“I didn’t know you could still hunt elephant.”
This is one of the first comments I usually hear on the subject of elephant hunting, even among fairly knowledgeable hunters. That’s the first hurdle to get past: In our new millennium, should elephants be hunted? Indeed they should, and indeed they must.
For many years legal hunting for elephant has been carefully regulated in every jurisdiction where sport hunting has been conducted. Sport hunting-the safari industry-has never had an appreciable impact on elephant populations. Poaching is another issue. Long a problem, in the 1970s and early 1980s large-scale poaching reached a peak. Well-armed gangs, often tied in with government officials, virtually eradicated the elephant from large areas.
In this era conservation groups did a great job of educating the public on the plight of the “endangered” African elephant. Tough anti-poaching efforts and an international ban on commercial ivory trade in ivory turned the tide, and the African elephant began to recover. Missing from this picture are several facts. First, at the low point, around 1988, there were some 600,000 wild elephants remaining in Africa. This was never an “endangered” animal, although “locally threatened” was and is correct terminology.
Second, while poaching was a serious problem in East Africa and much of Central Africa, it was not continent-wide. Several of the southern countries already had effective management, with growing elephant populations. There are still lawless regions in Africa’s interior where elephants may never recover, but in the last 20 years elephants have started to recover in many areas, including some areas where poaching was a serious issue. Estimates vary widely, but a sensible average between high numbers and low numbers suggest there are at least a million elephants roaming today’s Africa.
Elephants require a great deal of room and must consume several hundred pounds of forage daily. Rural African people tend to be subsistence farmers, with human-elephant conflict a growing problem as elephant increase. Elephants are seriously overpopulated in several southern African countries, most notably Botswana and Zimbabwe. In other countries elephant hunting is a critical management tool. In both cases elephant hunting reduces crop raiding and, perhaps more importantly, brings in employment and much-needed currency and places value on elephants that, absent regulated sport hunting, would be considered a dangerous and destructive nuisance. So the final fact is this: In the countries where elephant are hunted today hunting is essential. The international body, CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), recognizes this, from inception authorizing exemption for sport-hunted ivory, subject to quotas. U.S. Fish and Wildlife currently allows Americans to import properly documented and licensed sport-hunted elephant trophies from Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa.
Okay, so elephant can and should be hunted. Is elephant hunting for you? Well, it isn’t for everyone. This is a good thing, because there surely aren’t enough permits for even for a small fraction of the 20,000 sportsmen and women who hunt Africa annually, with the total annual continent-wide sport-hunting harvest less than 1500.
The African elephant is the largest land mammal on Earth, and people have been fascinated by the soft, lustrous sheen of ivory for thousands of years. The old ivory hunters, men like Karamoja Bell, Pondoro Taylor, and J.A. Hunter left a rich legacy of their exploits in African sporting literature, often capturing the essence of the effort and excitement that is elephant hunting. So it is that dreams of Africa and the lure of elephant are synonymous with some of us from the very beginning of our hunting careers. More often, I think, the desire to hunt elephant is an acquired taste, a progression. Today most of us start our African hunting with plains game, then progress to buffalo, and then the great cats or perhaps elephant.
Either way, modern Africa can support our dreams. In the hunting countries, where the great beasts are receiving adequate protection, elephant, though slow breeders, are increasing at a natural rate of about four percent per year. Ultimately this means elephant hunting is a growth industry in modern Africa. There will be more permits and more opportunities in years to come. And while an elephant safari will always be most costly than a plains game safari, prices have remained stable and in some cases have dropped. Zimbabwe, for instance, has a high agrarian human population and clear overpopulation of elephants in some areas. Permits for “tuskless” elephants and safaris for non-exportable “problem animal control” (PAC) elephants are common, and are generally less costly than, say, a buffalo hunt.
Unlike many hunts around the world, the hunt for a non-trophy elephant is at least the same in adventure and excitement as the hunt for a trophy bull. Elephant hunting is a tracking hunt, the chance to watch the great African trackers work their almost mystical craft. As a safari it takes you into remote Africa, a physical hunt requiring long hours of tracking as you follow the spoor from nighttime feeding to midday resting areas, usually in the thickest cover. And then comes the real excitement, as you close with the herd and try to sort out the correct elephant.
How little cover is required to hide an elephant weighing four to seven tons continues to amaze me. In the final moments of a stalk it really doesn’t matter whether you’re looking for the best bull you can find, or a tuskless cow. Either way you must often close to a matter of feet, in the one instance to get a clear look at the tusks; in the other, to be absolutely certain the old tuskless cow you think you saw is truly tuskless on both sides-and without calf. I would even say that the latter situation is far more dangerous! But this is the real thrill of elephant hunting, getting so close you can almost touch the corrugated hide, knowing that one stray puff of breeze or the snap of one twig underfoot will send the entire gray avalanche one way or another. If you aren’t afraid in these moments then there is something seriously wrong with you!
The actual shot isn’t particularly difficult, and in some ways is the anticlimax of an elephant hunt-but it isn’t as easy as it sounds. It will be close. A very long shot is 40 yards. Average is probably 20 to 25-and many shots must be taken at 15 yards or half that because you must be that close before a decision is possible. At very close range picking the proper shoulder shot in that wall of gray, only partially seen through brush and leaves, isn’t easy. The brain shot is difficult at all ranges, with shot placement varying widely with head attitude and angle. But it’s no different than any other hunting situation: Shot placement is critical. Perhaps it’s the most critical of all, because, as Karamoja Bell wrote nearly a century ago, it is impossible to shock an elephant. You can only kill him by the passage of a solid, non-expanding bullet through brain, spine, or chest cavity.
If you don’t feel some sadness when you approach the carcass of such a magnificent animal, then there is also something wrong with you. But you have participated in a ritual that is essential to the survival of the African elephant. The meat will be fully utilized. In inhabited areas an entire village will converge on your elephant, rejoicing as they reduce its vast bulk to a damp spot on the earth. In remote areas you and your party will do this work yourselves, and it will take a long time. When the job is completed you will have the smooth tusks or perhaps some of the skin or feet as your mementos, but what you will mostly carry home are memories you will cherish for the rest of your life.