Based in Zimbabwe, Professional Hunter (PH) John Sharp applied for an apprenticeship for his professional hunter’s licence in 1978 in what was then Rhodesia, before undergoing his final exams and proficiency test in 1983 kick starting his career. John has hunted in Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa. In his 34 years of hunting in Africa, John says the Bubye Valley Conservancy (BVC) in the south of Zimbabwe, where he’s based now, is truly the finest area he has encountered.
In the field John’s constant companion is his trusty Rigby .470 double rifle, which he acquired some 20 years ago. Earlier this month we caught up with John to hear about one of his most memorable adventures, tracking lions in Zimbabwe in August 2016.
A normal lion or buffalo hunt is typically an 18-day affair. My client, Kyle, had informed me that he would not be able to stay for the full period so we would only have 13 days of hunting, so the pressure was on. Kyle told me that he fully understood the risk of shortening a hunt and that he would totally understand if the hunt was unsuccessful. This was a very kind gesture on his part but it did nothing to relieve my stress. To make things more difficult, he had expressed the desire to do a follow-up, or tracking hunt.
During the first few days we shot two giraffe and a number of zebra for bait and placed these over a pretty vast area of the conservancy – altogether totalling about 12 bait sites. We attracted prides, females with cubs, pride males easily distinguishable by their stained back legs, immature males, leopards and everything but the mature, older male we were seeking. As the days drifted by I was becoming more and more tense.
On day nine we arrived at Mabule waterhole to find that a good, blond specimen had fed very briefly around midnight, but only for a few minutes before leaving. Moving on to Mabulani waterhole we found that bait had been hit as well. Going through the trail cam pictures, I saw that a black-maned lion had arrived on the scene at 04:17 and left at 06:51, so he would not have gone far. I told Kyle that this was the opportunity we had been waiting for and that we should start tracking immediately. It was now just after 08:00 and our chances were excellent. After much deliberation Kyle said that he would rather go after the male from the previous bait, as it appeared to have a longer bib. I did my best to convince him that tracking this lion was by far our best chance but he was adamant – much to the dismay of my trackers.
I explained to Kyle that the other lion’s tracks would have been totally obliterated by thousands of guinea fowl, so we had no chance of following it that day and worse, we would lose the opportunity to go after this black-maned lion which we all preferred. Besides, I doubted that Kyle’s lion would even return to that bait, however he remained resolute, so we drove away from almost certain success. The trackers and I were dejected but tried our best to conceal our feelings. The remainder of our baits offered nothing exciting, except for a collared pride male and his extended family.
Day 10 dawned and we went straight to Mabule to see if Kyle’s lion had returned; it had not. At Mabulani the camera revealed that our black-maned male had fed pretty much the entire night from 18:18 the previous evening, through to 04:14 this morning and had departed in a different direction from the morning before. His belly was undoubtedly full, but as this was now our only option, we decided to follow. His tracks led south-west down a little-used track. After two kilometres of tracking I knew this cat was on his way and would not be returning to the bait, but we continued on the tracks. We followed it a long way, past England waterhole, until we threw in the towel. After calling in the vehicle we checked the remainder of the baits with the same results. Dealing with the fact that we now had absolutely nothing suitable anywhere, we dropped two untouched baits and went to re-hang them ahead of the black-maned male’s track direction. We got back to camp well after dark, tired and miserable.
Day 11 saw us checking the two baits we’d re-hung the night before but there was nothing to be found. At Mabule, while checking our bait there, the trackers found a good sized male track near the waterhole. The tracks were still visible, not entirely obliterated by the guinea fowl, indicating that this lion had come to drink after daylight, early in the morning, so he had to be close! I decided to race to Mabulani, just a few kilometres away, to see whether the black-maned lion had returned. He had not, so we raced back to Mabule to track this male from the waterhole. We had no idea what we would find at the end of the tracks but of course we hoped it would be the one Kyle wanted, with the longer bib.
