Saturday, August 18, 2012

Hunting elephants

I hadn't realized that you could still hunt elephants. The above video starts with a small party tracking some elephants. Around the 6 minute mark they get close to one. They then try to back away, but it gets spooked and charges. 

In real time what follows is just a blur of panic, but when they rerun the video at slow speed it is amazing how the hunter stands in its path and waits, and waits, before he fires. He's got balls, that's for sure. Still, it's a shame that the elephant got killed.

Below is an excerpt of one of Sir Samuel W. Baker's elephant hunts from In the Heart of Africa (link to Project Guttenberg's full text).  The book describes his 1861 expedition to find the source of the Nile. The hunt took place in what was then southern Sudan, just after he cleared some marshes that greatly confused where the bed of the Nile was.

From the elephant hunting ground he moved south through territory controlled by Arab slavers. No mean feat, since the English were trying to stomp out slavery at the time and so he was hardly welcome in the area.

His expedition made it to the Lakes region, but Speke had beaten him to the source of the Nile by then. Baker's expedition collapsed at that point, out of supplies and with Baker laid low by a fever. Curiously for the time, and though she's hardly mentioned in the text, Baker's wife accompanied him on the expedition. Reading between the lines, one suspects that she's the one who pulled his fat out of the fire as he nearly died from starvation and the fever. It is a good read.

At any rate, below is the excerpt of his hunt. Amazing how similar it is to the video hunt above.
My battery of rifles was now laid upon a mat for examination; they were in beautiful condition, and they excited the admiration of the entire party. The perfection of workmanship did not appear to interest them so much as the size of the bores. They thrust their fingers down each muzzle, until they at last came to the "Baby," when, finding that two fingers could be easily introduced, they at once fell in love with that rifle in particular.

On the 17th of August, accompanied by the German, Florian, we said good-by to our kind friend Sheik Achmet and left Wat el Negur. At Geera, early at daybreak, several Arabs arrived with a report that elephants had been drinking in the river within half an hour's march of our sleeping-place. I immediately started with my men, accompanied by Florian, and we shortly arrived upon the tracks of the herd. I had three Hamran Arabs as trackers, one of whom, Taher Noor, had engaged to accompany us throughout the expedition.

For about eight miles we followed the spoor through high dried grass and thorny bush, until we at length arrived at a dense jungle of kittar—the most formidable of the hooked thorn mimosas. Here the tracks appeared to wander, some elephants having travelled straight ahead, while others had strayed to the right and left. For about two hours we travelled upon the circuitous tracks of the elephants to no purpose, when we suddenly were startled by the shrill trumpeting of one of these animals in the thick thorns, a few hundred yards to our left. The ground was so intensely hard and dry that it was impossible to distinguish the new tracks from the old, which crossed and recrossed in all directions. I therefore decided to walk carefully along the outskirts of the jungle, trusting to find their place of entrance by the fresh broken boughs. In about an hour we had thus examined two or three miles, without discovering a clew to their recent path, when we turned round a clump of bushes, and suddenly came in view of two grand elephants, standing at the edge of the dense thorns. Having our wind, they vanished instantly into the thick jungle. We could not follow them, as their course was down wind; we therefore made a circuit to leeward for about a mile, and finding that the elephants had not crossed in that direction, we felt sure that we must come upon them with the wind in our favor should they still be within the thorny jungle. This was certain, as it was their favorite retreat.

With the greatest labor I led the way, creeping frequently upon my hands and knees to avoid the hooks of the kittar bush, and occasionally listening for a sound. At length, after upward of an hour passed in this slow and fatiguing advance, I distinctly heard the flap of an elephant's ear, shortly followed by the deep guttural sigh of one of those animals, within a few paces; but so dense was the screen of jungle that I could see nothing. We waited for some minutes, but not the slightest sound could be heard; the elephants were aware of danger, and they were, like ourselves, listening attentively for the first intimation of an enemy.

This was a highly exciting moment. Should they charge, there would not be a possibility of escape, as the hooked thorns rendered any sudden movement almost impracticable. In another moment there was a tremendous crash; and with a sound like a whirlwind the herd dashed through the crackling jungle. I rushed forward, as I was uncertain whether they were in advance or retreat. Leaving a small sample of my nose upon a kittar thorn, and tearing my way, with naked arms, through what, in cold blood, would have appeared impassable, I caught sight of two elephants leading across my path, with the herd following in a dense mass behind them. Firing a shot at the leading elephant, simply in the endeavor to check the herd, I repeated with the left-hand barrel at the head of his companion. This staggered him, and threw the main body into confusion. They immediately closed up in a dense mass, and bore everything before them; but the herd exhibited merely an impenetrable array of hind quarters wedged together so firmly that it was impossible to obtain a head or shoulder shot.

I was within fifteen paces of them, and so compactly were they packed that with all their immense strength they could not at once force so extensive a front through the tough and powerful branches of the dense kittar. For about half a minute they were absolutely checked, and they bored forward with all their might in their determination to open a road through the matted thorns. The elastic boughs, bent from their position, sprang back with dangerous force, and would have fractured the skull of any one who came within their sweep. A very large elephant was on the left flank, and for an instant he turned obliquely to the left. I quickly seized the opportunity and fired the "Baby," with an explosive shell, aimed far back in the flank, trusting that it would penetrate beneath the opposite shoulder. The recoil of the "Baby," loaded with ten drams of the strongest powder and a half-pound shell, spun me round like a top. It was difficult to say which was staggered the more severely, the elephant or myself. However, we both recovered, and I seized one of my double rifles, a Reilly No. 10, that was quickly pushed into my hand by my Tokroori, Hadji Ali. This was done just in time, as an elephant from the battled herd turned sharp round, and, with its immense ears cocked, charged down upon us with a scream of rage. "One of us she must have if I miss!"

This was the first downright charge of an African elephant that I had seen, and instinctively I followed my old Ceylon plan of waiting for a close shot. She lowered her head when within about six yards, and I fired low for the centre of the forehead, exactly in the swelling above the root of the trunk. She collapsed to the shot, and fell dead, with a heavy shock, upon the ground. At the same moment the thorny barrier gave way before the pressure of the herd, and the elephants disappeared in the thick jungle, through which it was impossible to follow them.

I had suffered terribly from the hooked thorns, and the men had likewise. This had been a capital trial for my Tokrooris, who had behaved remarkably well, and had gained much confidence by my successful forehead-shot at the elephant when in full charge; but I must confess that this is the only instance in which I have succeeded in killing an African elephant by the front shot, although I have steadily tried the experiment upon subsequent occasions.


raven said...

Baker purchased his wife in an Ottoman slave market. Although she could not speak a word of English the universal language of love was enough- she was his devoted companion for the rest of his life.

ambisinistral said...


Thanks for that information. i didn't know that about her. I dug around a little and wrote a post about her: Lady Florence Baker.