Lion Conservation and Sustainable Use
January 12, 2019
Eland Hunt at Saamgewaagd
January 14, 2019

Elephant Hunting – Drama and Powerful Impressions

Uli’s safari was slowly nearing its end, when we had taken up the trail of a group of six bulls at the Klein Dobe Waterhole. We came up with the bulls at noon, when they were resting in a thicket. From out a tree, I was able to see the bulls as good as at all possible, and noticed that amongst them there was an old bull with a prominently rounded forehead. The tusks I could see shadowy only, as they were concealed in the shrub, but could make out that they were evenly matched and not very long, but they appeared relatively thick. I was still hoping for a better view, when a swirling breath of wind carried our scent over to the elephants, which immediately made off in a big cloud of dust. Kai-Uwe Denker

We followed until we could see the followed until we could see exceptionally thick nor were they very long, doubts again as to the trophy quality of them from the tracks that they had calmed down again, moving on leisurely now. As they most probably soon would stop somewhere in the shade, we held a siesta, and only took up the spoor again, when the wind had stabilised in the afternoon. Late in the afternoon, we came up with the bulls once more, which also had been standing in the shade for a long time, and now moved out into a silver cluster-leaf shrub-thicket, feeding leisurely and completely at ease.

Here and there we could see the back of a bull surpass the shrub.

In ever same routine I climbed the only suitable tree in the vicinity, a double-stemmed shepherd’s tree, somewhat unpractical for the purpose, and was able to stabilise my position, wedged in between the two stems, by pressing my right foot with drawn-up knee against the one stem, practically sitting on my right calf, propping myself up with the outstretched left leg against the other stem.

When I had broken o some twigs obstructing my view, the preconditions were set, to very calmly have a look at the elephants and – almost even more so – savour the atmosphere.

It was this time of day, when, together with the low sun, a purple hue moves into the silver cluster-leave thickets. In great calmness the elephants fed around, exposed the roots of the Terminalia shrubs with their forefeet, pulling long strips of root from the ground with their trunks to chew off the bark, and throw the yellow fibre down again, moved hither and thither, taking up cool sand with their trunks to throw it over head and shoulders – all in all an endlessly tranquil and peaceful atmosphere.

Looking through my binoculars I soon had glanced over the six elephants and identified two bulls as being of interest. One of the two was a very long-tusked bull with impressive ivory, shining white, which however was still much too young; nevertheless, time and again looked at him full of fascination. In ten or fifteen years’ time, this could be a truly big tusker if he would stay alive long enough. The other one was the old bull with the rounded forehead. is one was very difficult to judge. The tusks appeared not exceptionally thick nor were they very long, but still, they were harmonically rounding of a big old bull.

For a long time I looked at this bull without being able to make up my mind, and as the elephants were feeding completely at ease and as there was still an hour until sunset, I did not feel pressured either.

Suddenly I heard rustling footsteps in the grass to my rear left, turned in my look-out post and saw two spotted hyaenas nearing, one of them moving directly towards our tree.

Soon she became aware of my companions waiting underneath the tree, stopped for a moment with head raised, the round ears cocked and then fled in a fright to the side, taking along the second hyaena, and, thumping away in a clumsy gallop, they ran directly towards one of the elephants feeding widely dispersed.

The bull swung round and for a moment stared into the direction of the oncoming racket, turned and ran towards the other elephants in panic. It did not matter any longer that the hyaenas turned in fright as well when the bull crashed off and, accelerating with tail tucked in between the legs, ran into the opposite direction.

Crowded together in a clump and raising a big cloud of dust, the elephants disappeared in the distance.

Now that he was gone it appeared to me that the bull had been very big, and I regretted having dallied around unnecessarily. Climbing down from the tree, I went over to the spot where the big bull had last fed and made a sketch of his foot imprint, then we marched back to Klein Dobe.

Walking in from Klein Dobe next morning, we took up the spoor again. Until we had reached the place where the bulls had been frightened by the hyaenas, however, it was mid-morning, becoming warm already. The elephants had run away in remarkable panic and had not calmed down for many miles. When we had not cut on their lead during the hot midday hours – quite contrary, the elephants had not yet calmed down here at dusk of the previous evening – and moreover I by now had started to get doubts again as to the trophy quality of the bull, we broke off the pursuit.

