How close is too close? by Ivan Carter

His head was huge. In fact, there was a good three feet between the tusks, every wrinkle visible as he looked “down his nose” at us, the jagged stump of what was once an elegant curve of ivory on his left, a sharp contrast to the long, graceful tusk curving from the right of his great mouth. “Keep still,” I whispered “he will back off, he is not serious – in this situation your shot would be just below the level of his eyes.” My double rifle was still on my shoulder but my mind was ready. The bull shook his head, his ears clapping loudly as dust and clods of dried mud flew around him. Then he swung sideways and walked away, his back arched and his head tilted, keeping his eye on us as he retreated. I heard Mark exhale and realised he had been holding his breath – this was not uncommon. Mark, a Texan investment banker, had dreamed about hunting elephants for many years. We had met at the Dallas Safari Club convention and this was day one of his hunt. As the bull retreated Mark asked, “Where would I aim for the brain from here?” and so the shot placement lesson began, in real life, on the ground and with a live model in front of us.

The bull rushed towards us . . .

The bull rushed towards us . . .

and a raised rifle and a shout stopped him, avoiding us having to shoot.

and a raised rifle and a shout stopped him, avoiding us having to shoot.

As the first few days passed and we looked over multiple bulls, approaching several of them pretty closely, it was plainly evident that Mark was truly getting a feel for where he would have to shoot when “the moment of truth” arose. I also sensed that he was getting a lot more comfortable being up close to these great beasts. That was my goal – if the first bull a client ever approaches closely is the one that he takes, then, as well as trying to remember the correct shot placement, he will most probably be nervous, unused to and simply overwhelmed by the fact of being close to the largest animal that walks our planet. Taking all this into consideration the chances of something going awry rise exponentially. A nervous client shooting at a moving target in thick brush – not just any target but a target that can and will crush you if things aren’t carried out in a controlled and professional manner – is a PH’s nightmare.

A big bull in the Okavango Delta.

A big bull in the Okavango Delta.

Close and confident? Yes. Complacent? No. History books are filled with examples of people who were killed because they became complacent around big and dangerous game. These are wild animals; they are unpredictable and should be treated with the utmost respect and caution.

So the question arises: Why not just shoot from 50 yards? And why would you even try and get that close? Great question.

As one traces over a map of Africa where elephants are huntable today, one’s finger runs through Tanzania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa, not to mention Cameroon and CAR. Looking at the habitat maps of the same, it is very seldom you are going to find your trophy bull standing in the open plains – it is much more likely to be in the tangled jesse of the Zambezi Valley, the Acacia scrub of Maasailand, the thick mopane woodland of Botswana or the bamboo forests of Southern Tanzania. Where elephant are hunted in Africa today there are few areas that afford the luxury of wide open plains or great visibility and while these do exist, the chances are (with Murphy ever present of course) that after many hours of tracking, the “right” bull will always be in the toughest scenario.

A classic long-tusked Zambezi Valley bull in the mountains and thick bush.

A classic long-tusked Zambezi Valley bull in the mountains and thick bush.

Then let us add to that the fact that this huge beast is thick-skinned, heavy-boned and requires very precise shot placement for a clean, one-shot kill – something that many people fail to achieve on their first, second or even third attempt.

Therefore the closer you are, the better the chance of a good second shot – an elephant facing you at 10 yards is physically unable to retreat without presenting a clear broadside shot. This “turn” happens incredibly fast, however, and one needs to be quick and ready for that second shot. Countless times I have had to say the words “shoot again” as the hunter is frozen in disbelief that his 500-grain solid had had no effect!

A young bull stops at about 10 yards.

A young bull stops at about 10 yards.

As one creeps in closer and closer to a feeding, resting or moving elephant, one is constantly trying to plan the next step. “If I get to that bush, where will he be by the time I reach it? If I cross that open patch of sunlight will he see me? How do I get past that young bull at the back?” These and a host of other questions play across one’s mind as one approaches the animal.

Describing shot placement on a young bull.

Describing shot placement on a young bull.

If, as the PH guiding the hunter, I have done my job well, my client will have had numerous approaches on bulls that we had no intention of taking. He will have a clear mental picture of where the brain is situated in the skull and a good idea of his shot placement from any angle. That’s all well and good in cold blood, but get a guy in front of the trophy that he has planned for – in many cases for decades, saved for and in the last few days sweated for, and it’s a whole different story! With adrenaline coursing through his veins, his ragged breath and concerned face will tell me that he is anxiously replaying the “shot placements” through his mind. If you add fear to this – the fear of being physically close to an elephant – it can and most probably will go wrong. Multiple approaches up to this point will at least eliminate the element of fear and the client will be focused on his shot.

