Death In A Dark Continent
1 THE BIG FIVESINCE THE 1960s, when I first became a professional hunter in what finally tallied up to be three African nations, I have not been on a single safari on which, when the campfire embers turned the color of the reflected blood red of crocodiles' eyes, the conversation did not drift to what may be hunting's oldest question: What is the most dangerous game?Funny you'd ask ... .Sorting out the relative deadliness of the African plug-uglies who will happily include you on their dance cards if you step on their toes is rather like determining the comparative merits of blond, brunette, and redheaded ladies. All are potentially deadly, but some a bit more than others, depending upon local conditions.It would seem to me appropriate, before getting in waist deep, to recognize that really dangerous game is by no means limited to Africa or Las Vegas. Asia still has the ubiquitous leopards, by all reports in pretty fair numbers. Not so the tiger, yet Sahib Stripes stilleats a couple of hundred potential U.N. delegates every year despite his endangered status. There's also that great wild bison, the gaur, as well as a very few pockets of seledang, banteng, and other crossword puzzle candidates in a rapidly dwindling wilderness that used to be the land of the pukka sahib.As a tropical bird, nothing gives me a more smug feeling than to tell you that the closest I ever knowingly came to a wild polar bear was in 1964 in Goose Bay, Labrador. at minus fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit. As far as I recall, except for the bear's leaving some very large pawprints in a hell of a lot of snow, we mutually agreed to call it off. Further, I attempted to donate my lifetime potential of grizzlies and jaguars to the Smithsonian some years ago about the same time that Harvard turned down my body. Apparently there are a lot of bright people at both institutions.Alas, Africa has not treated me with such consideration. 1 know scads more than I would have liked about lions, leopards, and rhinos, and if a vote were taken among elephants or buffalo I would probably be listed by acclamation as "the one who got away." Actually, I'm a very odd sort to have become a paid bwana, having a considerably greater regard for my anatomic nether regions than for even substantial lucre, itself rare enough in the safari business. Anyhow, by today's standards I have had a reasonable amount of experience with Africa's dangerous game under modern conditions, the relative time frame of my own shenanigans and those of earlier hunters being highly germane to determining the Big Five of dangerous game and which among them is the most accomplished felon, even if provoked.Since I first started hunting and shooting, back at the age of eight, any money I had left over from buyingmy weekly stipend of .22 short cartridges went into books on hunting, Africa, and every now and then a few slightly racier subjects. That was a bit less than a century ago, or so it seems. But at least I was able to accumulate a pretty decent library of the works of guys who had really done the stuff when it was still there to do. Cumming and Harris track along my bookshelves, overlapping spoors with Baker, Bell, Rainsford, Tjader, Blixen, Foran, Hunter, Stigand, Ionides, Lyell, Roosevelt, and a regiment of equal luminaries to whom life's greatest reward was the privilege of testing their nerve, strength, skill, and honor against the world's most dangerous game. Many paid the bill with their lives in half-forgotten places like the Lado Enclave and the Tana Valley, the Luangwa and the Omo, the Ruwenzoris and the Cashans. Some hunted unabashedly for economic reasons, mainly that most magnificent company of extraordinary individualists since the American mountain men or the few wandering samurai sword masters, the professional ivory hunters. But more of this breed later. Others were private souls who devoted their lives to hunting almost as much for the sheer experience the bush afforded than for any other factor. Frederick C. Selous, the great naturalist and hunter killed by a German bullet in 1917 in today's Tanzania, typified this breed. Still others were blessed with private means, especially the early and slightly eccentric Roualeyn Gordon Cumming, the Scottish laird who accomplished a one-man invasion of South Africa in little more than a kilt, wearing away an inch thickness of the hardwood stock of his rifle by merely passing through hundreds of miles of heavy thorn. Of course there were also the students, the professional naturalists, and the scientists, men like C. J. P. "Iodine" Ionides, Africa'ssnake man; wardens like Pitman, Ritchie, Stevenson-Hamilton, and Kinloch; and America's Father of Taxidermy, Carl Akeley, who, during his African experiences, was once so badly savaged by an elephant that he was given up for dead and on another occasion even had to kill a wounded leopard with his bare hands (which, nice guy or not, served him right).It seems to me, after literally decades of researching the great Africana that has been passed down to us piled upon darn near fifteen years of my own professional hunting experience, that there is no simple answer regarding which is the most dangerous African game animal. It did and still does depend upon four factors: When you're speaking of; what terrain or field conditions pertain; whether the animal was wounded or provoked; and finally and most importantly, which of the Big Five eventually caught up with your personal baby-pink butt.I suppose that this is as good a spot as any to attempt a general overview of what some of the Grand Masters of the sparsely wooded scrub grassland miombo have opined about the Big Five. Happily, most had at least one or another recorded opinion of the baddest of the bad, some even including the whole shebang in personal order of preference. Considering his rank, fresh from the White House as president of the United States, it seems not unreasonable to crank things up with one of the most obliging on the subject, Theodore Roosevelt.Although many of his readers criticized Teddy's bully style, which was merely the reflection of a positive personality, there's little room for second guessing his opinions in African Game Trails. Roosevelt records with complete honesty the views of