Two days later, when actually on our way to the south, we came onto the tracks of a group of elephant bulls, which had crossed the Sikereti Road towards the northwest. When inspecting the tracks, we realised that an old bull was amongst the group. Following on this spoor for a while, we reached a spot, where the imprint of one hind foot was clearly depicted on the ground. I produced my notebook – it was the bull with the rounded forehead.

Now I finally got the feeling that the bull with the rounded forehead – this characteristic was of some meaning, as bulls with a bulging form of the head generally have bigger tusks reaching far into the skull, than bulls with a flattish head – was ordained for us.

I now was determined to track down and shoot this bull. We snatched up our gear, the San distributed the loads, while I parked the Toyota under a tree next to the Sikereti Road, and off we were.

The bulls had moved purposeful towards the northwest, therefore we made speedy progress on the trail. Soon we realised that the thirsty elephants were on their way to the Klein Dobe Waterhole again; we reached the waterhole, many elephants had been here during the night, amongst them two other bulls with prominent, furrowed tracks, which once more made me doubtful as to the correct estimation of our bull, and lead me into the temptation to take up a new spoor, but I wiped the temptation away – time was running out and one cannot jump around all the time, I had made a decision – and, after we had deciphered the mix-up of tracks at the waterhole, we fixated ourselves consequently onto the tracks of the six bulls, crossed the N’homa Road to the northwest and eventually caught up with the bulls, which we could hear in a thicket ahead, in early afternoon. Because of the wind, we outflanked the elephants, I climbed a camel thorn tree and from up there could see the backs of some of the bulls.

Elephant hunt, Kai-Uwe Denker, HuntiNamibai 2019.

An old elephant bull in a threatening pose in front of a heat-shimmering salt pan – the embodiment of the grandiose African wilderness.

Elephant bull, Kai-Uwe Denker, HuntiNamibia 2019.
Elephant bull, Kai-Uwe Denker, HuntiNamibia 2019.

It appeared nonsensical to try and stalk the bulls during the midday heat inside the thicket. The wind was not stable, we did not know where the old one was standing, it would become a back and forth amongst the elephants, sooner or later one of the bulls would notice us, and the dance would start anew.

I climbed down onto the ground, we ate our sandwiches in silence and drank a lot of water, then I sent !Xao up the tree; he should watch the elephants and wake me once they started to move again. I somewhat cleaned the ground in the shade of the spreading treetop and lay down in a feeling of expectant, relaxed tension, difficult to describe, to have a short nap.

While only the wind whispered in the treetops and through the grass, there was a great, wide quiet all around. Now and then subdued click-sounds reached my conscience when one of the trackers, leaning against the tree trunk, said something and slowly I drifted off.

I had just reached a short, reviving slumber, when !Xao called my name. I looked up into the tree and !Xao indicated with a gesture of his hand that the elephants were starting to move. The hunt was on!

I got up, beat the dust from my clothes, alerted Uli and gave instructions to the trackers to gather up our gear, while I climbed the tree once more to gain a first-hand impression.

The elephants had dissolved from the shade, but they did not start to feed around as I had expected, but had left the thicket and by now we’re moving out towards the southwest, into the direction of the !Kenni Kurri Waterhole. I could see the backs of the six bulls, surpassing the cluster-leaf shrub adjoining the thicket, swaying along in single file. Seemingly the bulls, still thirsty after the rush of the previous days, contrary to the usual two-day-rhythm wanted to drink again today. Hurry was called for.

Back on the ground I informed Uli on the development, snatched up my rifle, chambered a round and stepped o with big steps, as not to lose touch with the moving elephants, to flank them and to position us in their path at an appropriate moment.

While we hurried along, winding our bodies through the shrub, my eyes swerved over to the left; soon I had espied the backs of the bulls, and now tried to not lose sight of them again.

