with tusks) suddenly burst through the opening towards us, ears flapping. We instinctively had our rifles at our shoulders waiting for her next move. With a lot of screaming and ear-flapping she came forward. We shot our rifles in the air and were lucky to stop her. But it was close.

Early morning on the second day we found some good elephant tracks and followed the herd into deep riverine bush. We found the herd but it was difficult to identify a tuskless in the thick scrub. We slowly moved forward, making use of a donga (a dried-up gully) to hide ourselves, and took up position just below the herd, some 25 paces away. Suddenly, a tuskless with a calf appeared from behind a tree, but the calf was not a dependant. Another cow partly obscured the view. Frik was on my left. I could see he was somewhat nervous. The base of the donga was uneven, so I slowly put up the shooting sticks to provide some extra steadiness for his rifle as he had to shoot at a sharp, upward angle.

The cow was now very close coming in at an angle from the right. The other cows nearby started to get nervous. But the wind was holding. At 20 paces, I asked Frik to take the shot, going for a frontal brain shot when she is clear. With the other cows so close around we couldn’t risk a herd stampede with us exposed now in the donga and having to get out fast on the other side in case things went wrong.

The bush echoed with the first shot, but she didn’t go down.

Shoot again,” I urged. The rest of the herd was now in total alarm. The second hot brought her down in classic brain-shot fashion, with trunk flying up and back legs collapsing. The herd stopped at the donga and then turned back. We quickly retreated to a safe distance beyond the donga and waited. Frik was elated. His first tuskless cow, and what a classic, close-quarter hunt!

On our way back to camp to fetch the skinners, we turned a sharp corner in the road close to the river and suddenly found ourselves in front of a herd of buffalo. I don’t know who was more surprised – the buffaloes or us!

“Get your rifle ready,” I told Frik while scanning the herd for a good bull and grabbing for the shooting sticks.

“Let’s wait – I don’t want to shoot a buffalo now,” Frik said softly. I looked at him in surprise.

“Why not? You booked one.”

“I don’t know,” said Frik. Let’s discuss it at camp.” I looked at him and said nothing, wondering what was going through his mind.

Handeyi!” (Let’s go), I said to the crew, and we left for camp to have a quick lunch before doing the skinning.

During the hurried lunch, Frik said that at the pace we were hunting we would have the hunt over in two days, and he was booked for 10 days. Also, I could detect the signs of a hunter who had tasted the excitement of hunting a tuskless.

“What does your gut feeling say, Frik? Would you rather hunt another tuskless or the buffalo?” I asked. He thought for a moment.

“If there is another tuskless on quota, I think I would go for that – it’s the same price as a buffalo, anyway.” I knew it – he was now hooked on tuskless hunting, and I made the necessary arrangements to swop the buffalo for another tuskless cow.

“But then let’s spend a day or two trying to find that old district commissioner’s house and do some sightseeing at the same time,” I said.

We were really looking forward to this exploration, and after a relaxed breakfast the next morning we took the dirt road north into the Nyaminyami district just north of the concession to find a base from which we could set off into the bush to explore.

After some enquiries we luckily found a local bush resident who knew about a ruin on a kopje overlooking the vast hunting area below. We parked the Land Rover below some large Natal mahogany trees, packed some water, and started the journey through the bush, not knowing exactly whether we would find the ruins, but expecting at least a 15 km walk. It was a totally wild area with beautiful streams and rocky outcrops, but after some distance we spotted a ruin high up on a kopje to our right. We changed direction to be able to negotiate the smaller hills below. Wet with sweat, we eventually arrived on top to be greeted by a desolate view below.

The house had no roof – but somehow its strong build had resisted the elements of nature enough to remind Frik of his experience some 40 years back in an era where district commissioners still existed, and you could hunt without too many restrictions and the tedious paperwork like today.

We even thought that this spot provided an excellent space to set up a camp with the beautiful view below, but there were no roads and no water, and we quickly regained our sense of reality. We spent another few hours in the area, enjoying the view from the high cliffs above the Ume, which is a beautiful river flanked with a variety of magnificent indigenous trees.


The next morning it was back to an early rise and hunting. We spent quite some time hot on the heels of numerous elephant herds. On the fifth day, after a long and hot walk of several kilometres, we took a narrow hill track that brought us over a high ridge back towards camp. Just as we entered the plateau, we saw a herd of elephant feeding in a natural enclave to our right.

But they saw us first and took off across the open plateau. We had no place to hide and were quite exhausted after the long midday walk. I knew the herd would not go far, so I decided not to disturb them and rather hit straight for camp and a nice lunch and rest, and take up the pursuit later in the afternoon. After lunch one tracker reported that he saw the herd slowly moving back about two kilometres from camp which was as good news as we could get.

At about 4 o’ clock we started to move again, this time cautiously in the direction where they were seen last. It wasn’t long before we could hear them. It was like a light breeze of leaves rustling in the wind. We approached carefully downwind, knowing this was the time they would start moving. Elephants can hear you from a mile away, so it requires exceptional care to stalk close to them.

Hunting tuskless cows requires a somewhat different technique from hunting bulls. You don’t know where they are, or whether, in fact, there are any in the herd. So you have to approach the herd in the thickness of the bush from several sides, if the direction of the wind allows you. We tried several angles without success.

Then my sixth hunting sense kicked in. I was involuntarily drawn to a narrow corridor that allowed us a glimpse into the herd. I motioned Frik to go down on his knees, and we slowly crawled our way in, and stopped with the trackers behind us. I noticed a large tuskless cow on the other side, about 40 yards off, slowly moving to our left. The herd was beginning to move out. Then I heard a crash of breaking branches right in front us at 20 yards, but we could not see the elephant.

“Wait until the cow at the back comes somewhat within shooting distance,” I whispered. But Frik was on my left and directly in the way of the elephant in front of us. “Keep an eye on her when she comes through,” I added.

It all happened in seconds. She came through directly in front of Frik at about 16 paces.

It’s a tuskless! – Shoot!” She saw Frik, wavered a second, and moved forward.

“Watch out, she’s coming!” Then all hell broke loose. She burst completely through the bush, breaking tree branches on her way to us, now about 10 paces away. Frik’s long body erupted into combat mode, and the .458 Express barked. It just missed the brain, she stumbled, but kept coming.

A dead, long, one-second silence followed, with no follow-up shot. I was on Frik’s right and sensed something was wrong. I moved quickly forward to take the shot. Then a shot went off that rang through my ear and head, with the tuskless six paces away. The cow’s trunk swept up and her back legs collapsed. It was all over.

What was wrong?” I asked Frik.

“The shot didn’t go off. I had to rework it! Frik replied.

That is tuskless hunting! Although everything was under control, one must always be prepared for the worse. Tuskless cows can be extremely bad tempered and dangerous, but Frik had stood his ground as a dangerous-game hunter, and his dedication and perseverance paid off.

The US ban imposed on the import of elephant trophies in 2014 has hit the hunting industry in Tanzania and Zimbabwe hard. However, it has opened up the limited quota for hunters from other countries. The mooted change in CITES regulations for elephants (moving it to Appendix 1 for certain countries) will just make elephant trophy importation much more difficult. Hunting tuskless cows is an alternative.

Risky. Thrilling. Affordable – and you don’t necessarily have to import the elephant hide. The exciting hunting experience alone is just worth it!

Bio: Dawie Bezuidenhout of Denonanje Safaris concentrates on hunting dangerous game since 2000. He mostly hunts in Zimbabwe and Tanzania.