Probably most of our readers don’t have personal experience with old-fashioned, Pleistocene-style big game hunting. The only place in which it is still possible - not for much longer, at that – is Africa, where the big game had a chance to adapt as mankind gradually became formidable hunters and thus managed to survive until today. Without that experience, it’s hard to realize how remarkable Neanderthals were, how difficult hunting bison and elk with thrusting spears must have been. It’s not easy to appreciate the risks stone-age hunters had to take when they went after mammoths, rhinos, or Cape buffalo: it’s not exactly safe today, even with modern weapons. One of us, however (Henry Harpending) does have that experience, and the following note gives a flavor of what it’s like – particularly when you don’t have the faintest idea what you’re doing.
Encounter with a Buffalo
When I (HCH) was a graduate student in the 1960’s I spent a year and a half in the northern Kalahari desert doing fieldwork with !Kung Bushmen, foragers who lived by foraging wild foodstuffs and hunting game animals. With several other graduate students we had a base camp near the border with Southwest Africa (now Namibia) about 100 miles south of the Caprivi Strip on the northern border of Botswana. The nearest source of supplies was a two-day trip from their camp by four wheel drive truck.
Several weeks after the rainy season ended there were reports in the neighborhood of a cape buffalo that was harassing people and animals. Often older males lose rank and leave herd to wander by themselves, angry and uncomfortable. They are a threat to people and stock, especially horses.
We were out of meat in our camp, and so with the confidence and foolishness of youth we decided to hunt down the buffalo. We had visions of steaks and chops as well as many pounds of dried meat for travel rations and dog food. At that time permits for Buffalo were only a few dollars from the Botswana game department, and we had several. Although there were stories of Buffalo being aggressive and dangerous to hunt, to my eye they were simply large cattle. Bushmen never hunted them with their poison arrow and spear technology, but they too were naïve and had great faith in our high-powered rifle.
One morning we set off to where the animal had last been reported. The party was a colleague, several young Bushman males, and myself. We soon picked up its tracks and for several hours followed its wanderings through the low thorny scrub. To me the tracks looked exactly like those of a cow but the Bushmen never hesitated. When it was apparent at one point that there were no tracks at all in view I asked, and the Bushmen told me that there was no point in following the tracks since they knew exactly where it was going. We often saw this hunting with Bushmen–they used actual tracks as a guide but knew the habits of animals so well that they often proceeded on their own to pick up actual tracks later on.
This went on for hours until, suddenly, a young man grabbed my shoulder and said “there it is.” I looked long and hard until I saw it, well camouflaged behind several yards of thick brush, sideways, staring hard at us with its bright pig eyes. It was about forty yards away.
As I brought the rifle up I was dismayed to realize that it still had a powerful telescopic sight. I should have removed it and use open iron sights in thick bush but I had forgotten. With the magnification of the scope I saw a black mass surrounded by brush. It took a moment to locate the front legs, then the chest. Oriented, I aimed and fired. “Bang-whump”, the bang from the rifle and the whump as the bullet struck the buffalo. He jerked a little, then simply stood there staring at me. “Bang-whump, bang-whump” as I fired two more rounds.
Now he tossed his head and snorted, then started running toward us. Buffalo charge with their nose high, only lowering their head to use their horns on contact. I fired one more round at the charging animal, head on, simply pointing at him because he was so close, then turned and ran. We discovered later that the bullet had struck his shoulder, ricocheted off his scapula, and exited through the skin on his side. It certainly didn’t slow him down at all: I might as well have been shooting at a railroad locomotive.
There were three of us running away now from the charging animal: my colleague, our camp dog, and myself. Perhaps fortunately for us the buffalo went after the dog, which handily outran it. After its charge the buffalo wandered off several dozen yards and collapsed in a thicket.
My colleague and I got together after the charge, brushed each other off, then noticed that none of the Bushmen with us was near. We looked around and called but got no response. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a fellow about fifteen feet up a tree frantically signaling me to be quiet, then pointing at the (apparently) dead buffalo. I laughed and told him to come down, the animal was dead, it was getting dark and we needed to get started butchering it. He shook his head, silent, and frantically waved us back in the direction opposite the carcass. All the Bushmen were up in trees, all waving at us to get away, no one making any noise.
My rifle was empty, slung over my shoulder, as I honed a belt knife for the job ahead. I urged everyone to get out of the trees and get to work but everyone refused. I said “all right, we will just make sure”, then loaded my rifle and sat in a stable shooting position. The buffalo’s carcass was about forty yards away with its back to us. I took careful aim at the center of the neck, exhaled, and fired. “Bang-thump”.
Immediately the “dead” buffalo got to its feet, glared at us, and walked away. I told my Bushman friends that I was sorry that I had mocked them and that I was grateful they had not let me start to skin a live buffalo. They looked at me in disgust and told me that they understood that Europeans were very bright about certain things but that they could see that we could also be capable of heroic stupidity.