Extremely long East African ivory

Extremely long East African ivory

You have been tracking for three hours, the bull is in front of you. You estimate his ivory on his longest tusk at 19 inches at the lip and 40 to 42 inches sticking out, a bull that with luck will tip the scales at around 70#. The shorter tusk, his working tusk, looks a little thicker but at least 10 inches shorter – a solid 50 to 55 pounds. You keep your distance, constantly testing the wind with your ash bag. After a short whispered discussion you decide to take the bull. You very cautiously move in to about 15 yards – a puff of wind cools the back of your neck and your mouth goes dry as the bull swings his massive head. Your hunter, his eyes focused on his feet in an effort to walk silently, has not seen your hand signal to stop and he takes another step. The bull sees you, lifts his head and walks a few steps closer. You grab your client’s shirt, pull him forward and whisper, “Take him!” By now the bull is at full height, head raised menacingly – you have just a second before he decides to charge or run and you mentally urge the client to shoot. The .500 NE roars and a puff of dust off the great animal’s forehead indicates the strike. He lowers his head and turns. “Shoot again!” you shout as you raise your rifle. The second shot, at the perfect moment, hits an inch behind the earhole and the bull is dead on his feet. Quick, ethical and dramatically exciting, arguably the most majestic trophy in Africa, taken at close range – the result of careful preparation, hard work and being close enough.

Glassing the flats of Maasailand – a great way to spot a bull.

Glassing the flats of Maasailand – a great way to spot a bull.

More common however is the following scenario. This is the first bull you have been close to, the bush is thick and the trackers are working hard – suddenly there he is! He is standing facing you at just 20 yards. You pull your client to the front. He is nervous, never having been this close. He looks at the huge head and aims into the middle of it, supremely confident in his heavy calibre. The .500 NE roars and a puff of dust bursting off the great animal’s forehead indicates the strike. He lowers his head and turns. “Shoot again!” you shout as you raise your rifle. The next shot, a second too late, hits high in the neck and the bull is gone. You fire both barrels into the huge grey rear as it disappears into the thick scrub and you hear him crashing away. You glance back and see the shocked look on your client’s face, secretly hoping that your bullet has penetrated far enough to stop the bull. The combination of distance from which the shot was fired, a nervous, unprepared client and the thick bush results in a very tense follow-up that may take minutes, hours or even days, depending on the shots. If the bull is recovered (and they usually are) it is a result of luck and chance.

In the terminalia scrub sometimes they walk right onto you – this can become a problem if not handled right.

In the terminalia scrub sometimes they walk right onto you – this can become a problem if not handled right.

Why brain shot opposed to heart/lung shot?

Again a great question from the PH’s perspective. Let’s keep in mind that a good professional would rather not shoot into a client’s animal. In my book there are two things that justify shooting: 1) the client has shot until his gun is empty and the animal is still going and 2) the animal is coming at you and has to be killed to avoid injury or worse.

If one encourages one’s client to take a brain shot, the moment that shot goes off one knows whether it is successful or not. If the client makes two attempts and the animal is still going, one is well

My friend Guy Gorney (right) and I. For once, a big 70-pounder taken in open, mature mopane – so it does happen sometimes!

My friend Guy Gorney (right) and I. For once, a big 70-pounder taken in open, mature mopane – so it does happen sometimes!

within one’s rights, responsibilities and sensibilities to put in a heart /lung shot or a well-placed hip shot to anchor the animal. If the brain shot hits the mark one won’t have to shoot at all; the client will be over the moon with his achievement and that is the goal of the PH.

In the case of a heart/lung shot there is no way of knowing if the shot was good or not. The animal will take off at a run and one can only wait and hope that it all went well. A fraction high and that’s the last you will see of the quarry; a bit far back, the same thing. And if the first shot was taken from any distance, the chance of a second shot will be a moving target through thick brush and in that circumstance nothing is secure. Bring the whole situation to within 15 or 20 metres and one has an infinitely better chance at a good second shot. This placement, however, frequently results in the PH shooting an “insurance shot” for no other reason than it is, as I say, impossible to tell if the first shot was on the mark.

Staring at us over the mopane scrub.

Staring at us over the mopane scrub.

The chaos of a full charge from a wounded bull, resulting in a final shot that left no room for error.

The chaos of a full charge from a wounded bull, resulting in a final shot that left no room for error.

What about a charging elephant?

Elephant bulls do not often charge and most confrontations, if handled correctly, will turn into mock charges. Running away will often provoke a charge and in the panic to stop, turn and make the shot, one can fall into an extremely difficult and dangerous situation with many moving parts.