only experienced hunters and settlers, reasonably and accuratelyconsidering himself too green to voice a valid opinion as he might have had the question concerned the animals of the American West.Roosevelt was one of the greatest admirers of Frederick Selous, whom he quotes as having killed something between three hundred and four hundred widely assorted lions, rhino, buff, and elephant by the time of his writing. Due to the relative populations of species this tally was of course broken down to "scores" of lion and rhino and "hundreds" of jumbo and buff. Despite this varied exposure, Roosevelt quotes Selous as figuring the lion to be the most dangerous, followed about evenly by the buff and the elephant--Selous had had extremely nasty tiffs with both--and trailed by the rhino. That the leopard is not even mentioned is not unusual in writings of this period, chance encounters with the slickest of the big cats being largely accidental and some of even the best African hunters largely unfamiliar with the leopard as a game species.That the experience and hence the personal opinions of the hunters of Roosevelt's time range widely is evident in just a page or two of African Game Trails. Jackson, the lieutenant governor of British East Africa, is reported, based upon having killed a relatively few (eighty to ninety) of the same fearsome foursome as Selous, to have placed the buffalo "unquestionably" first, the elephant just as surely second, and the lion and rhino in the rear. Well, at least two people so far agree on the rhino ... .But William Henry Drummond, author of The Large Game of Africa and a professional hunter also mentioned by Roosevelt, made it Steuben crystal clear that the rhino was his Numero Uno choice for converting a hunter into a full-time rug hooker, with the lion runner-up, and the buff and the elephant trailing. SirSamuel Baker, whose opinions should be included, ranked the Big Four in order of elephant, rhino, buff, and lion. Roosevelt quotes Abel Chapman, the well-known Kenya hunter of the early 1900s, as ranking "both the elephant and the rhino as more dangerous than the lion." Teddy also remarks that " ... many of the hunters I met in East Africa seemed inclined to rank the buffalo as more dangerous than any other animal."Before leaving Teddy Roosevelt's comments, permit me to pass on a small allied observation of his on the relative deadliness of game species. Writing in 1909-10, Roosevelt noted that more than fifty white men had been killed or mauled by the four animals discussed during a three- to four-year period in what is now Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. In fact, in Nairobi he was shown the graves of seven lion-killed whites in just one churchyard cemetery. Considering that in this country there were proportionately hardly any whites compared with the indigenous blacks and Arab half-castes, this may be some indication of what is really meant by "dangerous" game. By Teddy's best guess, the lion was by far the greatest man-killer, but this may well be because of his tendency toward man-eating, which of course is limited to predators and therefore excludes buffalo, rhino, or jumbo.The exclusion of the leopard from the ranks of dangerous game is by subsequent gory example ridiculous. In a moment, we'll get into the distinctive character of Chui in relation to the literal heavies with whom he deserves inclusion on the basis of meritorious mayhem. Since at the time I am punching out this book the martial arts and especially the Japanese jutsu forms are becoming better known in the Western world, it would be appropriate to nominate the leopardas the ninja, the professional master of stealth, of the deadly African animals. It might well be that it would take three male leopards to tip the scales on a lion with a cholesterol problem, but he's pure death in the twilight, shredding you with the glee and efficiency of a coroner working--pardon the expression--on a deadline.The point I'm getting at is that henceforth, at least in terms of this book, the Big Four has been replaced by the Big Five. This is no hog-fattening contest, and if the 25-pound honey badger killed people on a business hours basis and were a reasonable game animal, I wouldn't blink at his inclusion in the ranks, letting him make the Big Six no matter what his waistline. This is a book about hunting dangerous game under fair chase conditions; the "Big" and other modifiers are secondary. If you're inclined to lily gilding (mine always wilt) there are handy points of comparison that will reinforce my argument. Crocodiles kill more people in Africa than either the lion or the leopard and a big croc will make four of the biggest lions, but he is not a member of the Big Five. The hippo kills considerably more people each year than either the rhino, elephant, or buffalo, yet deserves inclusion into the quintet no more than do the cobra, mamba, tsetse fly, or snail fluke. Sure, they all kill people--in the case of the hippo with depressing consistency--but they're just not "sporting" animals. I suppose that the whole point of this extended observation is to further confirm that there are rules to the game.Perhaps we ought to give a moment's consideration to what makes something dangerous in the first place. Is the most dangerous animal the one most likely to kill a hunter even though unprovoked? Or, is it the critter most difficult to follow up wounded in heavycover where the price of the sportsman's responsibility may be a rather messy job of subdivision? For example, a leopard, wounded and loitering with less than benevolent intentions in a stand of grass and thorn worse than my backyard is statistically about four times more likely to maul one or more members of the pursuing party than would a lion under identical conditions. Why? He's much smaller, faster, pound-for-pound more effective with claws and teeth (leopards use all four sets of claws, lions usually only the front), harder to hit, charges from a closer distance, and never betrays his intentions with the slightest snarl. Well, almost never.On the other hand, although a lion will usually charge from a greater range, he is generally more visible and therefore a larger and easier target to hit and, further, displays the courtesy of announcing his intentions with a set