Flashback Friday – Big Thicket Elephants

Safari-Mag-cover-Fall-1971Editor’s Note: On Fridays we dig into the extensive archives of Safari Magazine and dust off a story from a past issue. This week, we go back to one of the earliest issues of Safari and to an article on elephant hunting by Safari Club International Founder, C.J. McElroy. This article originally appeared in the Fall 1971 issue of Safari Magazine.

“Hit em right,” Bob Foster was saying, “and you won’t have any trouble.”

He was talking about elephants, something that has always fascinated me from the time I was a small boy on the farm to the present day.

This was in September 1964 and we were waiting in the rear office of (White Hunter’s Ltd.) East African Outfitters in Nairobi for Glen Cottar, my White Hunter. He had gone to make arrangements for us to fly 800 miles from Nairobi down into the tsetse fly country of Tanzania, and Bob Foster was entertaining me with stories of elephant hunts.

He was speaking from many years of experience in Government elephant control work and from the many Safaris he had made. “I always try for the brain shot,” he continued, “unless I’m hunting on control work at night, then I shoot for the shoulder because all I have to see by is a flash light.” “The brain shot is by far the best if you can hit an area approximately 4 inches by 8 inches, but if you miss this spot by a few inches you are in trouble; you won’t hurt him very much.” I had reason to remember this very well ten days later in a dense thicket in Tanganyika, while trying to decide if I should try for the brain shot or play it safe and shoot for the shoulder.
We were not looking for elephant the day the four bulls crossed our path but when Glen Cottar put both of his feet in a single track of one of the bulls, and still had a couple of inches to’ spare, the kudo hunting was forgotten.

Family-Adventure-Elephant-Face-121615“We may not come up to them,” Glen said, “I think they are six or seven hours ahead of us, but if you want to we’ll give it a go. This one set of tracks is very large,” he continued, “so he may have very good ivory; of course,” he said, grinning, “he may have big feet and small teeth.”

“Let’s go see,” I said as I lifted my .458 from the rack in the land rover, and took a long drink from the water jug. We started tracking the elephants, the four of us, Cottar, myself, and the two gun bearers, Pissy, Cottar’s bearer and Kutette, who was my gun bearer.

These two were as different as night and day. Pissy, was quick and imaginative, whereas Kutette, was slower and much more steady. As an example … these four bulls were grazing as they walked along, and about every two or three hundred yards one would push over a good size tree to eat the green top or reach up and tear off a large limb. Pissy would look ahead three or four hundred yards, and if he saw a tree down or a limb torn off he would make a bee line for the spot. Not so with Kutette. When he got on a set of tracks he didn’t care where the other elephants were going, he followed this one particular animal step by step.

This definitely has merit as he seldom lost the trail as we did. But occasionally Glen had to whistle to make him catch up. He came somewhat reluctantly each time, then sought the track of the animal he had been trailing, and finding it, he would continue step by step. But then there were times when the others had lost the spoor, yet Kutette could always show us the tracks of the elephant he had been trailing.

elephantsupclosetracksIt’s amazing how little these huge animals disturb the ground as they walk along, their feet make the barest trace unless they step in soft sand or crush the dry leaves. As we walked along I asked Glen if he thought it a good idea for me to try the brain shot. “It’s up to you,” he said, “Remember if you shoot for the shoulder you have a much better chance for a vital shot. If your bullet strikes high you will hit the lung, a little forward and you could break a leg, and if you hit him right in the heart he won’t go over 50 to 75 feet. Now if you shoot for the brain and miss by even two to three inches he won’t be hurt much and we could follow him 15 or 20 miles before coming up with him.” “However,” he continued, “if you are close a brain shot is quite a thing to see. When you hit him right in the brain he will throw up his head, sit down slowly, then roll over on his side. He won’t take one step.” “By the way,” he added, “how is your nerve today?” “I think these bulls are headed for the thickets.”

I had seen these large sections of thick growth covering an acre or more at times, but as we had been in this area only two days we had not had a reason to go into one.

“I don’t know about my nerve,” I answered, “but I am sure eager to see what the bull with the big feet looks like. If we don’t hurry though we’re going to get wet from the way those clouds look.” The clouds had been building up during the morning, and now looked very dark. I could see flashes of lightning in, the distance and hear the low rumble of thunder.

We covered another mile in the next 45 minutes before running smack up against a wall of tangled vines and small trees. We had come to the thickets!

Upon our arrival, I noticed that Pissy, took off the short coat, his shirt and the old shoes he had on. The only thing left was a pair of skimpy shorts.

