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Out of Africa: A Hunter’s Journal

EDITOR’S NOTE: In this fifth installment detailing an African safari, Minoter Mark Hamilton discusses the plight of the rhinoceros and details a hunt for dangerous crocodile. The final report from the field will be printed on these pages next week when Hamilton concludes his safari by pursuing a male lion in South Africa.

Last week’s installment featured our leopard and Cape buffalo hunt in Zimbabwe’s Sengwa Reserve hunting area. We had a most frustrating 15-day effort for leopard without success. We were, however, successful on a fine 41-inch buffalo with very heavy bosses. Bosses are the hard, helmet-like mass of horns which sometimes join together.

Having completed this portion of the hunt, we were off to another area about five hours away called the Midlands Rhino Conservancy, where we would hunt sable and crocodile. The Rhino Conservancy consists of 286,000 acres which hold a variety of game affording hunting – but its best purpose is dedicated to saving the endangered black rhinoceros.

There are two distinct species of rhino in Africa – the white rhino, which isn’t really white in color but derives its name from its extra wide mouth which is pronounced “white,” and a similar species, the black rhino. Both species are in great danger of total extinction – in the wild and eventually, perhaps, even in captivity. Wildlife experts agree that unless something can be done to eliminate the indiscriminate illegal slaughter of these animals for their horns, they are indeed doomed.

Certain cultures, primarily the Chinese, believe that when the rhino’s horns or other body parts are ground into a powder and consumed by humans, they have special powers which cure disease and increase sexual performance. As recently as 1960, there were 1 million black rhinos in Africa. Today the number is estimated at 3,500. There are about 38,000 white rhino, mainly in South Africa, but their numbers are dwindling fast. The battle to save both of these species is being lost.

Conservation-minded people are trying desperately to save the rhinos, but the large and impressive animals are being lost at a rate of about 2.3 animals per day. Their reproduction is not prolific enough to maintain current populations. The horn of a single rhinoceros can bring as much as $60,000 and the Chinese will take all they can get. The poaching of rhinos is maddening. Even in the national parks such as Kruger Park, the rhinos are being killed for their horns and corrupt government officials at the highest level are on the take.

The 286,000-acre Black Rhino Conservancy where we are hunting holds a total of five rhinos. The conservancy knows where each rhino is located and has three armed soldiers

guarding them 24 hours per day. Rhino poachers are shot on sight.

The conservancy, where we were allowed to hunt for non-endangered species, is independently funded by donations from concerned people, hunters included. Indeed, all trophy fees we pay for animals we are hunting – sable and crocodile – goes to the conservancy to fund efforts to save these animals. Only time will decide the final outcome of this fight, but if this indiscriminate slaughter continues, mankind will have indeed lost one of the most unique creatures to exalt the African wilds.

The Black Rhino Conservancy has a very high population of sable and crocodile. Very early in our hunt, we took an excellent sable, and then soon thereafter we harvested a 12 1/2-foot croc. The sable are a truly stunning animal, the most coveted of all the spiral horned animals of Africa.

Of all the African creatures, the crocodile is perhaps the most interesting. Their heart beats at one beat per minute. They can remain submerged for two hours at a time. They can go for a month or more without eating. They are survivors, prehistoric in nature, having evolved since earth’s earliest beginnings, outliving the dinosaurs. On this particular hunt, we were trying to harvest a very large and old creature that our professional hunter, Ian Rutledge, had been trying to get for several years. Ian knew the croc well. It was a legend, akin to our mysterious huge whitetail deer that local hunters all know of, but seldom, if ever, see. The croc was estimated at 14 to 15 feet long and 80 years of age.

This croc lived on a lake within the Rhino Conservancy where landowners use certain portions of the land for grazing cattle. We talked to a landowner’s wife who told us that the croc had killed and consumed three of their Brahma cattle in one weekend. She was anxious for us to get this croc, but he had been hunted for years to no avail. Ian knew that the croc had a favorite resting place, a tiny island just big enough to hold him, and so the hunt began by going quietly by canoe through the croc-infested shallow water to another tiny island about 160 yards from where the big croc liked to sun himself.

Ian and his hunter sat on this tiny piece of land waiting for the croc to appear. He was seen only once in three days. One afternoon, he was spotted lying on the island with his back toward us but not offering a killing shot. Crocodiles have to be hit in the very small brain area for an instant killing shot. If the shot is not precise, they will escape back into the water where retrieving them is not recommended!

Nearly out of hunting days, Ian suggested that they try for another croc that was not so clever. They baited this croc with some of the meat from the sable taken earlier and concealed themselves in a natural blind some 85 yards from the bait. In the afternoon heat, the croc emerged from the water and laid up on the bank for the sun’s warmth. He was dispatched with one well-placed shot from the .375 HH Magnum, all 12 1/2 feet of him!

This hunt was truly a remarkable learning experience. We were amazed at the acute awareness and intelligence of these creatures. Ian, who had been hunting crocs all his adult life, told us things that we would have never imagined. He kept telling us about how clever these old crocs were, and how difficult they were to hunt. When I asked him which of their senses were the most acute sight, smell or hearing, he replied, “All the above.”

Ian reminded us of the difficult time we had while hunting leopard because of their keen senses, and I asked him to compare the leopard and the croc. He said, “take all the cunning of your leopard and multiply times 10, that’s your croc. They are survivors. They are products of prehistoric times. They have superior intelligence over all other creatures. The really big crocs live to be 80-100 years old. I truly believe them to be the most intelligent of all the world’s creatures.”

No one knows just how many people are taken annually by crocs in Africa. Estimates vary greatly, but a recent study indicated that there were approximately 230 documented cases of human deaths by crocodiles in 2010 in Zimbabwe alone. Experts agree that there are many more croc deaths that are never reported. Some estimates are as many as 20,000 deaths per year throughout all of Africa.

In actual numbers of deaths, it is the hippopotamus that kills more people than crocs because hippos will wander out of the rivers at night among the bush people. Hippos are extremely protective of their immediate territory and stomp to death whoever and whatever they encounter. The prehistoric monster crocs, however, are indeed the apex predator. They are the very personification of evil.

In April of this year, an 18 1/2-foot croc was shot by a hunter on the Zambezi River a short distance from where we were hunting. It had the lower part of a human leg inside. It was estimated at 2,000 pounds and 100 years old. Craig Boddington, noted Africa hunting expert, maintains that any croc over 14 feet is a man-eater.

Please join me again next week for the final episode of our sojourn to the Dark Continent. You will surely enjoy the exciting account of our quest for “shumba,” the African lion.