of growls guaranteed to blow your jockstrap off. If you stick a big bullet into his bridgework, you'll usually get his attention and turn him; not so a leopard. But if a lion beats the lesser odds of reaching the hunters, he's four times more likely to actually kill at least one person rather than merely reducing the whole lot to very rare stew meat simply because his bite is so big and the damage so terrible. Hey guys, lions kill stuff like Cape buffalo with one well-placed chomp of that business end. You get grabbed through the chest with a set of those dentures and your widow can start litigation for a refund from your safari company. Incidentally, she won't get one: Reasonable risk is implied in lion hunting.So, which is the more dangerous, the lion or the leopard? For my money, I'd rank them equal based simply on my experience as a professional. Neither one has caught up with me yet, but I've sure plugged alot of holes in pals who've shown me how it should not be done.Now, shifting the court's attention to the heavyweight division, I think there's a little more room for debate on the remaining terrible triumvirate--buff, rhino, and elephant--than on the cats. This might be a good time to breach the idea of the "provocation" of dangerous game. Most rhino I've bumped into--which have been far fewer than either buff or elephant--have displayed what I would only describe as a sort of implied truculence. I personally have little doubt that most rhino charges are the result of curiosity gotten out of hand through lousy eyesight and an I.Q. eight points lower than that of a standard-issue preservationist. Of course, this is sparse comfort to the hunter about to receive some 20-odd inches of horn suppository from a couple of tons of interglacial misunderstanding.An animal does not have to have been wounded or chivied around by a hunter to be provoked to homicide. Cow elephants with young will everlastingly convince you of this, as will lions with cubs or advanced amorous ideas. It's been my conclusion that, unwounded, the rhino is slightly more inclined to charge a man than an elephant would be, but then he's far easier to avoid in average--if there is such a thing--cover. You can climb out of his way or simply use your head and avoid him. If matters get downright definite, he'll almost always turn from a shot in the kisser and take his business elsewhere.The elephant isn't quite so accommodating. He'll bluff-charge to put you off, and exactly when a bluff turns into the genuine article will vary among elephants. If he's too close, you have six or seven tons of trouble mighty handy. A turning shot may or may notbe effective with a jumbo, as I've found out as a cropping officer on several occasions.Frankly, I personally know of not a single example of a Cape buffalo that was unhurt or that had not been fighting with other bulls or otherwise provoked to cold-bloodedly attack a human. Presumably, they have other things to keep them occupied. Still, because they are so damnably hard to kill with a single shot by a nervous, overready hunter, there are far more wounded animal situations with buffalo than with any other big game. You may be able to radically alter the aggressive attitude of nearly all rhino and most jumbo with a big-caliber belt in the chops, but make no such presumption with the buff. He has no sense of humor about such goings-on. So, as a personal appraisal, I'd have to say that the buff is the most likely to catch up with your rapidly retreating backside through sheer persistence.A lot is made by the antihunting faction of the presumed "fact" that no animal has a chance against a modern high-powered rifle. It seems to me only fair to devote a couple of minutes to what at least appears to be a reasonable presumption ... .For the most part, there is not the slightest doubt that the 500-grain .458 Winchester Magnum solid bullet is a huge equalizer between man and elephant. So, asks the nonhunter, what's fair about that? Not a bad question.The object of hunting dangerous game is only indirectly to get yourself stomped, gored, or bitten to death. In fact, it's to court the real possibility of death rather than to actually die. A humane hunter uses "enough gun" to kill quickly--hopefully instantaneously--for two reasons: first, so that the game does not have the opportunity, having been fairlystalked on its own territory, to escape wounded and be wasted or lost; and second, to keep the hunter alive. Just as a rock climber doesn't use rotten rope--although it would increase the element of danger--a hunter should use enough gun not to be guilty of suicide. Lord knows, the edge of man over beast with even the most powerful of modern rifles is slight enough under the true sporting conditions typified by the hunting of dangerous game: close, dense, and restrictive cover that virtually eradicates the hunter's defenses of eyesight and hearing. After all, a bull elephant weighs about ninety times as much as a big man. No human being could begin to outrun any of the Big Five, nor would he last more than a few seconds in any contest of strength. I dislike repeating examples, but to my mind the distinction between hunting and shooting an elephant remains classic. On a bare plain, even an orangutan using open sights could leisurely shoot an elephant through the chest from two hundred yards. And why not? The target is the size of an airplane hangar wall and too far away to be remotely dangerous. Yet, at five to ten yards, to stalk up to a big tusker with a doctorate in people-pounding through bush so thick that the 14,000-pound animal is invisible, knowing that there is a chance for just one shot that will bring a sure charge if not exactly placed--that's the difference between elephant hunting and elephant killing.That's also what big game hunting is all about.DEATH IN THE DARK CONTINENT. Copyright © 1983 by Peter Hathaway Capstick. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010. Peter Hathaway Capstick grew up in rural New Jersey and soon learned to love the outdoors and wildlife. After a career on Wall Street, he decided to heed his sense of adventure and become a professional hunter, first in the rain forests of Latin America and then in Central Africa. He now lives in Pretoria, South Africa, where he is a successful writer.