He rolled the clothes up in a bundle, placed them on the ground and stuck a broken branch up beside it so that Mallaffo, who was following about a mile behind us, guiding the drive of the land rover, could see it.

dangerous-game-elephant-feeding-012116“Now there is a smart boy!” I said to myself, “he is stripping down for action.” I didn’t realize how true this prediction would be.
The elephants had entered the thicket in single file, so we followed the same way. As we entered the thicket the rain started to fall gently and the wind swirled around through the brush.
“Dammit,” Glen muttered softly, “we are going to lose the trail if this rain gets harder; and that wind is very bad.” When you enter a thicket, the growth shuts off the sun. It gets pretty dark and with the heavy clouds overhead there was little light left to see by.
We moved along slowly, pausing to listen about every fifteen to twenty steps, and trying to see through the tangled growth of vines and trees.

This way of hunting elephants was much different than on my first Safari in 1958 when we had hunted these gigantic beasts in the desert country of the Northern Frontier, along the muddy Tana river. There the big problem in getting your elephant is in walking miles through the open, desert country on the hot sands under the burning sun, with temperatures that run as high as 120 to 130 degrees in the shade.

But when you do come up with the herd or the lone bull you have been trailing you are in open country, you can decide how close you want to approach the animal and if you do get into trouble you have open country in which to move. If you are charged and decide to run for it, as long as you stay downwind and over a 100 feet away from, an elephant you are pretty safe. He can always run faster than you, but his eyesight is poor and by dodging behind clumps of bushes and keeping downwind you can stay out of trouble.

But as I say, this was much different. As I looked around me I wondered about running in this thicket where I had trouble walking.
We had gone about 100 yards into the thicket when we heard the sound of a limb being broken off a tree. The rain was falling a little harder now as we made our way quietly toward the noise.
Glen lead the way, placing each foot down carefully and I was right behind, so close that when he stopped suddenly I almost bumped into him. I was poised with one foot up in the air and as I brought it down Glen pointed to a huge shadow through the brush.

The big bull didn’t know we were within a hundred miles of him, but with the wind swirling around the chance of his winding us was pretty good.

We were about 20 to 25 feet from him as he stood broadside, his head up, slowly chewing on the small branch he had torn off a tree.
I was straining my eyes, trying to get a good look at his tusks through the screen of twigs and leaves when Glen whispered, “He’s alright, take him!” It was then that Bob Foster’s words came to me … “Hit them right in the brain,” he had said,and they won’t hardly move.” If there ever was a time I didn’t want an elephant to move, it was in this thick brush. And hadn’t he shown me exactly where to shoot? Of course, he didn’t say anything about that screen of branches and leaves.

I brought my .458 slowly up the tusks until I had the bead even with the eye; then I moved in toward the ear to where I thought the spot should be and squeezed off.

Had we been out in the sunlight where I could have seen exactly where I was putting the bullet or even under ordinary conditions without the rain things could have gone as I planned, but with the screen of twigs and leaves and the unnatural darkness of the thicket it was definitely not the time for a brain shot.

Botswana bull facing camera

As the sound of the shot crashed out everything seemed to stop for an instant. I automatically ejected the shell and threw another cartridge up the spout, expecting this bull to throw up his head, sit down slowly and roll over. He evidently had other ideas. For a split second he stood perfectly still, then with a tremendous lunge he started forward toward thicker cover. As I say, I was surprised that he had not gone down from the .458 brain shot, but I did have time to line up on his left rib section just in front of his hind leg, and get another slug into him as he disappeared into the thicker stuff. As he thundered off, another bull crashed toward us like a runaway locomotive.

These elephants don’t bother to walk around anything in those thickets when they are excited, they just run over anything smaller than a 4-inch tree.

The noise of that giant coming toward us was too much for Pissy, and he went tearing off through the thicket like a scared rabbit. Let’s face it … the only reason I didn’t run was because I knew that I couldn’t get through that mass of tangled branches and vines. We were able to move several steps back, and stood, waiting, with our guns up. I’ll say one thing about Kutette, he had guts. He quietly stood his ground just behind me awaiting the charge of the bull elephant. The elephant came at full throttle just as a tremendous blast of thunder rent the air. His head cleared the fringe of brush about 30 feet from where we stood. He stopped dead still as the thunder crashed, fanning his huge ears back and forth, his trunk raised.

I don’t believe he could have seen us in the dim light of the thicket and with the wind swirling around and playing tricks with our scent, he must have become confused. The thunder undoubtedly added to the confusion.

He stood for a few seconds flaring his ears, then turned and ran off to our right, smashing a huge path through the thicket ..
I slowly let my breath out; I’m sure I had forgotten to breathe for the past five minutes. Then my vision seemed to fade, I reached up and took off my glasses and it cleared up. It’s amazing how much steam you can blowout when you get this excited.

All was still for a couple of minutes after the bull left. I don’t know what Glen was doing but I was wiping the moisture off my glasses so I could see again. Then the ground started shaking again. From the direction of the bull I shot there came another crashing. This caused us to scamper to the other side of this small open area and again to wait with guns raised.
“Now we are in the bloody soup,” Glen muttered “that bull is not down!” He asked, “where did you hit him?”

