The Land of Footprints by Stewart Edward White
The Cape Buffalo is one of the four dangerous kinds of African big game; of which the other three are the lion, the rhinoceros, and the elephant. These latter are familiar to us in zoological gardens, although the African and larger form of the rhinoceros and elephant are seldom or never seen in captivity. But buffaloes are as yet unrepresented in our living collections. They are huge beasts, tremendous from any point of view, whether considered in height, in mass, or in power. At the shoulder they stand from just under five feet to just under six feet in height; they are short legged, heavy bodied bull necked, thick in every dimension. In colour they are black as to hair, and slate gray as to skin; so that the individual impression depends on the thickness of the coat. They wear their horns parted in the middle, sweeping smoothly away in the curves of two great bosses either side the head. A good trophy will measure in spread from forty inches to four feet. Four men will be required to carry in the head alone. As buffaloes when disturbed or suspicious have a habit of thrusting their noses up and forward, that position will cling to one's memory as the most typical of the species.
A great many hunters rank the buffalo first among the dangerous beasts. This is not my own opinion, but he is certainly dangerous enough. He possesses the size, power, and truculence of the rhinoceros, together with all that animal's keenness of scent and hearing but with a sharpness of vision the rhinoceros has not. While not as clever as either the lion or the elephant, he is tricky enough when angered to circle back for the purpose of attacking his pursuers in the rear or flank, and to arrange rather ingenious ambushes for the same purpose. He is rather more tenacious of life than the rhinoceros, and will carry away an extraordinary quantity of big bullets. Add to these considerations the facts that buffaloes go in herds; and that, barring luck, chances are about even they will have to be followed into the thickest cover, it can readily be seen that their pursuit is exciting.
The problem would be simplified were one able or willing to slip into the thicket or up to the grazing herd and kill the nearest beast that offers. As a matter of fact an ordinary herd will contain only two or three bulls worth shooting; and it is the hunter's delicate task to glide and crawl here and there, with due regard for sight, scent and sound, until he has picked one of these from the scores of undesirables. Many times will he worm his way by inches toward the great black bodies half defined in the screen of thick undergrowth only to find that he has stalked cows or small bulls. Then inch by inch he must back out again, unable to see twenty yards to either side, guiding himself by the probabilities of the faint chance breezes in the thicket. To right and left he hears the quiet continued crop, crop, crop, sound of animals grazing. The sweat runs down his face in streams, and blinds his eyes, but only occasionally and with the utmost caution can he raise his hand-or, better, lower his head-to clear his vision. When at last he has withdrawn from the danger zone, he wipes his face, takes a drink from the canteen, and tries again. Sooner or later his presence comes to the notice of some old cow. Behind the leafy screen where unsuspected she has been standing comes the most unexpected and heart-jumping crash! Instantly the jungle all about roars into life. The great bodies of the alarmed beasts hurl themselves through the thicket, smash! bang! crash! smash! as though a tornado were uprooting the forest. Then abruptly a complete silence! This lasts but ten seconds or so; then off rushes the wild stampede in another direction; only again to come to a listening halt of breathless stillness. So the hunter, unable to see anything, and feeling very small, huddles with his gunbearers in a compact group, listening to the wild surging short rushes, now this way, now that, hoping that the stampede may not run over him. If by chance it does, he has his two shots and the possibility of hugging a tree while the rush divides around him. The latter is the most likely; a single buffalo is hard enough to stop with two shots, let alone a herd. And yet, sometimes, the mere flash and noise will suffice to turn them, provided they are not actually trying to attack, but only rushing indefinitely about. Probably a man can experience few more thrilling moments than he will enjoy standing in one of the small leafy rooms of an African jungle while several hundred tons of buffalo crash back and forth all around him.
In the best of circumstances it is only rarely that having identified his big bull, the hunter can deliver a knockdown blow. The beast is extraordinarily vital, and in addition it is exceedingly difficult to get a fair, open shot. Then from the danger of being trampled down by the blind and senseless stampede of the herd he passes to the more defined peril from an angered and cunning single animal. The majority of fatalities in hunting buffaloes happen while following wounded beasts. A flank charge at close range may catch the most experienced man; and even when clearly seen, it is difficult to stop. The buffalo's wide bosses are a helmet to his brain, and the body shot is always chancy. The beast tosses his victim, or tramples him, or pushes him against a tree to crush him like a fly.