A marvellous feeling of calm, relaxed, powerful self-confidence was flooding through me, permeated by a nuance of humility, because deep down I knew that the bull was not truly big, but I could not back out from my decision after days of backwards and forwards, therefore I did not hurry along with a feverish heart, as would have been the case would we stalk a big-tusker; but rather with aloof, razor-sharp hunting expertise. In retrospect I know, that for this reason, in particular, I remember this hunt in such clear way as outstandingly good.

By now we flanked the elephants, I tried to identify the old one amongst the moving bulls; soon it was clear that he was moving in front – this was good – although I could not make out the tusks reaching down into the shrub, but the prominently rounded forehead, which I had noticed in this bull right from the beginning, was enough, I now endeavoured to hurry diagonally into the front of the bulls, briefly looked back; my companions were close to my heels, looked ahead again, my eyes scrutinise the terrain, I’m looking for a suitable spot, where, once we have overtaken the bulls, I can swerve sharply in front of the old bull, to position ourselves in his path.

We now were close beside the bulls, inside me was a calm, deep determination, there was no backing out any more. Quite contrary to a few days ago, when I had approached the single-tusked bull so dangerously close without intending to shoot him, as I wanted to get a close-up impression of his ivory, this time there was no trembling, frightful excitement inside me.

Through gaps in the brush, I now registered that the long-tusked young bull was moving directly behind the old one, that also was good, because he should get a reprimand, so that in future he would be careful and stay clear from humans with his big tusks, as to allow him to grow old.

The elephants were swaying along next to us with big, relaxed steps, flapping their ears, snatching a twig from a tree with their trunks in passing to push it into their mouth while moving; grey, puckered, huge. Bent-backed now we slipped along next to them, had to make four steps when the elephants made just one, had overtaken them now, were in front of them, my eyes searched for a somewhat more open spot, found it, I swerved to the left sharply, signalled to Uli with a gesture of my hand that he should stay close to my heels, and to the San that they should lag behind a bit.

Haste was called for, the big bull was almost up to us, I intended to wait for him in a small gap, motioned Uli to the front and positioned myself to his rear right, rifle at the half-ready.

The big bull was onto us, he just needed to move out behind a smallish bush, then he would be immediately next to us and Uli could place a side brain shot. But to our surprise, the bull stopped and surrounded the bush towards our side. In his entire, grey, weather-worn, frightening, colossal bulk he was so close, that it appeared as if we could reach him with one step and touch him with the barrel of our rifles. Uli retreated a step, I placed my left reassuringly, constraining onto his right shoulder – there was no backing out here – the elephant now was beside us, out of the hook of my eye I noticed the long-tusked bull directly behind him, Uli’s shot rang out and I noted with relief that the hind legs of the old bull gave way and the trunk swung skywards; was on my way already, winding away behind Uli, rushing towards the long-tusked bull to chase him off, noticed out of the corner of my eye, that the old bull, hit in the brain, came to rest in propped up position and shouted over to Uli, “shoot again!”.

For a dramatic, grandiose fraction of a second I stood facing the long-tusked bull at a bare few paces, looking up to him – he had recoiled with ears spread wide, the long tusks piercing the air above me – I threw my left arm into the air and shouted at him, behind me Uli’s second shot at the old bull’s shoulder rang out, the long- tusked one wheeled round and crashed off – nothing can surpass the drama and the power of impressions of this moment of sublime elephant hunting.

While the sounds of the remaining bulls crashing away slowly died down in the distance, I turned around again, stepped up to the slain giant and congratulated Uli. Once the elation had calmed down a bit and the boundless tension of the last minutes had ebbed off, I placed my hands around the tusks of the bull. The fingertips met each other; I was able to span the tusks with my hands at the lip – the curse of a hunt in the approaches of which the tiresome issue of evenly matched ivory had been discussed came true once more; for our standards, it was not a big tusker.

I sent my companions to the nearby !Kenni Kurri Road and set out on the long march back via Klein Dobe to the hunting car, parked at the Sikereti Road.

An extract from Kai-Uwe Denker’s book About the Spirit of the African Wilderness now available in English. [email protected]

This article was first published in HuntiNamibia 2019.