Editor’s Note: On Friday we reach back into the Safari Club International archives and dust off a gem from the past. This week we follow Professional Hunters dealing with the power and determination of the largest land animal. This story first appeared in the January/February 1988 issue of Safari Magazine.
The annual crop raiding was at its peak. Elephant herds -the
remnant, isolated Harrar elephants -were in the north of their range on the Erer and Dacata river valleys, with the bulls on the edges of the breeding herds venturing further afield into the crops. Small groups, two to four bulls and single old bachelors, were creating havoc in the maize and millet crops of Somali farmers when the call came from the warden at Harrar to the headquarters of the Ethiopian Wild Life Conservation Organization. Assistance was needed for dealing with the problem.
At that time, I was the advisor to the W.L.C.O. and the warden’s request could not have come at a more opportune time. I was tired from six weeks of tedious office routine and there was the matter of testing the prowess in the field of applicant Nassos Roussos before we could authorize his professional hunter’s license. We made our plans quickly and within 36 hours we were on our way to Harrar, Roussos driving his own Jeep pickup. I was driving the W.L.C.O. Land-Rover pickup.
We stayed overnight at Harrar with the Ethiopian warden, who told us of two huge elephant bulls that were being particularly troublesome in the Dacata Valley near Babile, north of the Harrar-Jijiga main road. These two bulls had devastated several acres of maize, at times spending most of their days in the ripened crops, unperturbed by the shouts and tin can beating of the Somalis. They were so bold as to walk through the settlements and livestock kraals of Somali camels, cattle and goatherds, a pair of thugs in equivalent human terms.
Roussos, I and two game scouts, one of them given us by the Harrar warden, left the walled city very early in the pre-dawn and, just as the sun was starting to turn up the heat in a cloudless sky, we arrived at the Dacata Valley. We were somewhat skeptical about the stories we had been told regarding the antics of these Harrar elephants; however, skepticism began to evaporate (albeit slowly) when a small group of Somalis at the very first roadside village told us that the two elephants were just a few kilometers north of the road -and had been there for some 10 days. And, yes, just drive down that cattle trail to that village and ask for directions. The farmers would point out the exact location and we could pick them off and that would be that. We could be finished by lunchtime.
They weren’t far from wrong. We drove down the cattle track following their directions and soon arrived at the end of the trail, so to speak, at two Somali settlements about 300 yards apart. The dome-shaped wicker and woven grass huts were surrounded by a thorn scrub fence with adjoining kraals, where cattle, goats, sheep and donkeys were herded at night. We parked the two vehicles, one behind the other, in the shade of the acacia trees and set up our fly camp a quarter mile from the settlements. Within minutes, Somalis from the village had gathered to investigate us.
Hearing of our purpose, they pointed to a patch of thorn bush a few hundred yards to the east. The two bulls were in there today. Now.
Indeed, one of the Somali girls herding camels and goats in the bush up against the rocky ridge answered their calls, shouting that she could see two bulls from where she stood on the rocks. Nassos and I and the headquarters’ game scout, Tefarra, smiled at each other. This was going to be easy.
We decided to go to the bulls straight away. Leaving the warden’s game scout armed with a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with birdshot as a deterrent against Somali pilfering, we loaded our .458 magnum rifles and the paraphernalia of hunting -ammo belts, water bottles and knives -and left the vehicles. lt now was late morning, about 11:00.
Teferra, wily as ever, decided to climb up to where she sat to give directions and there he stayed after telling us the elephants were directly below him. So we went forward, encountering camels and goats feeding on the acacia all around us. Camel bells were singing from several directions. It was hard to believe there really were two bull elephants near us.
Yet, directly ahead in the thick bush, we heard the unmistakable crack of branches being broken by feeding elephant. It was an incredulous situation. We moved forward again, more slowly this time, picking our way through the scrub, constantly testing the fickle mid-day wind, moving to-ward the elephant sounds until we were suddenly confronted by a huge elephant bull with short sturdy tusks just 30 yards away. Two or three camels and a sprinkling of goats fed calmly on the thorny acacia on all sides. The bull was quite unaware of our presence as it moved directly toward us at a leisurely pace.
Here was as good a test as any for Nassos -a frontal brain shot -and he brained the bull. It collapsed like a deflated football. At the shot, pandemonium broke loose all around us. and not from the other elephant. The camels and goats had panicked and stampeded towards home, dust flying and bells clanging. It was minutes before quiet returned.
Walking up to the downed bull, Nassos put a second bullet for insurance into the bull’s heart. Of the other bull we had until now seen nothing. Teferra called down that it had fled up the valley and he still could see its back about 300 yards away. It was silently testing the wind with upraised trunk, he said. We told him to be quiet as Nassos and I moved up to deal with it.