The weather looked a bit suspect, as if it might rain, and there was a strong wind blowing from the north-east. I could smell the moisture in the air. The tracks were headed directly into the wind. This was a huge factor in our favour as it would mask the sound of our approach. I said a silent prayer that the cat would maintain its chosen direction. Isaac, my head tracker of 32 years, led the way with assistant tracker, Lovemore, pulling abreast of him when the vegetation allowed. The pace was very slow – it was critical that we spotted the lion before he saw us. Everything depended on this. The ground was very dry, like powder in places, and the wind lifted the dust from our footfalls into the faces of those behind. Isaac, Lovemore and I were tense; with only two days left we knew all too well what was at stake.
We were in scrub mopane, still relatively flush with leaves after the late rains, but it was sparse, giving us a good field of view. We came to a spot in the open where the lion had rested for a while before he moved on again. There were few other animals about, far fewer than we normally would have encountered; they had mostly retired into thicker surroundings because of the strong wind. We continued our cautious way forward, scanning our surrounds with intense concentration, the dust irritating our eyes. A second resting place heightened the tension and our pace slowed yet again. Not a single bird was to be seen or heard.
The scrub mopane began to thicken, indicating to me a possible lie-up venue. Suddenly Lovemore crouched, pointing ahead, and we all went to our knees in unison. There, barely visible in the thick scrub was the lion lying on his side, fortunately facing diagonally away from us. He was a mere 35 yards away. I quietly got Kyle onto the sticks in a position where he could see a vital part of the lion’s chest and whispered for him to hold his fire until I gave the command. Our cameraman, Gareth Dimmick of Dark Continent Video Productions, inched silently up behind him, ready to record whatever happened. Was the lion old enough to shoot? While the rest remained motionless, Isaac and I moved silently from side to side with our binoculars trying to get a better look. The lion rolled onto his back, giant paws in the air, and then flopped back onto his side again. I stopped breathing. How long would it be before he saw us? Isaac and I finally agreed that he had a good mane, and for me the colour of his hide put him in the correct age bracket. I slithered silently back to Kyle, moved him slightly to the right with Gareth in tow, explained where he should place his shot and told him to shoot. With my .470 Rigby at the ready I awaited a possible close quarter charge. The lion was unaware of our presence and might run straight at us if the shot was not good. The report was deafening after the prolonged silence but the lion did not move. I called for a second shot, just for security, and again the lion remained motionless.
My trackers erupted. They sprang high in the air, shouting at the top of their voices and then engulfed Kyle, hugging him and dancing around him. I kept a vigil on the motionless lion, fully alert, until I too was swept almost off my feet by the elated trackers. We had attempted the ‘impossible’, and won!
We walked slowly towards the still form, alert for any movement, and then claimed a beautiful seven-year old battle-scarred, solitary lion that was on the other side of a pride. It was not the one we’d seen on camera – it was better. This one had certainly spread his seed when he was in his prime, but he was past that now, so we had not affected the gene pool in any way.
I felt a sense of elation as I reflected momentarily on how this one sacrifice would go a long way to fund the BVC’s projects for the surrounding rural communities, the conservation of other species, plus the protection of our valuable black rhino population.
Originally an old cattle ranch, the Bubye Valley Conservancy was bought and turned into a wildlife conservancy during the early 90s. It spans an area of roughly 450,000 hectares and has been restocked with game, holding lion, leopard, elephant buffalo and cheetah, as well as an abundance of plains game like kudu, eland, waterbuck, wildebeest, zebra, warthog, giraffe, duiker, steenbok, baboons and many more. The BVC is custodian of the third largest breeding herd of black rhino in the world, with over 200 black rhino and 100 white rhino.
Every animal that is hunted has a value, or trophy fee. The clients pay a daily rate for the duration of the safari, and a trophy fee for each animal that they harvest. After wages and salaries for over 400 people employed there, all profits are ploughed back into the BVC and go towards protecting the rhino against poachers, the upkeep of waterholes, equipment and boundary fences, plus the funding of projects for the surrounding rural communities.
The BVC is funded entirely through hunting safaris, working on a system of sustained yield, offering clients the opportunity to hunt a small percentage of their overall populations (except rhino), for the most part older animals, as this generates the funds to run the conservancy. They also supply the surrounding rural communities with three and a half tonnes of game meat every month and fund schools, clinics and water points. By taking part in a hunt like this you feel a real sense of pride that you have played a sustainable part in their wider game management plan – it really doesn’t get any better than this.