He who would get his trophy, however, is not always-perhaps is not generally-forced into the thicket to get it. When not much disturbed, buffaloes are in the habit of grazing out into the open just before dark; and of returning to their thicket cover only well after sunrise. If the hunter can arrange to meet his herd at such a time, he stands a very good chance of getting a clear shot. The job then requires merely ordinary caution and manoeuvring; and the only danger, outside the ever-present one from the wounded beast, is that the herd may charge over him deliberately. Therefore it is well to keep out of sight.
The difficulty generally is to locate your beasts. They wander all night, and must be blundered upon in the early morning before they have drifted back into the thickets. Sometimes, by sending skilled trackers in several directions, they can be traced to where they have entered cover. A messenger then brings the white man to the place, and every one tries to guess at what spot the buffaloes are likely to emerge for their evening stroll. It is remarkably easy to make a wrong guess, and the remaining daylight is rarely sufficient to repair a mistake. And also, in the case of a herd ranging a wide country with much tall grass and several drinking holes, it is rather difficult, without very good luck, to locate them on any given night or morning. A few herds, a very few, may have fixed habits, and so prove easy hunting.
These difficulties, while in no way formidable, are real enough in their small way; but they are immensely increased when the herds have been often disturbed. Disturbance need not necessarily mean shooting. In countries unvisited by white men often the pastoral natives will so annoy the buffalo by shoutings and other means, whenever they appear near the tame cattle, that the huge beasts will come practically nocturnal. In that case only the rankest luck will avail to get a man a chance in the open. The herds cling to cover until after sundown and just at dusk; and they return again very soon after the first streaks of dawn. If the hunter just happens to be at the exact spot, he may get a twilight shot when the glimmering ivory of his front sight is barely visible. Otherwise he must go into the thicket.
As an illustration of the first condition might be instanced an afternoon on the Tana. The weather was very hot. We had sent three lots of men out in different directions, each under the leadership of one of the gunbearers, to scout, while we took it easy in the shade of our banda, or grass shelter, on the bank of the river. About one o'clock a messenger came into camp reporting that the men under Mavrouki had traced a herd to its lying-down place. We took our heavy guns and started.
The way led through thin scrub up the long slope of a hill that broke on the other side into undulating grass ridges that ended in a range of hills. These were about four or five miles distant, and thinly wooded on sides and lower slopes with what resembled a small live-oak growth. Among these trees, our guide told us, the buffalo had first been sighted.
The sun was very hot, and all the animals were still. We saw impalla in the scrub, and many giraffes and bucks on the plains. After an hour and a half's walk we entered the parklike groves at the foot of the hills, and our guide began to proceed more cautiously. He moved forward a few feet, peered about, retraced his steps. Suddenly his face broke into a broad grin. Following his indication we looked up, and there in a tree almost above us roosted one of our boys sound asleep! We whistled at him. Thereupon he awoke, tried to look very alert, and pointed in the direction we should go. After an interval we picked up another sentinel, and another, and another until, passed on thus from one to the next, we traced the movements of the herd. Finally we came upon Mavrouki and Simba under a bush. From them, in whispers, we learned that the buffalo were karibu sana-very near; that they had fed this far, and were now lying in the long grass just ahead. Leaving the men, we now continued our forward movement on hands and knees, in single file. It was very hot work, for the sun beat square down on us, and the tall grass kept off every breath of air. Every few moments we rested, lying on our faces. Occasionally, when the grass shortened, or the slant of ground tended to expose us, we lay quite flat and hitched forward an inch at a time by the strength of our toes. This was very severe work indeed, and we were drenched in perspiration. In fact, as I had been feeling quite ill all day, it became rather doubtful whether I could stand the pace.
However after a while we managed to drop down into an eroded deep little ravine. Here the air was like that of a furnace, but at least we could walk upright for a few rods. This we did, with the most extraordinary precautions against even the breaking of a twig or the rolling of a pebble. Then we clambered to the top of the bank, wormed our way forward another fifty feet to the shelter of a tiny bush, and stretched out to recuperate. We lay there some time, sheltered from the sun. Then ahead of us suddenly rumbled a deep bellow. We were fairly upon the herd!