It took us quite some time to work our way slowly through the acacia scrub, which became denser the farther we advanced. We stopped often to test the mid-day wind. Then, on our left, we heard the gentle scrape of thorns on hide. The bull was on the move! Slipping through the bush quickly, we saw a huge elephant with thick. three-foot-long tusks moving as silently as it could. There was an anthill in front of us, almost on its line of retreat and we quickly decided we would end our hunt from there. We reached it just about the same time the bull walked clear of a thick bush into a tiny opening, not 10 yards from where we stood.
I saw Nassos move up to within five or six yards of the bull, raise his rifle, sight quickly and shoot for the bull’s heart. The bull’s back legs began to fold on taking the bullet, but it was up in an instant and going away, crashing through the acacia and swinging to the right. For an instant, there was a flash view of its head and I sent a desperate shot at it. The dust flew too high on the head and the elephant was swallowed up by the bush. Nassos had not had the slightest chance for a second shot, but he was certain his shot had been perfect. We listened to the bull as it bulldozed through the acacia. We were waiting to hear its death thud and dying gurgle, but the crashing sounds kept going up the valley.
Teferra was shouting again. He no longer could see the bull. We told him to stay where he was, to keep quiet and call out only when he saw the elephant again. The valley we were in was a dead end, with no way out or up the steep sides. We now knew we had a wounded bull elephant on our hands.
We went up the valley very slowly now, knowing the bull had no way to go except past (or over) us. Neither Nassos nor I was eager to be stepped on in our prime of life. Each advance of a few steps was interrupted by a stop and much careful listening and eye-aching peering through the thorn bush and under every acacia scrub until we again heard the gentle scrape of thorn against rough hide. By kneeling, we could make out huge columns of feet and legs approaching us, tiptoeing only as an elephant knows how. The bull stopped and was silent. We could see its feet not 20 paces from where we were crouched. It obviously was facing in our direction, listening and trying to decide its next move.
A gentle breeze on my neck started the prickly feeling of my hair-raising in a warning, knowing what would happen next. In confirmation, the wounded bull was on its way towards us in the next instant, flattening everything -trees and bushes -in its way. With a huge throaty growl it was on top of us. It was a get out of the way or be flattened moment.
Emerging from the far corner of the maize, the giant took off through the open scrub with that deceptively fast shambling gait that elephants have.
The Harrar game scout was standing on the pinnacle of a 10-foot termite hill not 30 yards from our trucks. The great elephant was shambling past, 20 yards away. Time had slowed as we ran and the next few moments were being registered indelibly on my mind (and Nasso ‘ too. I’m certain) exactly, clearly, until our dying days.
The scout raised the shotgun at the passing bull and the bang-bang of the birdshot shells were sharp in the clear afternoon. The reaction of the bull was immediate. It swirled, trumpeted and turned toward the source of annoyance, ears billowing like sails on a fine old schooner.
Realizing his error, the man slipped from the termite hill and began running for his life in the general direction of the vehicles as the bull lunged after him.
We still were 60-70 weary running yards distant as the game scout was about to lose the race and his life in a moment -the wailing giant was gaining at every step. In that moment, the scout jinked to the right, changed direction and skipped behind the Land-Rover. The bull had almost had him.
Its huge head was almost touching the ground as the man went behind the truck, and so it just kept on smashing downwards, headlong into the vehicle, driving its left tusk straight through the rear body with a tremendous force. The Land-Rover spun upward with the impact, the front end catapulting skywards, the canvas-enclosed contents in the back exploding showers of beds and bedding and food and saucepans and chairs and whatnots in all directions.
We -Nassos and I, and by now, Teferra, too -had the unforgettable kaleidoscopic picture of that huge bull elephant standing there, head held high, with the entire Land-Rover literally turning slowly in the air, front end over rear end, pivoting on its left tusk.
The power we saw there made us all just stop and stand still to look at the spectacle; yes, even to enjoy it in a horrified sort of way. It was a splendid, magnificent dis-play of brute strength that few men are privileged to witness.
Then the moment passed and the spell was broken. The full weight of the now up-side-down Land Rover smashed down in the red sand in a vast cloud of red dust, dragging the bull ‘s head down. It was down on its knees, back legs still upright. With a great growling, the bull was trying to extricate its tusk, pushing the pile of metal back and forth until, with a crack sharp as a pistol shot, the tusk snapped and the bull stood up.
In panic, it turned away from the stricken Land-Rover, ears and trunk flapping, tail squirming, leaving the scene in renewed flight. Now at last, we were upon it and two shots laid the warrior low just 50 yards from the truck.–Fred Duckworth