|A Sad But Fitting Farewell to Botswana Elephant Hunting
By Rick Washburn, Subscriber
I was very excited when my friend and PH Phillip du Plessis, owner of Intrepid Safaris, called and asked if I would like to hunt elephant in Botswana this June on Johan Calitz's Concession. I had told Phillip while lion hunting together last year (we got a great, old full-mane lion) that I was up for an elephant hunt, and I particularly wanted to hunt Botswana Elephant. The fact that Botswana was closing elephant hunting after 2013 and this was on legendary Johan Calitz's concession made it a no-brainer. I realized this was a last window of opportunity and booked a twelve-day hunt.
The flight into Johannesburg was direct from New York JFK. Phillip and PH Harry Fourie were waiting in the Johannesburg airport to join me for the next flight on to Maun, Botswana. We would be met in Maun by Johan Calitz and his PH Louis Pansegrouw. Louis would then drive Harry and me the six hours to Masame, Calitz's safari camp in concession NG42. Phillip was to hunt with another client in the adjoining concession NG41.
Masame is a comfortable Tanzania-style tent camp with all the amenities. It is situated on a large picturesque waterhole, which was visited almost daily by buffalo, elephant, giraffe, roan, wild dogs and other animals of the area. The camp is composed of a total of four hunter tents equipped with either a queen or two single beds, instant hot and cold water and of course showers, lavatory, toilet, etc. In addition, there is a permanent thatched roof main dining hall with bar and conversation-fire-pit and another separate community toilet. The entire camp was supplied with 24-hour electricity and running water, all powered by a diesel generator and solar/propane water heaters for each tent. Finally, there are the staff's quarters, skinning shed, maintenance shed and water towers filled by well pumps for the camp water supply. All in all, everything is first class and very comfortable.
We arrived at Masame late that afternoon, and there was a young bull elephant drinking at the last waterhole before camp. My first sighting of an elephant bull in Botswana and on the day before the hunt even began! I could feel the good luck. Our hunting party consisted of PHs Louis and Harry; Louis' trackers Jonni and his brother Edwin and government scout Mobe. Our hunting strategy consisted of visiting one or two of the five or six large waterholes on this huge concession and glassing for bull elephants each day. We would also drive the trails looking for elephant and tracks. We would stalk any large bulls sighted or track any fresh tracks that looked promising.
The objective was 50 pounds per side or better ivory. The habitat was fairly open mopane and very dry, as the area was experiencing a drought. We saw game the first day and every day. Mostly elephant. One hundred and thirty three bull elephants were counted during the hunt and that didn't include cows and calves. Only two bulls were observed that would go over 50 pounds. During twelve days of hunting from 6am to 6pm. Besides abundant elephant, roan and giraffe were present on a regular basis. This area had the largest concentrations of roan I have seen in Africa. Also observed, were steenbok, gemsbok, painted wild dogs, hyena, Cape buffalo, leopard, lion and eland.
Early the first morning of the hunt, we found a young grown male lion calmly sauntering along the edge of the first waterhole, named Butterfly after a famous tracker from the area. He was large, maneless and very thin. The lion calmly padded around the waterhole until we got out of the cruiser, and then bounded indignantly into the mopane bush. Later in the afternoon, the waterhole began to attract elephant and giraffe coming to drink. None of the bulls, however, had tusk over 25 pounds, and most were smaller.
On the second day of the hunt, we stalked a promising bull Jonni had tracked from the road. Once we were close enough for a shot we could see that one tusk was broken and the other was probably in the low 40s. It was decided not to take him. We put stalks on and tracked several more bulls for the next three days without any sporting more than 35 pounds of tusk. The average was probably closer to 20 to 25 pounds.
On the sixth day of the hunt, we tracked another good bull for several hours in the late afternoon. He made it to a waterhole before we caught up with him. His tusks had good length but were a little thin. He looked more like a Tanzanian elephant than a Botswana elephant. Still, they were judged the best tusk we had seen. Louis thought they would be in the vicinity of 50 pounds.
I wanted to take this bull, but it is a Calitz policy not to shoot animals at the waterholes. We waited for the bull to leave the waterhole. When he finished drinking, it was almost too dark to shoot. We attempted to get ahead of him and sent Jonni looping around to flush him in our direction, but he winded the tracker too early and spooked. We had to watch him rapidly disappear into the darkness.
At this point my mood matched the darkness of the evening. We had tracked at least seven or eight promising bulls but either lost the track or judged their tusk too small. This was the first one I had wanted to take. He was gone, and the hunt was half over. Several days later, the eighth day of the hunt, we tracked another promising bull the better part of the morning. He was chasing cows and appeared in to be in must. The bull kept circling back over his own tracks and the cow tracks in his pursuit of mating. After about three hours of slow tracking, we lost him. It was just too confusing. Louis was confident that Jonni would eventually sort it out but he didn't want to spend the time on what was fast becoming a long shot.