Cautiously F., who was nearest the centre of the bush, raised himself alongside the stem to look. He could see where the beasts were lying, not fifty yards away, but he could make out nothing but the fact of great black bodies taking their ease in the grass under the shade of trees. So much he reported to us; then rose again to keep watch.
Thus we waited the rest of the afternoon. The sun dipped at last toward the west, a faint irregular breeze wandered down from the hills, certain birds awoke and uttered their clear calls, an unsuspected kongoni stepped from the shade of a tree over the way and began to crop the grass, the shadows were lengthening through the trees. Then ahead of us an uneasiness ran through the herd. We in the grass could hear the mutterings and grumblings of many great animals. Suddenly F. snapped his fingers, stooped low and darted forward. We scrambled to our feet and followed.
Across a short open space we ran, bent double to the shelter of a big ant hill. Peering over the top of this we found ourselves within sixty yards of a long compact column of the great black beasts, moving forward orderly to the left, the points of the cow's horns, curved up and in, tossing slowly as the animals walked. On the flank of the herd was a big gray bull.
It had been agreed that B. was to have the shot. Therefore he opened fire with his 405 Winchester, a weapon altogether too light for this sort of work. At the shot the herd dashed forward to an open grass meadow a few rods away, wheeled and faced back in a compact mass, their noses thrust up and out in their typical fashion, trying with all their senses to locate the cause of the disturbance.
Taking advantage both of the scattered cover, and the half light of the shadows we slipped forward as rapidly and as unobtrusively as we could to the edge of the grass meadow. Here we came to a stand eighty yards from the buffaloes. They stood compactly like a herd of cattle, staring, tossing their heads, moving slightly, their wild eyes searching for us. I saw several good bulls, but always they moved where it was impossible to shoot without danger of getting the wrong beast. Finally my chance came; I planted a pair of Holland bullets in the shoulder of one of them.
The herd broke away to the right, sweeping past us at close range. My bull ran thirty yards with them, then went down stone dead. When we examined him we found the hole made by B.'s Winchester bullet; so that quite unintentionally and by accident I had fired at the same beast. This was lucky. The trophy, by hunter's law, of course, belonged to B.
Therefore F. and I alone followed on after the herd. It was now coming on dusk. Within a hundred yards we began to see scattered beasts. The formation of the herd had broken. Some had gone on in flight, while others in small scattered groups would stop to stare back, and would then move slowly on for a few paces before stopping again. Among these I made out a bull facing us about a hundred and twenty-five yards away, and managed to stagger him, but could not bring him down.
Now occurred an incident which I should hesitate to relate were it not that both F. and myself saw it. We have since talked it over, compared our recollections, and found them to coincide in every particular.
As we moved cautiously in pursuit of the slowly retreating herd three cows broke back and came running down past us. We ducked aside and hid, of course, but noticed that of the three two were very young, while one was so old that she had become fairly emaciated, a very unusual thing with buffaloes. We then followed the herd for twenty minutes, or until twilight, when we turned back. About halfway down the slope we again met the three cows, returning. They passed us within twenty yards, but paid us no attention whatever. The old cow was coming along very reluctantly, hanging back at every step, and every once in a while swinging her head viciously at one or the other of her two companions. These escorted her on either side, and a little to the rear. They were plainly urging her forward, and did not hesitate to dig her in the ribs with their horns whenever she turned especially obstinate. In fact they acted exactly like a pair of cowboys herding a recalcitrant animal back to its band and I have no doubt at all that when they first by us the old lady was making a break for liberty in the wrong direction, and that the two younger cows were trying to round her back! Whether they were her daughters or not is problematical; but it certainly seemed that they were taking care of her and trying to prevent her running back where it was dangerous to go. I never heard of a similar case. though Herbert Ward* mentions, without particulars that elephants and buffaloes will assist each other when wounded.
*A Voice from the Congo.
After passing these we returned to where B. and the men, who had now come up, had prepared the dead bull for transportation. We started at once, travelling by the stars, shouting and singing to discourage the lions, but did not reach camp until well into the night.