The essence of Botswana – thick, heavy ivory on a very old bull.

The essence of Botswana – thick, heavy ivory on a very old bull.

If one encounters a charge, one should first shout and wave and even take a few steps towards the animal. If this has no effect, prepare to shoot. Wait until the animal is very close, bearing in mind that the closer the animal the larger the target. Additionally, with an elephant they will often lower their heads in the last few yards, creating a far easier shot placement angle for a clean brain shot. In many instances, a bull in particular, will stop at just five to six yards, kick dirt and/or trumpet loudly. One will be focused on the brain and a very tense standoff will ensue. Stand your ground and in many, many cases the elephant will back off. With his head held high and his back arched, he will retreat and the need to shoot will fall away. Shooting when he is still 20 yards away eliminates all chances that you should have given the animal to change his mind or stop, and your distant, moving target and the angle of the head presents some difficult shot placement requirements. If one misses the brain and likely one will, he will continue in as you reload in readiness for the next shot. In the event of a problem with one’s rifle, the animal will be coming in and one will have a useless piece of equipment in one’s hands with no time to address the issue.

The first shot, close enough for a second shot before the bull runs off

The first shot, close enough for a second shot before the bull runs off

Elephant cows are far more likely to charge. In the many many hunts that I have conducted in the Zambezi Valley for elephant cows, both tuskless and ration tusked cows, I have come to realise that not all cows are “out to get you” – they are not the fire-breathing monsters of literary legend whose sole aim is to charge and squash every human they encounter! That said, however, they do tend to be a lot less tolerant of humans than the bulls are. In my experience, if they are going to abandon a charge they will do so further out than a bull would. Having smaller bodies, as they get closer, the vital spot on their forehead is right in the front and I have often seen them killed at just five yards or closer. All in all therefore, in an elephant charge, be it from a bull or a cow, shout and wave at first, stand your ground and prepare to shoot; then wait for the animal to come close.

The thick, dry jesse of the Zambezi Valley does not give you much room

The thick, dry jesse of the Zambezi Valley does not give you much room

As soon as the animal retreats, do the same. They will often swing around and give you one more short bluff charge. Turn and wait for that and only then retreat out of their way. At this point let me say, however, that one needs to be very, very ready for the charge to become real and no matter how many times this happens, to never allow complacency to creep in. While the goal is not to have to shoot the elephant, safety and sensibility must come first.

How close is too close?

In any hunting situation and with any animal there are several variables that should be taken into account when looking at how far one should be. The mobility and skill level of the hunters, the type of terrain and bush one is in, and the estimated character and herd dynamics of the animal are all factors to consider. A lone bull in open acacia woodland in Maasailand presents a very different set of circumstances to a herd of cows in the wet season in the Zambezi Valley.

The thorn scrub and thickets of Maasailand.

The thorn scrub and thickets of Maasailand.

Early in the hunt as you take your client on a few “practice’ approaches, the goal is to not disturb the animals. There are going to be situations where that occurs but if it can be avoided it should be – the rest is simply a professional’s judgement. The true professional can get a client in to look at the elephant closely and get out, in most cases leaving the animal or animals undisturbed – even in the event of a brief confrontation. If handled well, the animal may retreat a few hundred yards and continue feeding his way through the day. Handled too aggressively though, he will run off, disturbing the area and any other bulls that may be in the vicinity.

As far as the final approach goes – too close is when you see that your client is truly uncomfortable. He is about to make a very important shot and if you get him too close that will be impossible as he tries to calm himself. Adequate and correct explanation and preparation of your clients in the days leading up to this moment will mitigate and in most cases eliminate this. A true professional will be able to judge his client’s ability and mettle!

In the words of a historic elephant hunter, “Get as close as you can laddie, then go five paces closer.” Wise advice indeed when one considers the constantly moving parts and difficult nature of the shot.

So to answer the underlying question, “What’s too close?” there is no definitive answer. It all depends on the many variables – the body language of the animal, the ability (both marksmanship and physical) of the hunter, the bush, the wind and many others. The same applies for the question, “What is not close enough?”

In closing let me say that any moment spent close to elephants will leave you with a profound sense of awe of these incredible creatures. No elephant encounter is unsuccessful and as one walks up to one’s trophy at the end of a hunt, and as one feels the cool silkiness of that ivory, one realises at a very deep level that it’s not about the ivory, it’s all about the experience. At that point one realises why, from the early days of hunting, elephant have been revered as the most classic game of all.

Next time you hunt, be it a springbok, a white-tailed deer or a majestic elephant, make it about the hunt – that way it’s impossible to return home empty-handed!

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