Louis and I decided to spend the rest of the day glassing waterhole 19, where we had almost shot the thin tusked bull a couple of days ago. Late that afternoon, everyone was up in a lone tree glassing waterhole 19. We could see elephant, Cape buffalo and a leopard all drinking together. Three of the big five drinking at a waterhole at the same time! Harry pronounced this a good omen.
It was getting toward sunset when suddenly, five bulls approached from the far side of the waterhole. One bull was considerably larger than the rest. Louis climbed down out of the tree and with a huge grin said, "We are going elephant hunting." This elephant bull was unanimously pronounced a keeper. He was bull number one hundred and twenty that we had judged, and both Louis and Harry thought he was more than acceptable. The excitement was palpable!
Our crew left the lookout tree, and we proceeded to position ourselves where Louis thought the elephants would back-track from the waterhole in the direction from which they had come. The bulls departed the waterhole in the direction anticipated but then turned 90 degrees to our right. We had to rush further to the right to head them off. They stopped, milled around, then turned another 90 degrees right and started off again.
The small group was showing signs of apprehension. Later, we found the leopard's tracks crossing the bull's tracks and decided that he must have alarmed them when he left the waterhole. We were barely ahead of the group when they anxiously stopped again seemingly deciding which direction to go next. The bulls appeared to sense our presence but they didn't have our scent or location yet.
They were standing about fifty yards away, tails straight and ears out, signs of nervousness. Jonni gave me the sticks and pointed out the lead elephant on the left. "Shoot," he urged me. Harry whispered. "That's not him" and pointed out the largest elephant in the rear on the right. "That's him." Louis nodded yes, concurring. The bull, at high alert, moved off at a fast pace and gave me a side shot. I fired the 458 at his left shoulder crease just as he started to move. The shot felt good. I heard the thump of the bullet, saw dust-up on the shoulder, and the elephant sort of sounded a cross between a grunt and trumpet.
He and the other bulls broke into a full run disappearing momentarily behind some mopane and acacia bushes. A little less than fifty yards, he collapsed midstride corkscrewing head first into the ground, half burying his left tusk. Louis and I circled around the downed bull. I exchanged rifles and as instructed gave him an insurance shot with my .470 in the chest between the forelegs. My first elephant was down! He was magnificent! We respectfully gazed at this great beast for a long moment taking in his huge size, then broke into a celebration with much jubilation, hand shaking and hugging.
Unfortunately, it had grown dark and we had to cease our festivities and leave him till the following day. The next morning when we returned, the hyena's had gotten to the elephant but had only been able to get access through his tough skin by widening the only two holes in this mighty beast; the shot in his chest and his anus. Not much damage was done to the hide and only the liver and some intestines were eaten. We had probably chased them off on our arrival.
The elephant disassembly crew as I dubbed them (about eight guys in all) began the process of skinning, quartering and collecting trophies from the elephant. When the skin was pulled back and we were able to check the vitals, we found my first shot had entered the rear shoulder and was perfectly centered in the heart. The coup de grace shot was also centered in the heart, bottom to top, forming a cross with the first shot. Harry had fired one going away shot, but it hit high in the back under the spine and over the abdomen doing no fatal damage. The tusk were removed, the tail and left ear cut off and the quartered elephant was loaded on a flatbed and transported elsewhere to be further processed.
After removal of the very large nerve, the tusk weighed 55 and 57 lbs. respectively. I kept the tusk, tail, left ear for a map of Africa, legs/feet for bar stools and skin panels for boots or whatever. They were salted and prepared to be sent to the taxidermist. That night, I had them grill an elephant steak for me to eat. The meat was tenderized with a meat mallet and served rare with a minimum of seasoning so I could experience the actual taste. I found it quite good. It would have been tough without the tenderizing. The taste was similar to beef but the meat was grainier.
The surprise bonus was that in the piece of meat my steak was cut from, the cook found my 458 Hornady DXS. What are those odds? I will keep that bullet realizing that I would never have gotten it had it not been for my request to eat my elephant.
We spent the last two days taking pictures of the fauna, flora and camp. The trip home to New York City was smooth, picturesque and long. This was an absolutely perfect safari and a sad but fitting farewell to elephant hunting in Botswana for me. I realized how fortunate I was to have experienced this final chapter. There is hope the Botswana Government will reconsider its decision in the future. It would be a shame to loose so many elephant to poaching, not to mention the loss of jobs for the locals of the area from the closing of the hunting industry which supports so many people.