Evening was close by this time, and we had a mile or so walk to our truck, so we left off the chase and returned to our camp for the night. Fortunately the area where our encounter had occurred was far away from any settlement or any route between settlements so we were not concerned about the animal assaulting any humans that night.
We didn’t sleep very well that night. We were up late around the fire as all the participants took turns telling the story of the day. Of course everyone told the same story, since there was only one, but somehow we were all attentive to each new version.
The next morning we were up very early. Some trace of sanity came to us as we decided to drive down to the local headman’s hamlet and borrow his dog, renowned for his hunting and tracking abilities. We also wanted to borrow another rifle from him, a Martini-Henry rolling block antique left over from the Boer war. When we arrived he came out and gave us a warm welcome and a windy speech congratulating us for doing something for the community, ridding it of the dangerous buffalo.
Several months before I was sitting in camp reading a science fiction novel on a Sunday afternoon when a large group of armed men on horseback came storming into our camp in a scene straight out of a 1950’s western movie. They had one saddled horse with no rider which, it turned out, was to be mine. There was a lion or lions in the area that had been killing cattle, it was time to go out and hunt them down, and they were sure I would want to participate.
These were Herero, the local Bantu-speaking tribe. They are pastoralists living off herds of cattle, sheep, and goats. Lions are a major threat to their herds, and these group hunts are in part simply farmers protecting their stock but they are also macho male rituals demonstrating bravery. I pointed out that I had never been on a horse in my life and that I was as scared of horses as I was of lions. Galloping around in a mass of heavily armed men waving a high powered rifle in one hand was not my idea of how to learn to ride a horse, I said. I also cheerfully admitted to my cowardice.
I was hardly reassured when my Herero interpreter explained that it was great fun, not really very dangerous, and that it was the duty of all men. As he said this he gestured with a hand missing three fingers that had been bitten off by a lion in the course of one of the hunts years before. They were all polite and cheerful and did their best to hide their disgust with me.
The headman made reference to this incident in his speech that morning. He said he was delighted to see that I was finally overcoming my unmanly cowardice. He would be happy for us to use his dog, his rifle, and he also sent one of his sons to help out. We then drove to the place where the charge that ended the hunt the day before had happened, looked around for the tracks of the departed buffalo, and set off to hunt it down.
We followed it for hours through nasty low thorn brush. We saw where it had circled onto high ground and watched our approach. Everyone was on high alert, men at the rear of our party constantly looking backward, expecting an ambush at any time. My colleague and I had started the day thinking that we each were some combination of John Wayne and Ernest Hemingway but after hours of high tension slogging through Kalahari sand we were hot, thirsty, tired, and feeling quite burned out.
Suddenly, in early afternoon, we heard the dogs baying, then loud snorting and crashing noises about fifty yards in front of us. The dogs had come upon the wounded buffalo. My colleague and I turned, looked at each other, and without a word being spoken simultaneously dropped our guns on the ground and frantically scrambled up the nearest tree. We were no more than five or six feet off the ground, but all the trees here were small and covered with thorns as our cut up hands and legs showed. Wayne and Hemingway indeed!
Soon several Bushmen came strolling up to our tree chatting casually even while the awful chorus of snarls, barks, and snorts was going on nearby. They saw us, stopped, looked at us, looked at our guns in the dirt, and burst out laughing. One said “would you please come down, clean up your guns, and shoot the buffalo?”
Our shame at this point overcame our abject terror. We climbed down, cleaned our guns, and moved up to try to get a (safe) shot at the buffalo. It was in thick cover and we were very reluctant to plunge in after it. Finally my colleague realized that there was a large Cape Fig tree that he could climb. He could shoot from a high vantage point and we would not need to go into the thick stuff. He climbed the tree, found a comfortable position on a limb, took careful aim, and shot.
Unfortunately there was a sapling in the path of the bullet. The round ricocheted off the sapling and eviscerated the headman’s dog. Meanwhile my colleague was clinging to his branch with the rifle swinging by it sling and hitting him in the leg. He had forgotten about the effect of the recoil on him and his springy branch. He then got back into position, shot several times, and the buffalo dropped.
This time our approach to the body was not as cavalier as it had been the day before. We spend many minutes hitting it with thrown sticks and rocks to assure ourselves that it really was dead.
Several of us walked back to fetch the truck while the rest of us worked for hours skinning and dismembering the animal. It took four of us to life a hindquarter into our truck. We even took the head back to be given to old people who would cook it and patiently get as much meat off it as could be gotten.
Finally we had some meat in camp. Unfortunately it turned out to be completely inedible. There was hardly a trace of fat anywhere in the animal, and like everyone in the Kalahari we craved and dreamed about fat. We boiled the tongue all the next afternoon, hours and hours, and at the end we could hardly cut it with a knife.
Battle At Kruger
This famous video shows just how tough cape buffalo can be.