“In the brain!” Where else? I said, trying to be funny.

But it was a poor attempt, neither of us thought it was very funny.
“Well,” he said, “we are in a bad spot!” “We’ll wait a little while and see what happens. How about your second shot? Were you able to do any good with it?”

8yrquestbullelephanthnt4evr121713“I thought that was a pretty good shot,” I answered, “it should have gone into his chest cavity unless the bullet was deflected; it was angled right.”

The next thirty minutes seemed like hours as we waited in the gentle falling rain. Several times we heard heavy movement in the thicket around us, and I had time to meditate on a few things I had read about elephants.

Just before we left on this Safari, I recalled reading a couple of stories on the gentle, harmless nature of the elephant. Those fellows surely have never been in a dense thicket with one of these beasts. I suppose the circus type, Indian elephant, could be considered gentle and friendly, but there is as much difference between a circus elephant, whose spirit has been broken for years, and a wild African elephant, as there is between a dog and a timber wolf, or a house cat and a tiger.

The African elephant is a very worthy opponent in his natural element. He is very shrewd, powerful and highly respected by the white hunters who hunt all types of wild animals. I for one don’t think there is a more terrifying sight than the charge of an enraged elephant.

While we were waiting we heard a low whistle. Glen and Kutette looked at each other and Kutette smiled. Then the whistle was repeated and Kutette again looked at Glen, who made a motion with his hand. Kutette gave a low whistle and was quickly answered. Pissy emerged from the underbrush with a downcast look on his face. He had a bad scratch on his nose and two or three more on his upper body. That little man had really run through the thicket.
In a low Swahili voice, Glen really worked him over.

But I can’t say as I blamed Pissy for running; I would have also, if I thought I could have made any speed through that thick stuff.
The rain had stopped now and we moved over to the spot where the elephant had been standing when I shot him. There was no blood! Glen looked at me in a strange kind of way. “Are you sure you hit him,” he asked.

“By golly!” I said, “if I can’t hit a target as big as an elephant, I’ll give up,” I answered, a little nettled. “OK,” he said, “we will check a little farther.” We slowly followed the tracks another 20 feet, when Kutette silently motioned for me to look up. There on the side of a small tree about eight feet off the ground was a red smear of blood.
“You hit him all right,” Glen grumbled,” “Now we will have to be very careful,” he cautioned. “I will go first, but don’t get too close … stay about two steps behind and be ready, this bull will be very dangerous now!”

So that’s the way we went, Glen ahead about two steps, I followed, and the boys brought up the rear several steps behind me.
To anyone watching, this would have looked very funny.

I had to wait for Glen to take a step before I took one, and the two boys were doing the same thing behind me … all in slow motion. We had gone about another 25 feet when Glen stopped pointing to some blood on the bushes about half as high as the other blood had been. He held up two fingers indicating that I had scored twice.
The next thirty minutes were really nerve racking as we picked our way through the thicket. I felt that any minute a big trunk would reach out and smash me down. In places I could not see more than ten feet ahead. We were seeing much more blood now, but none on the ground, which is very unusual. Then we came out into a small opening and Glen stopped. The ground was very hard and he had lost the tracks.

Mac with his Big Thicket elephant in 1969.
Mac with his Big Thicket elephant in 1969.

Glen spoke to the boys in Swahili and they started casting about for a sign. We did the same, suddenly I heard Pissy cry out from his side of the clearing, Glen’s only. remark was, “thank God the bloody beggar is down!”

We moved over to where Pissy  the thicket I could see the body of my elephant lying on his side. We approached carefully but there was no need for another shot. He was as dead a,s a doornail!
After the usual handshaking and words, of congratulations, we started to examine the elephant to see where I had hit him.

The bullet that had entered the head had missed the brain by less than 3 inches. It must have stunned him for just a few seconds but had not knocked him off his feet. This shot possibly could have killed him in several days, but there have been cases where elephants have survived head shots like this one. The body shot however had done its job well. He had run only about 100 yards from where I had shot him. The bullet had entered just about where I thought it had … just in front of the hind leg and had. gone through the stomach and into the chest cavity, and that’s why we didn’t see much blood on the ground. All of the bleeding was on the inside.

After taking pictures of this huge beast and making the usual estimates on the body weight and ivory, we started working our way out of the dense thicket.

It was then that I realized how thirsty I was. I had gone for about eight hours without a drink of water, and in this country I do drink lots of water.

On the way back to the land rover we again discussed the brain shot and the shoulder shot controversy and both Glen and I agreed that it really doesn’t make much difference where you hit ’em … as long as you hit ’em right.–C.J. McElroy

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