“When that first shot goes off, something or someone will die,” explained the good Doctor as I sat in his classroom at the Southern African Wildlife College (SAWC) on the edge of the Kruger Park. “Think as though you are going over the top on the Western Front. Your shot starts a war, its placement decides how long it lasts and who wins.” Buffalo are the real deal; dangerous, unpredictable and exciting too. This was the allure for me to hunt the mass of horn and muscle that is the mighty Cape buffalo.
I first met Kevin ‘Doctari’ Robertson, one of my big game heroes, at a book signing at the Dallas Safari Club Convention in Texas. An author to a host of books on hunting African game, he is a qualified veterinarian and a licensed Professional Hunter in Zimbabwe. The Doctor had long captured my imagination and made a prediction at this first meeting that I would fall in love with Africa, her game and scenery and that my destiny would be to hunt Cape buffalo.
The Doctor runs the Sustainable Use and Field Guiding department at the SAWC. The college is dedicated to the conservation of Africa’s native wildlife. Independently run, it is funded privately, so donations and fundraising are what keep the lights on.
The buffalo would be given by the nearby Klaserie Private Nature Reserve in exchange for training their anti-poaching field rangers. Covering 60,000 hectares, the Klaserie is one of the largest privately-owned nature reserves in South Africa and forms part of the greater Kruger Park.
Although the wildlife is left to manage itself in a natural way, it is fiercely protected by the reserve. Without the anti-poaching effort, there would be no rhino. Here’s why – a mature rhino horn fetches $300,000. The Greater Kruger and Klaserie borders some of the most impoverished areas in the world where our Western ethics and morals are far less valuable than $300k of hard cash for a couple of night’s work.
The anti-poaching effort runs an annual bill into the millions of Rand. New electric fences and armed field rangers, their training and equipment does not come cheaply. To fund the anti-poaching activity, the Klaserie allows 1.25% of the reserve’s buffalo and 0.5% of the reserve’s elephant population to be hunted annually. It has been proven many times that removing minute percentages from a population has no effect on the size or health of the herd. The Doctor also explained that the trophy hunt focuses on old males past breeding age that have no effect on reproduction.
The hunt also included a one-to-one buffalo course at the college. Day one was spent studying thousands of images to give me a photographic reference on how to judge age, horn size and suitability, day two on the Doctor’s simulated stalking range, where he has created ten life-sized cut outs of buffalo standing at differing angles.
At dawn the following morning we headed to the Klaserie. Guiding the hunt was Professional Hunter John Luyt of Duke Safaris who has guided for all 30 or so buffalo that are taken every year.
Over the next three days, we stalked along the Klaserie river to look for the old dagga boy I had dreamt of. Finally, we found a group of four veterans. One of the warriors was so old he had no horns left. Just a ‘scrumcap’ as they are known. Both Kevin and John aged him late in his 13th or 14th year, a remarkable age for a buffalo in lion country and, in 42 degrees of searing heat, the hunt for this specific bull was on.
The crafty old bugger realised he was being followed early on which made for a frustrating yet incredibly exciting day as we got various split-second glimpses of the group but no chance for a suitable shot. The next day we travelled ahead of the group and set an ambush along the way to the waterhole. We laid in wait for a couple of hours before the first of the group strolled into view, the scrumcap bringing up the rear.
A sitting shot on a walking buffalo at 60 metres was before me. I rested my elbows inside my knees, offering my .416 Rigby a stable shooting position save for my pumping heart. Then he was there, moving steadily like a super tanker on the high seas. With my Leica scope wound down to x1 power, I mounted the gun and took my moving mark on his hull. Breaching his armour and getting to his vitals with the 400 grain Hornady DGX bullet would be the most important broadside shot of my life. The shot rang out, hitting the mark. The bull bunny-hopped forward, a signature reaction to a good engine room shot and more adrenaline kicked in as I quickly cycled the bolt. A follow-up shot proved impossible as he ran directly into the herd.
We followed up some 100 metres to where he lay. This was the bit I was most nervous about. We were following up a wounded bull buffalo. Even if the first shot was well placed, it had not killed him. I knew the next few moments could be dangerous, but mercifully a couple of follow up shots concluded the matter with no fuss. And there it was – my first buffalo lay before me. The emotions were extreme and the satisfaction of identifying and hunting a specific animal of this age was immense. Dr. Larry Franks aged his jaw and teeth, confirming that he was in his 13th year. It was a privilege to hunt this old bull with one of my heroes and every single cent of my fee went to anti-poaching in the reserve.
This is a true example of how hunting and conservation work hand in hand. I took a buffalo bull close to the end of his natural life and provided a decent revenue stream to another species in dire need of support. This is sustainable utilisation at its best. The only thing that keeps me awake at night is not me pulling the trigger on a buffalo, but the plight of the rhino. At least I know I have genuinely done something to help them.
Photography credit: Tweed Media